The difference between reading Books and Plays

In my first iteration as a college student, I had trouble choosing between English and Theatre as a major.  (We theatre geeks spell the subject with the British “re” instead of “er”.  It shows our snobbish devotion to British plays.) During every semester, almost every week, I’d wrestle with the issue: was my primary devotion to the stage or to books?  It turns out I lack the temperament necessary for a theatrical life.  I like regular hours, daylight, and sleeping at home instead of a green room.  What I do like is reading plays.
In their dormant form, plays look the like every other book; reading them takes a slightly different set of skills.  With the publication of  Rowling/Tiffany/Thorne play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, those differences have become apparent to a wider audience. Just remember, novels and plays are different ways of seeing a story.


In a novel, the author controls the story world and lyrically shows the reader what he/she needs to see. The description may be confined to a few, sparse details (like Hemmingway’s) or may roll into long, lush paragraphs. These parts are where the narrator’s voice soars before dropping back to the dialogue of the book.  Dialogue is dynamic device but only one part of the story.

Smash cut to reading plays where Dialogue is King.  Dialogue is the structure everything in the play hangs on, from the first moment to final curtain. (The only exceptions are musicals since music halves that work with the words.) When dialogue is well-written, you can hear it in your brain, pauses and all, as if an actor was already speaking it.  There is no narrative voice.  It’s the job of the actors and crew to create the atmosphere a novelist outlines with that voice and their only aids are the dialogue and a few stage directions.  
Stage directions can throw novice readers of plays because they look a little like description.  But instead of filling out your perspective of the story while moving the plot slowly along, these are directives from the playwright to the cast and crew, not written for a reader’s enjoyment.  Look at Platform 9 3/4 as an example.
Rowling takes more than a page in Sorcerer’s Stone to describe the famous railway platform and, like Diagon Alley, it’s an overwhelming site for the senses.  Smoke is billowing from the engine to the platform, owls are hooting, cats are everywhere, large trunks are stacked up in piles and the entire place is covered in wizards.  Young ones are already on the train, waving from the windows to their families.  Families or friends make up knots of people on the platform, and everyone is chattering in a hundred different conversations.  Now compare all that with the stage direction for the same place:

Which is covered in thick white steam pouring from the HOGWARTS EXPRESS.  And which is also busy – but instead of people in sharp suits going about their day – it’s wizards and witches in robes mostly trying to work out how to say good-bye to their beloved progeny.

Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, Act One, Scene Two

The novel’s description sounds like a tour, the play’s stage direction tells the stage manager what the set needs to look like and the actors how to play the scene. By the way, stage directions have become more detailed through the years.  Shakespeare’s directions are limited to things like, “King Enters”; “Queen Exits”; “They fight” and “Hamlet dies.”  The modern and contemporary playwrights sometimes write stage directions with extensive detail but the purpose of both is the same: to get the actors to perform the piece as the playwright envisions it.  Directions aren’t printed to entertain the audience; they’re there to instruct the players.

This doesn’t mean reading plays isn’t fun.  Plays can be wonderful things to read and, I must admit, the climax of  HP & the Cursed Child  evoked a visceral reaction from me, just like JKR’s series did years ago.  The story keeps her great themes of love and sacrifice, and it doesn’t shy away from what scares you.  Instead, it uncovers what frightens you most, and lets it stride free into the audience. That’s more immediacy than I might be able to handle.

So, if you want, take a crack at a play.  Choose a good one, if this is the first play you’ve read.  It will be a slightly different journey than reading a book but both vehicles try to tell you a story. The difference is perspective.  When you read a novel, you get just a touch of emotional distance since you see it from the author’s eye-view. When you watch a movie, you see it from your seat.  When you read a play, you’re part of the performance; a performance acted out in your head.

Surviving a late Southern Summer

No one does the end of summer quite like the South.  The prairie states may be wilting under the furnace-blast of the sun, California may actually be on fire, (It seems to burn up every year) but for the last word in late summer misery, look below the Mason-Dixon line.  Here, the outdoors is a cauldron of heat and humidity sufficient to make snakes seek the comfort of air conditioning and lacquer the porch with mold.  It’s impossible to sleep when the air-conditioning fails, and HVAC repairmen are worth their weight in gold (a rate reflected in their bills). But the thing is, Southerners don’t complain about the heat.  In an interesting way, they relish it. It’s one of the things that makes this place so distinctive and it certainly fuels our art.  The endless, draining summers stew the atmosphere  of Southern literature so tragedies and harsh truths emerge.  Before August ends, pick up at one or two more tales about the South and enjoy the benefits of an omnipresent, overwhelming Summer.

