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Educate Me: How (not) to Read a Play in Your English Class

I have a question. It might actually be a question I have had for a very long time but haven’t been able to ask it. Or else, I haven’t been able to figure out of whom I should ask this question. I still don’t think I’ve gotten it right, but please, bear with me.

Why is it that in high school English classes–and even college classes for that matter–are students expected to read a play the same way that they read a book? High school students are taught specific ways to go about reading and then analyzing a book. They are taught related (but ultimately different) methods to read poetry. Yet, in all of my years of education, it seemed assumed of me by whatever education gods who exist, that I would take the very special and beloved rules of reading poetry and also the very special and beloved rules of reading novels, and squash them together in a messy ad hoc solution of rules so that I could then read plays (and by plays I mostly mean the work belonging to illustrious bard whom we refer to as Shakespeare). Fortunately for me, I’m smart. I like theater. I figured it out… kind of. I figured it out at least enough to get good grades and pretend to be able to read scripts properly until I got to college. (Of course, if I felt very stuck I could just google “how to ready a play” and click on an insipid but entertaining about.com article on the subject. But I digress)

Just so we’re all on the same page. Here’s an example of how this (doesn’t) work. We’ll use the literary device of imagery. When one is reading for imagery in a book, one is looking for interesting contrasts in language, words that fit together in such ways as to make pictures. If a word seems particularly striking, one might consult the Oxford English Dictionary. When reading a play, that general concept applies, but the search is more about the things that can be communicated when staged correctly. A reader of a play looks for something that might become an interesting tableau. A reader of a book stays within the significance of the play. The difference is that in text form, a book is complete and a play is not. The imagery in a book is set. the words on the page are the words that are there and they are the extent of the art.  The imagery in a play can be but is not necessarily set. A play is meant to be performed and is thus incomplete in text form. The text is a manual or a guidebook of the imagery. It suggests to a production team the things that should happen stage so that images can then emerge. It is impossible to think about imagery in a play without thinking of what happens outside of the script.

Thus, we return to a variation of my question: if reading plays and reading books are so different, why don’t we seem to be able to teach that difference in English classes? I think one major obstacle is the Common Core Standards, the things that according to the government every student should know by certain grades in certain subjects.  The standards are not bad. In fact, they’re fairly eloquent, written in enough generalizations that a teacher or school has the ability to choose what they’re teaching, but with enough specificity that every student (theoretically) gets instruction in the basics. My problem with the standards in relation to this issue it that the literature standards rarely place any difference among books, plays, and poems.  How are teachers supposed to teach the differences between these different kinds of literature when the government shows little motivation to place an emphasis on the differences?

Furthermore, in neglecting to teach students the differences in reading these things, we fail also in teaching students a major question in the procedure analysis: does the form fit the content? How does it do that? A writer writes a poem when he thinks his message will shine in the form of poetry. A writer writes his story in the form of a novel when he thinks that form best tells the narrative. And a writer writes a play when he thinks that his ideas are best captured through performance. Someone who can write well can probably construct literature in more than one of these forms; yet, that person chose one form specifically because that form spoke the most to the content. These differences between forms are not arbitrary, but we make them so if we fail to communicate what those differences are and how to spot them to the new generation of intellectual minds.

So, teach me how to read a poem. Teach me how to read a book. And for the love of Shakespeare himself, teach me how to read a play. I want to know how to read their similarities. But more than that, I need to know how to read their differences.


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