Plays are bite-sized books

Kind of like short stories but often meaty like novels, a first reading of play is a great way to read something in between books. (Tomorrow is shopping day!!) To really get value from a play, several readings are required, and a discussion with others about it always helps too. But one train ride can be enough time to read a one-man play about vampires.

My brother recommended I read St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson (shown here). A nasty theater critic tells a story about the time he worked for vampires. The play itself is pleased to be telling a story then turns into a rumination on reality versus fantasy. McPherson’s introduction to the play in The Weir and Other Plays describes his intent.

Christmas for most of us can be very busy. Catching up with friends in pubs for nights on end. It can become like work, like this is your bizarre job. It involves meeting a lot of new people too. Friends of friends. Sometimes it’s nice and sometimes it’s awkward. Last Christmas I decided to break the ice by telling each new person I met a big lie. And this is it.

I was coming across the Ha’penny bridge today and a seagull blew into my face. It got all tangled up in my glasses and its wings were flapping around my head. People were milling around, trying to help me, and I ended up lying on the ground until they got it free. The seagull was fine and so was I, but as you can imagine, it was very embarassing.

The first thing people would say after I’d said this was, “Is that true?” Because although they didn’t believe me, we live in a world where we don’t expect complete strangers to lie to us. Not in pubs are any rate. But it’s nice in the theatre.

St. Nicholas is a play performed by one actor. He only plays one character and he doesn’t act anything out. He just tells us a story. And for me, that’s full of mischief.

When two or more actors talk to each other on stage, it’s easy for us to pretend they’re not actually in the theatre. If it’s good they could be anywhere. Up a mountain, in a football, under the sea, anywhere. But with one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide. He’s telling us about somewhere outside the theatre, not trying to recreate it indoors. The theatre is simply where we meet him. And if it’s good, we’re reminded that we are in the theatre and we like being there.

And that’s full of mischief because we collude with the actor in a very direct way. Especially when we have a well-known actor in front of us pretending to be someone else in a small theatre. It’s a case of “Who’s fooling who here?” and that can be a very rich and liberating experience. Because we’ve all started playing. It’s a very grown-up and well-disciplined type of playing, granted, but then so are lots of things. Like making the character a theatre critic.

But just as children’s playing is often a rehearsal for adult life and dealings, so our theatrical grown-up playing has its serious intents. Because we are reflective beings and we like neatness. We want to know what everything means. “What the hell am I supposed to make of this?” – that’s us. That’s what makes us responsible. And I think that’s what St. Nicholas might be about. The responsibility reason gives us. (pages 75-76)

Now that I’ve reread his introduction, that is exactly what this play is about, even more than reality versus fantasy. The responsibility of reason. Knowing this still doesn’t do anything to help figure out if the character’s story is “true” or not.

St. Nicholas and the other one-man play I read, The Good Thief, read like modern short stories – close first person, an active plot, the character/narrator’s views inserted throughout the storytelling, often unreliable narrators. Since McPherson writes out the dialogue only and includes no stage directions, the plays flow like a story. No interruptions like in a regular play. Or like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – the pages of history lessons are interminable.

Both plays sucked me in and left me with many more questions that I started with. For “in between” reading, very meaty stuff.

P.S. I borrowed the book from my brother so no money involved. I’m sticking to my guns!


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