Reading prose is like having a close friend over for dinner. It’s a dignified affair where quiet conversations are possible and confessions encouraged. It’s a place for secrets. Reading a play, on the other hand, is more of a kitchen party. There’s a degree of anarchy involved where multiple voices rise and fall over the bedlam of parallel arching narratives. Be careful what you say here, anyone could be listening. While a dinner guest is politely focused on a single speaker, the rowdy crowd in the kitchen is shouting over one another to be heard.
These mediums are equally crafted and deserving of our appreciation. They are forms of literature that reflect on the zeitgeist and contribute to public discourse. Words on the page are meant to be read. Someone, a writer, painstakingly put them there for you and you should to read them all in order to form a comprehensive understanding of our literary preoccupations. Poetry and non-fiction are also in attendance at this banquet. Sample the wares liberally because your mother was right, you don’t know what you like until you try it.
Besides, you don’t know how it works until you read it. You don’t really know. This is not debatable. You need to consume a piece of writing first hand in order to earn an opinion of its merits. Attending a play and judging the strength of the playwriting is akin to watching a film adaptation and judging the book that inspired it. Sure, you kind of know what it was about but not really, not with any authority. The text has been interpreted by an array of creative players before you view it. There is no way to verify the proximity to the original intent even if the writer was “consulted” on the final product.
Also, viewing leaves little room for your own interpretation which is why it’s vital we meet the written work as it was intended. This is especially true for theatre as a play can differ substantially from production to production. Though, a truly remarkable strength of this collaborative medium, plays are laden with creative opportunities. As a result, countless choices are made that may and often differ from the playwright’s. Unless you’ve read the original text, you’re unable to identify these choices. You’re left without a complete picture.
Besides, the source is available to you so why not avail of it? Often when reading a play, the playwright can be found hidden in the stage directions. Some speak to a scant and unobstructed or liberal approach to the production while others use them as an opportunity to assist in the process and develop a dialogue with the reader outside of the play. And some are just hilarious. Reading the piece is not necessarily integral to enjoying a particular performance but it can inform and supplement your experience.
That is not to say this is required in order to find satisfaction. Rather, some of the most transformative theatre experiences can be attributed to sheer delight and surprise. Though there’s nothing to prevent you from reading the play after attending the performance. Because, it’s fair to say, the only way to know the intricacies and intent of a piece of writing is to actually read it.