Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Readability

Is there something to be said about the literary prowess of playwrights and screenwriters? For a long time screenplays (the newer kids on the block) were not published because the general consensus was that no one would read them. That they lacked literary value. Perhaps early editors believed that films focused much more on images than words, where the world of the playwright revolved around written (and eventually spoken) words. Even today the playwright has a considerable amount of power compared to that of the screenwriter. Most individuals, unless the screenwriter was also the actor or the director, can't name the writer(s) of their favorite films. It will be interesting to see what happens as film continues to be a forerunner of performance art. Will the status of the screenwriter be elevated?

As far as readability, I believe that screenplays are becoming more and more commonplace in libraries and bookstores, though finding popular screenplays is a great deal more harrowing that finding popular plays.

A popular play that I was elated to find sitting on my local library shelf was The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neil. I watched an avant-garde production of his The Emperor Jones in a college class and wasn't quite sure how to feel about it. The language, the racial issues, and the dream like states of his characters were confusing. The story itself seemed like a departure from the realism that he helped push through in American theatre. For a long time, I decided to avoid reading his plays fearing that I would get lost in a symbolic wasteland that I couldn't figure out how to wade out of. But as time goes by, I prefer to get stuck, I find.

The Iceman Cometh was a shock in that the writing style was so literary based, it was almost as if I was reading a novel. Each character's emotions and facial expressions were literally written out on each page. I was amazed at how each character's story became gradually deciphered through interactions with each other in a bar. Each character felt fleshed out to the point where revelations in the play, especially in the last the scenes were painful to read. O'Neil seemed to delve into the psychological inclinations of each character through "Hickey," the salesman who was unrelenting in his pushing and proding. It is a dark play about grand delusions that keep individuals stuck in the past living in the present.

If part of an actors job is to translate text into performance, into action, then this play is gold mine that must be carefully sifted through. I imagine that part of the challenge with a play like this is to not lend too much sympathy towards each character. Because each one seems to revel in living the lie.

The Iceman Cometh as a play was a magnificently detailed read. I wonder if the screenplay version of it is similar. Something to look into, I think.


  1. Its funny that in high school you read so many plays but no screen plays. I don't even know what one would look like . . . As important as film has become you would think we would have embrased it by now. I guess not.

  2. Yes, that is rather funny. The book I picked up at the library is called Best American Screenplays and the forward is by Frank Capra. In it writes, "The time has, indeed, arrived, beyond question, for great screenplays to be read, admired, and considered as literature." The book was first copyrighted in 1986. So, I doubt that screenplays as literature has come as far as either Frank Capra, or the editor of the book Sam Thomas foresaw. But, the good news, is that finding screenplays in your local library is possible, and though the selection is usually subpar, at least they exist.
    Maybe in the coming years we will witness a shift. Maybe.