So, Closet Drama

I love when I learn new terms. This week, as part of that course I’m taking, I learned about closet drama. I’ve been doing this fifteen years and I don’t believe that’s ever come up, which is a pleasant reminder that you can always learn something new.

closet drama noun a play to be read rather than acted

I think that’s particularly amusing because “Shakespeare was meant to be acted, not read!” has got to be the most common argument we’ve had over the years. Yet I can’t remember anyone, until now, saying “He wasn’t writing closet drama!”

I’m trying to imagine the dynamics of how this would work. I know that there’s the idea of actors getting together and doing a script in hand read through of a play (does this have a special name?) but as far as I know you do that with any play, whether they’re intended to be staged or not. I’ve read plenty of plays that I’ve never seen – Waiting for Godot, lot of O’Neill, lot of Beckett… and I enjoy reading plays, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read a play that was intended from the start to be read rather than performed.

Though some recognizable name pop up – Fulke Greville, Mary Sidney – show up in Wikipedia’s list of Elizabeth authors who partook of this format, they were doing so after Shakespeare died.

How would a closet drama be different? Is it a practical thing, like more emphasis on dialogue and less on stage direction, like an Aaron Sorkin project? I could dig that. Whenever I try to sit down to write fiction I find myself thinking that I prefer plays (I wrote several in college), primarily because, and I quote myself, “I care about what this character says to that character, and how that character reacts, and I don’t care what color the mountains are.” I think I stole it from some other famous author.

When googling the term, “Is The Tempest a closet drama?” came up as one of the autocomplete questions. Interesting. I wonder why that one? I’m trying to think of which Shakespeare play has the most interactive dialogue (as compared to, say, being heavy on the soliloquizing or exposition). Othello? I think you want a small cast. Hard to double when you’ve got people reading, with no exits and entrances, or costume changes.

Any experts in closet drama out there want to weigh in? I’m curious to learn more.

One thought on “So, Closet Drama

  1. Ah, closet drama. It’s what happens when I buy too many sweatshirts.

    Actually, my understanding of closet drama isn’t that it’s plays meant to be read silently; rather, it’s plays that are meant to be read for performance rather than played for performance. A play could be performed by five or ten readers who sit and read their respective roles rather than by a company of actors who enact their roles (with all the usual costumes, props, scenery, et cetera). This is now often called a stage reading or a staged reading. One such event makes its way into Slings and Arrows (cf. Season Two).

    The first play in English that was written by a woman was a closet drama. Elizabeth Carey’s The Tragedy of Mariam is well worth reading. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

    I’m not certain, but I suspect that performances of the “closet drama” variety kept something of the theatrical tradition alive while the theatres were closed between 1642 and 1660.

    —kj (Bardfilm)

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