Always In August was one of my mother’s books and the title says it all.  There’s the usual ” ‘ole Southern family” with the “ole family place” (a house that has its own name) a nice-but-overwhelmed woman who’s trying to keep her family together and  a mad, bad, beautiful one who’s a slave to her own passions.  The cover says it’s reminiscent of Rebecca and I suppose it is, if you can image the first Mrs. DeWinter returning to Manderly from exile instead of from the grave. The story is as dated as a Perry Como record but  it captures the lush, steamy, world of the low-country (the author, Ann Head, was a long-time resident of Beaufort, South Carolina) and the oppressive feelings the heat of summer generates. Ever since this book I’ve believed (like the narrator) that disasters go hand-in-hand with August.
When Other Voices Other Rooms introduced Truman Capote to the world, a a
lot of the world ran for the hills.  Yes, it’s well-written and as Southern as shrimp-and-grits, but because it was the story of a rather effeminate boy written by an openly gay man, it was considered controversial material when it was published.  What OVOR is, is Southern Gothic to the nth degree.  The setting is a tired, little town, isolated from the rest of the world. The decadent, closed-in atmosphere of the place steams right up off of the pages and some of the characters are down-right strange.  The feeling of secrets and the possibility of meeting something grotesque or violent seems to permeate the book, like the August heat.  Lyrical prose, compelling intrigue and little bit strange: what else would you expect from Truman Capote?
I doubt if many people feel bad for Winston Groom but I have some sympathy for the man.  Ever since his fourth book, Forrest Gump, was adapted into a film, people forget he’s written anything else.  Now I like Forrest as much as the next reader (the novel reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide) but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be As Summers Die.
ASD is set in the fictional port city of Bienville, a dead ringer for Mobile, and the central character is Willie Croft, the kind of street lawyer John Grisham celebrates. As a child of working class parents, Willie understands who holds the power in his small southern town and it isn’t him.  Power is wielded by the well-settled, well-monied families and these folks don’t like to share.  When one of the poorest, least-powerful people around comes to Willie for advice, our street lawyer finds himself in a no-holds-barred fight that could change the future for everyone.   ASD begins and ends in the autumn but the big fight happens (of course) in August, when heat, humidity and tensions run high.  Some of the outdoor scenes are so evocative, I find myself slapping imaginary bugs away while I speed through the pages.  This story always makes me want to run to the coast.
By all means, go ahead and celebrate the upcoming change of season, if you want. Pull out your plaids and buy new school supplies.  Every season has great things to offer.  But before you take off the shorts and start raking the leaves, enjoy what you have right now.  It’s August, it’s hot and it’s extreme.  Kick back with a cool drink and a Southern story.  It’s one of the things we do best.

Confronting My Inner Aunt Petunia

Petunia as played by Fiona Shaw
I do not like to keep house. While other girls grabbed 4H badges for their sewing and cooking skills, I got Ds in Home Economics. When I realized my husband wasn’t looking for a wife with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, I was overjoyed.  But after 30 years of loathing laundry and hiding the dirty dishes, I’ve developed something worse than a bout of HouseFrau tidiness.  I have a latent streak of Aunt Petunia.
For anyone who’s spent the last 20 years under a rock, Aunt Petunia is a minor villain in the Harry Potter series. She’s an unpleasant woman who devotes a lot of energy to forcing her narrow worldview down everyone’s throat.  She scrubs her house so thoroughly, all sense of “home” is rubbed right out.
In my own defense, I’m not a complete Aunt Petunia. I adore my sister and nephews; I think they’re some of the greatest people ever made.  I believe in tolerance and diversity.  But I’ve joined Petunia’s obsession and quest to keep some surfaces squeaky-clean.
Oh God, is that a scratch?

At one time, oven surfaces heated things and tables held cooler ones. Spills were regrettable, removable things. A clean surface was acceptable. In those days, I attributed Petunia’s cleaning mania to a compulsion for order or fear of wizarding germs. Now, I own glass-topped furniture and I’m beginning to reconsider.

