Our stage was always a sofa — the long one that faced the fireplace. It could easily seat four or five, but my mother and I would huddle at one end, sunk into extra cushions, with our books on our laps.
And my 12-year-old self might say to her, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” And she would answer, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”
That’s from “Hamlet,” of course, the scene where the title character confronts his mother in her chamber about her unholy marriage to his uncle. We were, I should hasten to add, too caught up in a cracking, plot-propelling confrontation — and the gorgeous language in which it was expressed — to be consciously thinking about how it might mirror any tensions between a real-life mother and son in the 1960s.
No, the play always was truly the thing, a fascinating story that you understood better on every occasion you read it aloud. Though we went through “Hamlet” at least several times together — as we did with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” — it always surprised us.
We’d read an act or two at a time, and there’d always be a certain point when the words would make sense in a new way. I’d feel so privileged to be saying them myself, with my voice, and hearing my mother answer me in the same language. And I’d start to feel a hum of undiluted contentment, pitched at the level of a cat’s purr, that was so very rare during my adolescence.
Those moments have been much on my mind in this time of shuttered theaters and social isolation, when a drama critic is deprived of his livelihood and memories have a way of surfacing amid the silence. Though I have yet to coax my partner into picking up a script with me, reading plays aloud is a tradition I’d love to revive — and one I would highly recommend to those looking for ways to find magic in empty hours.
I can’t recall exactly when my mother and I started reading plays aloud together, or which of us first suggested we do so. Her father, an English professor, specialized in Shakespeare, so the canon had always been part of our lives. Though my mom, like my dad, became a newspaper journalist, she had loved acting in college and community theater productions when she was a young woman. And, by the age of 8, I was taking acting classes and appearing in local shows in Winston-Salem, N.C., where we lived.
We’d select works not only by Shakespeare, but also by Kaufman and Hart, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Philip Barry and occasionally something grittier — Eugene O’Neill, say, or Clifford Odets. We weren’t reading scripts to flex our muscles as thespians or to show off for each other. (OK, maybe I was, a little.) This was just our version of stress-free, parent-child bonding, an activity that took us out of ourselves for an hour or so, while confirming our mutual love of theater and words.
You don’t have to be a Meryl Streep or a Mark Rylance to enjoy this pastime, any more than you have to be Tom Brady to play touch football. All that’s really required is the ability to read and to speak — and, well, a willingness both to suspend critical judgment and to let whatever you’re reading take over your imagination enough that self-consciousness retreats.
Remember that plays — even those lofty classics that show up on college reading lists — are meant to be spoken and heard. And saying their lines aloud, no matter how clumsily, helps you hear the music and cadences in them. This is true not only of Shakespeare, but also of linguistically rich latter-day writers like August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks and David Mamet.
If play reading at home captures your fancy, here is a list of suggestions. Because times are grim, I’m mostly sticking to works that are easy to follow and fun to read — and driven more by dialogue than visual effects or physical interaction.
This is my choice for a first dive into Shakespeare out loud. It’s sinewy and relatively short, and moves as fast a Scottish warrior’s steed on a battlefield. It is also irresistibly lurid, with lots of opportunities to go over the top in interpretation. (Those witches!) It also seems fair to say that all of us these days — who have become weary experts in hand-washing — are prepared to take on Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in which she endlessly scrubs at hands she imagines are permanently bloodstained.
Thornton Wilder’s portrait of small-town American life in a cosmic context is written in plain and forthright prose that grows in power in the recitation of it. Perfect for those who would just as soon avoid flashy histrionics, and a good choice for families. (An alternative could be O’Neill’s uncharacteristically sunny domestic comedy, “Ah, Wilderness.”)
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
This one’s definitely not for children. But Albee’s immortal, four-character look at marriage as a blood sport (which was to have been staged on Broadway this season, with Laurie Metcalf) has a fierce momentum that can be ridden like a roller coaster. This is the play that the woman I lived with my senior year of college and I would trot out for postprandial entertainment when we had guests for dinner. And no, I do not want to think about what this says about my character at that age.
‘The Piano Lesson’
Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1987, set in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, turns the classic domestic drama into an exploration of the legacy of slavery. It’s the most immediately accessible — and family-friendly — of his plays, and it has a poetry all its own that approaches Shakespearean heights.
Another favorite from my college days, Coward’s peerlessly urbane tale of a couple who can’t live together and can’t be apart provides an occasion to put on plummy English accents and arched eyebrows. Just the sort of thing to read in a dressing gown, with a dry martini or two at hand. (An alternative: Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” a series of comic vignettes set in the hotel of the title, which had been scheduled to open on Broadway this season with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.)
‘The Little Foxes’
Lillian Hellman’s great potboiler about greed and chicanery in small-town Alabama in 1900 allows plenty of opportunity for camping it up wickedly, and with a Southern drawl to boot.
‘Waiting for Godot’
For those who are feeling that life is indeed an endless waiting game these days and are brave enough to take on the ultimate literary evocation of that feeling. Not exactly escapist fare, but a lot funnier than you may remember. (An alternative: Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander “Topdog/Underdog.”)
‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’
For the British mystery lover, these theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie novels are equal parts cozy and creepy. And the reassuringly stock characters require no special actorly finesse to bring to life. (Ayn Rand’s “The Night of January 16th,” a longtime favorite of high schools, could be an alternative. I played the gangster my junior year.)
Most of these plays are available for download online. One warning: This kind of project can affect the way you talk. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying “methinks” (if you’re doing Shakespeare) or calling people “dahling” (if you’re reading Coward). But, really, what’s wrong with bringing a little flash to everyday conversation at a time of stay-at-home monotony?
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