All the world's a page: the joy of scripts during theatre's shutdown

As venues close due to Covid-19, there’s a world of published drama to savour, from text that falls off the page to Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘undirectable’ collage

There’s a play by Douglas Maxwell called If Destroyed True. His publisher, Oberon, must have been in a tolerant mood because the script is all over the place. Literally. Three-quarters of the way down the otherwise empty first page he repeats the phrase “ta toom” three times. The third one is so close to the edge it’s missing the final letter.

He scatters the type over the next two pages and, even when we reach recognisable dialogue, Maxwell arranges chunks of text in narrow columns, makes interjections in capital letters and inserts strange typographical patterns.

In these days of theatrical shutdown, If Destroyed True is a welcome example of a script that is a pleasurable artefact in itself, not just a blueprint for a production. That idea would not have surprised an earlier era when reading a playscript, like following a musical score, was sometimes as close as you got to a performance. Writers even satisfied the market with “dramatic poems”, designed to be read aloud, but not necessarily to be staged.

Madeleine Potter, Jo McInnes and Daniel Evans in 4.48 Psychosis at the Royal Court, London, in 2000.
Room for interpretation … Madeleine Potter, Jo McInnes and Daniel Evans in 4.48 Psychosis at the Royal Court, London, in 2000. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

With its 40 scenes and sprawling narrative, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt had been in print for almost a decade before anyone attempted performing it. Goethe’s Faust was not staged in its entirety for more than a century. Recently, Alan Ayckbourn wrote The Divide as something he knew would be “virtually impossible” for him to direct, an 80,000-word collage of fictional government memos, verbatim reports and children’s handwritten essays (those who saw the final production may have wished it had never left the page).

Such open-ended scripts allow the reader to play director. No two productions of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis are alike, because the playwright built in so much room for interpretation. In her evocation of bipolar disorder, she employed voices that could be doctors, nurses, lovers and friends, and yet there are no named characters. Kane was a big fan of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, which similarly denied “the idea of fixed identity or linear narrative”, as Michael Billington wrote.

The influence extended to Simon Stephens, who wrote Pornography without named characters, and Alice Birch, whose [BLANK] fills 214 pages with 100 scenes and is what she called “a challenge and an invitation to you and your company to make your own play”.

For a reader, this can be demanding. You might have some sympathy with Laurence in Abigail’s Party who boasts about his leather-bound Shakespeare before adding, “Of course it’s not something you can actually read.” If that sounds like you, your stay-at-home reading list could begin with Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney, whose interlinked monologues create a vivid imaginative universe and mean “the drama starts to happen, not on stage so much as in the mind of the audience,” as critic Fintan O’Toole put it.

Once they get you hooked, you could move on to plays Friel influenced, including several excellent pieces by Mark O’Rowe and Conor McPherson. After that, Methuen Modern Classics are your oyster.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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