Glass surfaces must be more than clean; to look good, they must shine. Streaks make a glass surface looks mucky. Scorch marks look even worse.  So I spend lots of time and energy these days cleaning and re-cleaning the glass. I deploy an arsenal of products in the task, as well as non-scratching cloth, and a pack of razor blades to scrape away scorch marks. Nevertheless, they never stay clean.  Glass shows every mark and dust particle and I’m starting to lose my patience. I rarely cook because it might leave marks. I wipe down surfaces before bed every night.  Cat paw prints are now grounds for temporary banishment.  In other words, I’m behaving like Aunt Petunia
No one can keep this table clean!

Well, recognizable characters are essential to a good story. That recognition makes the story seem real. And there’s no guarantee we’ll always identify with the hero. Sometimes, we resemble someone else. Seeing ourselves in a character we dislike may tell us what we need
to change. As long as it’s restricted to a cleaning issue, I can accept being a little like Aunt Petunia. All Wizard-nephews and house-elves are welcome in my home.  Just keep their hands off the glass!

The Awesome Power of Early Friendships and Late Summer Storms

I hate what’s happened to the word “awesome”.  For the last 10 years, reality shows and commentators abused this adjective until they reduced it to an on-air cliche.  It’s not fair and it’s not right.
“Did you see so-and-so’s new Jeep?”
“Yeah, it’s awesome.”
“Sidney’s so awesome doing her little tap dance.  You should see her kick up her legs!”
It doesn’t matter whether we’re discussing the Olympics, sugarless pudding or Donald Trump, everything is described as awesome when most of the time…it isn’t.  And that cheapens the word for those who wield such power that we gaze at them with a respect bordering on reverence.  The power that can end or alter the course of your life, like early friendships and late summer storms.  Either of these is an agent of incredible force; combined, the effect is explosive.
That is one of the ideas behind Anne Rivers Siddon’s novel, Outer Banks.  On the surface, it’s a reunion of four middle-aged women who went to college together as girls but, it’s also a hymn to the power of our very first friendships. The older women all carry a patina of  achievement, loss, and experience but in each other, they also see the adolescent girls they were years ago. In case you haven’t heard, adolescent friendships can retain a lot of power.
Grown-up friends know the adults we became but friends from childhood also know who we could have been. They saw our potential before time and circumstance limited our choices. While we were incredibly vulnerable, they probably found out our biggest fears. The power of that knowledge can intensify with time giving old friends unique strength they can use with kindness or cruelty.
Summer storms are like that too, gaining energy from the heat of southern waters and storing it as they journey north. Sometimes, trapped energy and moisture increase over time until they hit an area of already-unstable weather.  The result is a hurricane, a storm system containing a hideous destructive force. 
So why don’t we run from our childhood friends, like they were all tropical cyclones named Andrew, Camille or Katrina?  Yes, they knew us during vulnerable times but just as certainly, we knew them as well and (mostly) we’ve learned to trust each others’ discretion over the years.  We know life-experience strengthened and humbled them, just as it strengthened and humbled us.  And, as we lose those who loved us as babies, first friends become the custodians of our past.  Finally, because they are friends, they use their influence, not to lay us low, but rescue us from despair. They loved us then, they love us still: first friends are truly awesome.

A Room Where the Soul can Live.

Every since 1929, female writers all over the world have been chanting a sentence of Virginia Woolf’s like it was  a mantra.  Agree or disagree, ever she-scribbler knows the quote: 

In order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself.

(Truth be told, I’ll bet a lot of male writers echo the sentiment but apply it to themselves.  Privacy and financial security are woefully lacking these days for those who craft belle-lettres.)

As for me, I created that room in my imagination around the time I was 12.  I was reading an exercise in a self-help book my mom had borrowed (It was the 70’s and the adult world was awash in self-help books) that suggested the reader construct an imaginary place equipped with everything needed to be that person’s spiritual and physical retreat.  It was the reader’s famous “happy place” and, once constructed by the mind, it could be accessed whenever needed.  Well, of course I started imagining mine.

