Sunday Salon: Literature on Stage

You’d never know it from looking at my reading list, but I am an avid theatre lover. In fact, when I was in high school, I read almost as many plays as I did novels—perhaps more. I went through a phase where my favorite things to check out of the library were volumes from The Best Plays Theater Yearbook series. I performed in lots of plays at my high school and later at a local community theater. It was—and is—a passion. But it’s a passion that I let fall to the wayside for several years.

As an adult, I don’t have the time and energy to commit to performing anymore, although I’d love to see that change someday. And for years, I never even went to the theatre. Back home in southwest Virginia, there weren’t tons of live theatre opportunities. And when I moved to the DC area, where there are numerous excellent professional theatres, I couldn’t afford to go.

But I’ve since come into a little more money and can afford tickets now and then, and even better, I’ve discovered theatre ushering. Ushers at many of DC’s theatres are volunteers. They are typically assigned to work at one performance of each show, and when you usher, you get to stay and see the show for free. It’s an excellent arrangement.

Because I see so much live theatre, I rarely read plays anymore. But I’m glad that so many plays are available in printed form, both because not everyone is lucky enough to live in a theatre town, nor does everyone in a theatre town have the means to attend as regularly as I do. Also, some plays have so much depth that it’s worth having a printed copy available so that you can examine key moments more closely. I’ve gotten used to watching Shakespeare’s plays without having read them (although I usually need the plot summary in the program to help me through), but I’m glad to have the full texts to refer to afterward if something is puzzling me.

I know there are several Shelf Love readers who are fans of theatre, whether on the page or on the stage, so I thought it would be fun to share my five favorite plays that I’ve seen in recent years, so that you can look for them in print, or go see them if they’re staged in your area. So here are some favorites, in chronological order of when I saw them:

  1. Equus by Peter Shaffer (London’s West End, 2007). I read Equus when I was in high school, but before I saw the much-talked-about London production with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, all I could remember was that I thought I sorta liked it. Well, I was blown away by this production. I’m generally a fan of minimalist, abstract staging, and the staging was marvelous, as were the performances. This was the play that got me back into going to the theatre. As soon as I returned from that particular vacation, I started looking into ushering opportunities.
  2. The Brothers Size (Studio Theatre, 2008) and In the Red and Brown Water (Studio Theatre, 2010) by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I’m cheating and putting these two together because they are part of a trilogy (although the plays stand alone and do not need to be seen or read in order). McCraney draws on Yoruba mythology and storytelling techniques to craft plays about young African-American men and women struggling with life in the Louisiana projects. It takes a while to get used to the style—the characters actually speak the stage directions—but it’s surprisingly effective.
  3. Blackbird by David Harrower (Studio Theatre, 2008). In this intense drama, a young woman confronts the man who sexually abused her when she was a child. This was chilling on so many levels, mostly because the playwright was able to get the audience to sympathize with both characters. After this play, I left the theatre emotionally wiped out.
  4. Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (Signature Theatre, 2009). My lack of access to live theatre when this musical was at its most popular is the only thing that kept me from seeing it years ago. And in a way, I’m glad, because this production was right up my alley. It was put on in a theatre with a thrust stage that seems much too small for such a big show, and the set was abstract and minimalist. The music was a little too loud for the space, but otherwise, the intimate environment was perfect for this story.
  5. King Lear by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2009). This production with Stacy Keach was loud and raucous and shocking. It crossed the line for a lot of people, but I loved it. Lear is shocking in its brutality, and a production that played it safe and stayed regal wouldn’t fit nearly so well. This was my first time seeing Lear, and I’m not sure it can be matched.

And a few honorable mentions include Romeo and Juliet (all-male production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company), The Visit (with Chita Rivera, Signature Theatre), Spring Awakening (Kennedy Center), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Signature Theatre), Brief Encounter (London’s West End), The Screwtape Letters (traveling production), This Beautiful City (Studio Theatre), and Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare Theatre Company).

What are some of your favorite plays and musicals? What do you look for in a play? How does watching a play differ for you from reading it?

If you like hearing about literature on stage, I’d be happy to post about some of the plays I see—but only if there’s interest. So if you, like me, love reading about theatre, please pipe up, and if there’s sufficient interest, I’ll post about some of what I’m seeing.

