Turning (Back) to Performed Language

Amit Majmudar
November 23, 2013
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Why sit down and read quietly? Is this really the only way, or even the best way, to experience language?

The three central works of Western literature were never, and are not today, read front to back in the manner of books—nor were they experienced as such contemporaneously. The Bible is an anthology of religious writings, whose composition spans fifteen hundred years and two language families, which people access selectively, whether to buttress an argument in a debate or provide an example in a sermon. (Similarly, in the 19th century, the novels of Dickens used to be read aloud, or rather, read aloud from; someone might request to hear the death of Little Nell, or this or that episode in Pip’s life, and this would be read aloud, presumably around a crackling Victorian fire.) The plays of Shakespeare are read perforce in book form; they were only secondarily books, as they were written for performance and attained their stature by performance. The same held true of Homer’s epics, selected scenes of which were performed by traveling rhapsodes throughout classical antiquity. Huckleberry Finn contains some excellent satire about the traveling dramatic troupes that carried Shakespeare into the American wilderness in the 19th century.

This emphasis on performance was necessary when the majority of people simply could not read. The current literacy rates in the industrialized Western world were unheard-of until less than a hundred years ago. (Ben Jonson escaped hanging for a murder by being able to read from the Bible in Latin; there was a loophole in Elizabethan law that prevented capital punishment for the literate. The virtue was that rare among the populace.)

In the 18th century through the 20th century, there seems to have been a progressive swell of people in the West who possessed the trinity of literacy, leisure, and no better entertainment options: A writer’s dream audience. Thousands of Westerners had stopped laboring in fields, but they hadn’t yet invented the Internet: This was the window, the magic concatenation of factors that is thought responsible for the rise of the novel as we know it.

This has proven a transient historical phenomenon, and it is a source of despair for some. Competing media, it is believed, are turning the readership of books into the viewership of screens. But this shift—readers by the thousands, setting aside printed books and turning instead to performances—is actually a turning back. We, in the 21st century, are returning to a way of experiencing language that has been the norm, both West and East, for centuries. There is no television show, no film that doesn’t require writing of some kind. The fact that these scripts don’t do well as freestanding texts, and don’t stand up under the cold eye of a reader in a quiet room, is irrelevant. Over 99.99% of British plays ever written were never independently readable to begin with, and have since perished, either physically or figuratively; only a tiny percentage remain read and performed, a couple dozen of them by the same guy. This situation may hold true someday of American screenplays and teleplays. Such forms are ephemeral, yes, but so are our conventionally printed novels and poetry-books, even some of those declared “literary” masterpieces and given awards. (Who won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1936? For all the prize’s prestige, it still requires Googling, doesn’t it? Answer: Strange Holiness by one Robert P. Tristram Coffin.)

It seems that what we call literature is a nonfixed collection of word-strings that have survived, against astronomical odds, the mayfly-nature of their background form—whether originally intended for cover-to-cover private reading (as 20th century novels were), selective access (as the Holy Bible was, and indeed many a poet’s Collected), or as scripts for performance (as Homer, Racine, and Shakespeare were). The shift going forward will be away from the first two kinds of writing and toward the third.

Whether this is a bad thing is up to the writers—and above all, to their audiences. Shallow audiences give rise to shallow writing: Hence the vapidity of much New Comedy in late classical Greece, and the transition from imagery-filled tragedies and historical plays to trivially witty comedies-of-manners within scarcely a century of the Elizabethans. All right, all right, I like She Stoops to Conquer, too; there are perhaps better examples. Consider: What example of 19th century American melodrama survives today, even as a classroom text?

This may be an advantage of the Serious Literary Novel’s diminishing audience. The pruning of mildly-interested audience members leaves you with the fanatical and deeply thought lovers of the art form: This is the situation with poetry already, where almost everyone who reads it regularly has The Love for that form. Of course, you can always err on the other extreme and turn out willfully impenetrable material, and this is the aspect most often bemoaned by advocates of Plain Sense and Telling It Straight. We are strange flowers, we do not blossom exclusively in direct light. Today, when it comes to density and vigor of language, a little obscurity is curiously liberating: There is no push to simplify thought or syntax, or to write the bland, quirk-free Global English of the international bestseller.

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