What did it look like?  It was a spot for someone addicted to reading and writing. Books by the hundreds, books by the ton, books reaching from floor to ceiling lived there.  It also had soft light and an old-fashioned chair where I could snuggle down with a comfortable cup and a volume. The need for a cup meant a table must also be handy.  I went on and on, adding bits to the imaginary room. Was a fireplace required?  No but a desk suitable for writing long-length works was and a globe would not be amiss.  Would shelves hold anything besides books?  I wasn’t sure.  It had to have the flavor of tradition with an emphasis on comfort instead of formality.  Of course, I was mentally constructing an archetypal English library, sans tobacco smoke.  But I was happy there.

Of course, I grew up and my husband and I found a house with a tiny spare room.  For years it was simply “the dirty room”  but some changes have been made.

Now it’s the library, the guest room and my “Room of One’s Own” but when I looked at it earlier this week I realized it’s something more: it’s the realization of the “Happy Place” I created as a child.
There’s the reading lamp and the small, handy table. No globe but a telescope lives here instead.  And the shelves are crammed with so many books they threaten to sink the foundation but there’s more than books on that back wall.  Can you see the black figure centered on the top shelf?  That’s a replica of The Black Bird, The Maltese Falcon, “The-stuff-dreams-are-made-of” figure dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett and John Huston.  (Hammett created the story but Huston wrote that line, so both of them deserve credit.)  What a whale of a tale that is.  The falcon presides over that wall  of books as well as Wind in the Willow figures, Harry Potter wands, Woody and Buzz Lightyear and Opus from Bloom County.  They all share space with family photos and far too many stuffed Bears. It’s not everything in the world I want, but everything here makes me happy.  

Of course the wing chair anchors the room, like its picture now anchors this blog. It’s old-fashioned and comfortable and the most peaceful spot in the house.  Somewhere on the road to finding my “Room of One’s Own.” I created the room my soul has lived in most of my life. If I’m lucky, I’ll still be enjoying this place when I reach 100.

So welcome to my room furnished with an eye for comfort and a love of Story.  If you need to, take a mental vacation here.  Reservations are being accepted now.

Books to re-balance the World

My sister, the educator, was grousing this week about an interesting blog post (sorry to say, not one of mine) on the question of whether Middle Grade and Young Adult books have gotten too “dark” for their target audience.   The post’s author made an eloquent argument to justify the current “serious” themes but Sis’s response was “There has to be a happy [book], every now and then.

Well, that surprised me because my sister dear has never shied away from kids’ books with dramatic stories and tragic elements.  She’s the one who turned me on to Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book (great stories that both start out with murders) and as a teenager, she devoured every Judy Blume YA story-with-a-taboo as soon as it came out.  So I had to ask: “What’s the problem?  You like dark.”

“Of course I do” she said.  “But every story pushed at kids right now right now is all about dark issues.  It’s dystopias and addiction and depression and death.  Every once in a while, people need to laugh too, you know?”

“Well, yeah” I replied. “But didn’t the books you loved best as a kid usually bring on the tears?” (I wasn’t ready to concede.)  “I mean people love Charlotte’s Web and it’s terribly sad, although some passages are funny.  And readers learn valuable lessons in that book.”

“That’s the problem,” she said.  “Kid books hyped today are filled with doom and gloom but they’re praised  because they teach ‘valuable lessons’. (I could almost hear her hooking finger quotes through the phone.)  “Kids need to have fun with books as well as life lessons.  I remember lying on our Grandmother’s bed, reading Alvin Fernald, Superweasel, and laughing my head off at the story. At the time I thought to myself how much I was enjoying that story and I wanted to read more just like it.” She sighed. “Books need to have balance.”

Well, that got me, because she’s right.  Stories are written to re-balance the world, at least for the writer.  They’re read for entertainment and other reasons. Yes, some stories can have more dark than light (A Separate Peace comes to mind) while others run the other way (does anyone else remember Homer Price and the Amazing Doughnut Machine?  See this for the illustration.) but even adult novels counter-balance sadness with humor.  A tale of unrelieved happiness is sapless pap and no more engaging than one of ceaseless woe.
Dolly Parton said the secret to pleasing an audience was, “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, scare the hell out of ’em and go home”.  That’s what good authors achieve.  While their stories seek to create personal balance, readers need to feel laughter, tears, fear, and contentment by the time the book is done. As we close the last page, we know within ourselves the story has balanced our worlds as well.