And a reminder: I think I’ve gotten as far as I’m going to for now with my bookshelf culling project. I can fit almost all my unread books on one bookcase, and as  I read the remaining books, I will continue to post many of them to Bookmooch and Paperbackswap or just give them away. If you’d like first crack at the books I post at Bookmooch, you can add me as a friend. The Paperbackswap system doesn’t allow you to reserve books for groups, but PBS-ers can add me as a buddy there too.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • The Spare Room by Helen Garner. Excellent book about friendship, cancer, and caregiving.
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. A book for older children with an intriguing puzzle as its premise and great characters at its heart.
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread). For the LOTR readalong. Almost every bit as good as my first read more than 20 years ago.

Currently Reading

  • Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh. A novel about a white man, his Malaysian wife, and their two children in 1970s and 80s England.
  • The Golem’s Eye by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The sequel to The Amulet of Samarkand. I’m liking it even better than the first book.
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. Still plugging away at this. Most weeks, I’m managing one poetry exercise. My last attempt was at comic verse.

On Deck

  • Corrag by Susan Fletcher. Brand-new historical fiction about the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe.
  • Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The final book in the Bartimaeus trilogy.
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread). I’ll probably be starting this tomorrow.

New Acquisitions

  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. An addition to my permanent collection.
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen. The Harlem Renaissance tour piqued my interest in Larsen, so I was excited to get a copy of both novels in one volume from Paperbackswap.
  • Corraq by Susan Fletcher. Finished copy sent for review by Fourth Estate. I’m eager to read this as I’ve heard good things about Fletcher.
  • The Other Side of the Dale by Gervase Phinn. Litlove’s post alerted me to the existence of this comic novel, the first in a series about a schoolteacher in Yorkshire. I’ll be visiting Yorkshire for the first-time this spring, and I was looking for some light related reading.
  • The Puppet Master by Joanne Owen. Melanie’s review of this caught my eye ages ago, but my library doesn’t have this book. I finally snagged a copy through Bookmooch. It looks like good creepy fun.

Books on My Radar

  • The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner. I enjoyed The Spare Room so much that I want to read more Garner. This is the only one of her books my library system has, so it’s a likely candidate.
  • Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner. Another Garner that Sarah specifically mentioned in the comments on my review.
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34 Responses to Sunday Salon: Literature on Stage

  1. gaskella says:

    I do miss going to the theatre. When we lived really close to London, we used to go monthly, to the National Theatre, the RSC and the Old Vic – all top class productions and usually affordable compared with the West End musicals. My favourite Shakespeare productions remain RSC ones of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which had the fairies in tutus and bovver boots and was played strictly for laughs, and Kenneth Branagh’s full-length Hamlet which was so beautifully spoken I felt I understood it all properly for the first time.

    I’m looking forward to reading Corrag and the Two Towers too – will have to compare notes!

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel: Oh I would love to see an RSC production live. Did you actually see Branagh on stage? If so, I’m green with envy. I keep hoping for someone like Branaugh to come over here and do an STC show. (We did get Helen Mirren last fall, and Patrick Stewart a few years ago, so it could happen.)

  2. Eva says:

    I haven’t read that many plays, but I loved the production of “Arcadia” by college put on (and I think that’d be a marvelous one to read as well) and speaking of Stoppard, the movie version of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” was SO awesome. I read “W;t” last summer, and it was incredible, and perfect for reading since so much of it is monologue.

    • Teresa says:

      Eva: I’ve never read any Stoppard, but I did see his Rock and Roll last year, and I wished I had it in print because there were a few scenes that warranted closer examination. And I love The R&G are Dead movie. One of the theatres where I volunteer put it on a few years ago, but it was before I was volunteering and so I didn’t get around to seeing it :-(

  3. christina says:

    My all time favorite piece of literature is a play – Six Characters in Search of an author by Luigi Pirandello. I read this in college and love the theme of reality, what’s real, does it matter, who decides. I’ve never actually seen it performed; although I would love to!

    • Teresa says:

      Six Characters was staged at my college when I was a student, but I didn’t go. It sounded great. I will be seeing Piarendello’s Enrico IV next year (adapted by Stoppard), and I’m interested to see what that’ll be like.

  4. Frances says:

    I remember from last summer how much we both loved that production of King Lear. Looks like we share a lot of the same taste in theatre. Can I persuade you to read The Night of the Iguana with a few of us on March 26? Some of us are also planning on watching the John Huston film of the story for comparison. Would love to have your insights.

    Noticed you have a new copy of Cold Comfort Farm. One of my favorites. Happy reading!

    • Teresa says:

      Frances: I remember your post about Lear! I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen at STC, but that’s one of the few that I wanted to see again.

      Night of the Iguana is tempting! I love Tennessee Williams, and that’s one I haven’t read (although I’ve seen the movie). I’m not going to commit right now, but I’ll keep it in mind.

