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To Read or Not to Read

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Obviously reading in general is a good thing and I’ve usually got my nose in a good book. However I’ve recently come across a dilemma about whether reading is always the best way to experience something.

On my politics blog I’ve started a series of columns where I review political plays. I’ve seen quite a few over the last year or so but to refresh my memory I made a visit to the nearest secondhand book store and picked up copies to read. While there I also bought a few paperback editions of plays I hadn’t seen yet.



I’m now in a slight quandary over whether I should read them. I’m a great believer that art should be experienced in the way that the author intended. For instance watching the film Inception is a lot more fulfilling than reading the script. While the script is the backbone of any good film, the acting, direction, music, and cinematography all combine to create something larger than the sum of its parts. If you read the script first then you’d get a flavour of that, but at the same time you’d possibly spoil the experience when you finally get round to seeing the movie.

Now in the case of films this isn’t really an issue. If I want to watch something I can usually buy or rent it without any great difficulty. I’d only think about reading the script if I particularly enjoyed it and wanted to study the text in more detail. However with plays I don’t necessarily have that luxury. Sometimes particular plays are not put on for years due to their going out of fashion or because they cost a lot to stage. Tom Stoppard’s comedy Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is rarely revived because it’s about a political prisoner in a Soviet mental hospital whose roommate believes that he has an invisible orchestra. The play is specifically designed to include the full orchestra on stage which means that it’s not the sort of thing that a provincial repertory company can easily put on. In other cases it might be difficult and expensive to travel to the part of the country where the play is being performed. For instance London always has a wide range of shows available but it takes me hours to get there and costs a fortune.

This then leaves me with a dilemma. Should I wait in the hope that someday I’ll be able to see the play live in the best possible setting, or give in and read the play even though I’m potentially spoiling the experience at a later date? At the moment the pile of plays include Plenty by David Hare, Taking Sides by Ronald Hardwood, and The General from America by Richard Nelson, all sitting on my shelf.

Of course it could be argued that whenever you go to see a play you run the risk of spoiling it by seeing a bad production and you’d be better off with just the text. To read or not to read, that is the question.

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About Dr Matthew Ashton

  • Indeed a quandary! I usually elect to read the play ahead of time if it’s a classical or ancient play I’m not too familiar with, but I would never choose to read a modern play ahead of time. However, if I didn’t have any idea if I’d ever really see the play, or had no expectation of seeing it any time soon, I wouldn’t feel bad about reading it. I wouldn’t remember the plot months or years later, anyway!