  5. Jenny says:

    I’d love to read posts about plays! I am addicted to plays. When I was in London I saw Henry IV, Part I at the National Theatre, and I love love love seeing plays at the Globe. I wish I could see King Lear. I want to see it performed before I read it, because I hear it is exceptionally good.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: After seeing Richard II and Henry V two weekends in a row, I’m really wanting to see the Henry IV plays to fill in the gaps!

      I haven’t seen anything at the Globe, but they’re doing Macbeth when I’ll be in London this spring, so I may go see that. Macbeth is my favorite of the tragedies.

  6. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is my absolute favorite play, partly because I despise Waiting for Godot so much. Where the latter subjugates and insults language, the former celebrates it, even at its limits. It’s such a wonderful play that, like most plays, gains new meaning every time you read it, and once you realize that it’s a repetitive cycle for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Oh, I can’t say enough about it, and the film version is flawless.

    My favorite musical is Jersey Boys, because it’s technically amazing and it’s such a unique concept- a sort of stage Behind the Music. But I’ll always have a soft spot for The Wedding Singer: The Musical, because I have a bizarre fondness for the 80s and it’s just so sweet, sharp, and funny.

    • Teresa says:

      Clare: I would love to see R&G someday. I missed the production here a few years ago. I * think* I read Waiting for Godot in high school, but it remember nothing about it, so I can’t say what I thought.

      I didn’t see The Wedding Singer on stage, but I do have a strange affection for the movie. It’s a nostalgia thing for me.

  7. Gavin says:

    I adding plays to my list of “want to read” for 2010. I will add some of this to my TBR list. Have a good week!

    • Teresa says:

      Gavin: I’d be really interested to know how the McCraney in particular works on the page. I’d like to read the other play in the trilogy, but I’m not sure it’s in print yet.

  8. I saw Equus when I got to go to London a few summers ago (the Daniel Radcliff version). It was amazing, I was blown away. I don’t think I’ve gotten the kind of rush I felt from that show at any other play I’ve ever seen. I bought a copy of the play while I was there, but haven’t read it because the show is just such a perfect memory on its own.

    • Teresa says:

      Kim: That was an amazing production! I was tempted to go up to New York and see it again when it was there, but I didn’t manage it. (I do a lot of thinking about going to see shows in New York, but have only done it once.)

  9. I am SO jealous that you got to see Equus! I wish I could have gone to a performance in that run; I would also have loved to have seen The History Boys by Alan Bennett.

    I love to read plays but haven’t in the past year; I have some lined up to read soon. I have read far more than I have seen performed (or acted in when I was younger) but I do love seeing them acted where possible. I tend to see musicals more than plays these days and favourites are Les Misérables and Wicked (which I saw again earlier this month). As for plays, I’m a big fan of Irish playwrights and have enjoyed Brian Friel productions (Lovers and Dancing at Lughnasa; I’d love to see Translations) and I saw Marina Carr’s Woman & Scarecrow starring Fiona Shaw in 2006, which was a highlight (I was studying Carr at the time).

    I envy you seeing McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore; I would love to see a performance of his The Pillowman (amazing play).

    Living in London now I must take advantage of seeing more plays especially at The Old Vic and The Globe. I would definitely be interested in reading more about the performances you see and you have inspired me to read some plays again soon.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire: I heard such good things about the History Boys in London. I did get to see a local production here in DC, with one of my favorite local actors in the lead. I don’t get to see so many musicals, because neither theatre where I usher does musicals, but I try to get half-price tickets when I can. I do like them and have lots of cast albums.

      And oh, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was a riot. I’d love to explore more of McDonagh’s work. I actually think I’d enjoy getting back into play reading, maybe as a way to explore more of the work of the playwrights I’m seeing on stage.

      If you’re into Irish playwrights, have you read any Conor McPherson? I saw The Shining City and The Seafarer and enjoyed them both. His stuff is a little strange; both these place involved somewhat ambiguous supernatural experiences.

      And I’m leaning very strongly toward finally seeing a play at the Globe when I’m in London this spring. I’ve seen lots of West End shows, so it would make a nice change, and be a great experience in general.

  10. Nicola says:

    I’d like to read posts about plays. I’m particularly fond of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

    • I’ve only read The Weir by Conor McPherson, which also had supernatural elements. Carthaginians by Frank McGuinness was also very good. I’d recommend seeing any of the playwrights I’ve mentioned if they come to DC, especially Marina Carr (absurdist dramas that are heavily focused in myth).

      Emailing you directly about The Globe!

    • Teresa says:

      Nicola: Ibsen was one of my favorites back when I was reading plays. A Doll House is the only one I’ve seen on stage, but I’ve read lots more and liked them all.

  11. juliebrichta says:

    Luckily, living in Chicago, I get to see a lot of good theater. I mostly prefer musicals. Les Miserables is one of my all time favorites. I’ve seen it 3 times! I never did read the book though! I think ushering sounds like a great way to be able to experience some wonderful theater! What a great thing!

    • Teresa says:

      Julie: I’d see more musicals if the theatres where I usher did them. One of them has done a couple, but always very quirky ones (Grey Gardens, Jerry Springer: The Opera). And I’d definitely see Les Miserables again at some point, but I wonder how much my perception will change if I see a more lavish production.

  12. litlove says:

    I love the theatre. I love the old standards like An Inspector Calls, and I love the newer authors like Tom Stoppard. One of the most moving plays I ever saw was Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff, but I also recall Wedekind’s Lulu plays on in London with Anna Friel as the lead, and that was pretty fabby too. I’m claustrophobic so always sit near the exit, and in our local theatre the usher is normally sat right beside me! It looks like a great job.

    • Teresa says:

      litlove: Ooh, Anna Friel–I bet she was a treat onstage! Ushering is great fun. I especially enjoy getting to see plays I’d never have thought of seeing and finding that I love them.

  13. Christopher Lord says:

    I also loved History Boys (check out the great movie version also), and thought Arcadia was perhaps the best-written play of the last twenty years or so, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version a number of years ago remains one of my most memorable theatre-going experiences. Wit also makes my list as a brilliant tour de force; I’ve seen it multiple times and each actress made the part her own in quite different ways.

    I see forty or more plays a year (Portland OR has an amazing diversity of offerings). I can’t agree with Teresa about Blackbird; I thought it was too contrived and the abused woman near the end takes an action that I felt was logically impossible. I just saw a tiny local rep company version of a stripped-down Hamlet (five actors) that moved me more deeply than any full-on production that I’ve seen. For Shakespeare lovers, check out the Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, perhaps the best show you’ll EVER see about theatre life.

    • Teresa says:

      Christopher: I liked the movie version of History Boys, but not nearly as much as the stage version (and I saw the movie first). Still, I’d recommend it for folks who can’t get to see it live. I’m sad that I let the opportunity to see Arcadia slip by last year. I thought about it, but then never got to it. And I would love to see Wit one day. The film version knocked my socks off.

      When I saw Blackbird, there was a discussion afterward with the director, and reactions were definitely mixed. It worked for me though. And if we’re thinking of the same logically impossible action, I saw it as a sign he still had an irrational hold on her.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I love going to the Theater and given that I live not too far from San Francisco, I actually get to see some pretty good stuff. I would put Les Miserables in my list of favorites. I love that you can be an usher. I would love to do that and see everything for free! I have to point out one of the worst musicals I ever had the opportunity to see…Titanic!

    • Teresa says:

      Kathleen: I’ve been keeping mum on my least favorite musical because it’s wildly popular, and I suspect part of my dislike has to do with the hype and my dislike is focused almost exclusively on the final 10 minutes. But those final 10 minutes ruined the whole thing.

  15. rebeccareid says:

    I don’t go to enough plays. These sound like fun, though!

  16. Melissa says:

    What a great post! I review theater on my blog…

    and can afford to see about 1 show a week because I get free tickets to review the shows. On my book blog I’m currently trying to read a review a lot of plays.

    A few of my favorite shows are Les Miserable, Our Town, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Wicked, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda and Mary Stuart.

    I saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore in 2008 and it was such a fun play. It reminded me of Boondocks Saints. I’ve also loved everything I’ve seen at the Globe in London and the Old Vic usually does a great job too!

    Yay for more posts on theater and reading plays.

  17. Rob says:

    I was a Thespian in high school and college followed by community theater for 10 years. It’s been 20 years since I walked on the stage but I love theater from the audience perspective.

    When I moved from Washington State to Pennsylvania it was heaven being close to NYC (driving distance!) and the theater scene.

    Now I live in Hawaii but still visit the Big Apple every other year. On my last trip I went to the Drama Bookshop and purchased a copy of August Osage County. I plan to read and review soon on my blog.

    I think it helps to have a little theater background if you read plays. I love thinking about the staging, blocking and then seeing the live performance.

    Aloha from Rob

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