So I saw Chimes At Midnight last week. Didn't love it. Sure, I respected it for a work of art. But it didn't give me the kind of spinal lightning bolts that some movies/performances have done. And I think I know why. It gets back nicely to a recurring theme of this blog. Ready? Here it is:
I've never read Chimes At Midnight. Sure, lifetimes ago I read all the Henry plays, but I'm sure I read them through once and moved on.
Compare the two biggies, Hamlet and Romeo&Juliet. I've read those many times. As such, I understand more of the play as it is performed, and thus I enjoy it more. If we're talking about the Henry plays, there's really only two scenes that stuck with me from whenever I read them - when Hal prematurely takes the crown away from his father, whom he thought dead, and the new king's denial that he knows Falstaff. Because of this, the movie bent itself around these scenes for me, if that makes sense. Hearing lengthy streams of Shakespearean dialogue that you've never heard before is very, very difficult to follow, especially if there's not a great deal of plot advancement. Or, worse, the plot advancement is happening offstage, and has to do with the politics of who is attacking whom.
Reading the words, on the other hand, is very different. You can pause and think about them. You can look words up. You can have those moments where you suddenly say "Ohhhhh, I know what that means! That makes sense!" In performance, that is impossible. You don't get to pause and go back.
So, getting back to the movie for a bit. There are parts that I understood before the movie ever started, parts that I hang the rest of the movie around. Then there are those parts that make sense as they happen in the course of the movie. Often those are simple plot developments, lacking in any real poetry. After those bits come the bits where you scratch your head and say "I think I understood what just happened", and finally "Ok, I have no clue what he just said."
Doesn't it stand to reason that you want to maximize that first category? Those are the lightning bolt moments. I'll tell you seriously, whenever Hal announced that he was banishing Falstaff, the single look on his face told me so many thousand words more than the script ever could. I want more of that! When I'm channel surfing and I stumble across Luhrman's Romeo+Juliet I want to be able to stop and say "Oh wait, this is the good part..." no matter *what* part it is, because it's *all* good. How can anybody possibly get that, if all they ever do is see performance? Sure you'll get the plot and some of the poetry, but I find it hard to believe if you walk in cold that you're not leaving more than half the play on the floor when you leave. It's when you read it that it sticks in your brain.
Do both. I've always said, do both. Reading's got nothing on performance, no doubt about it. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined Falstaff like Orson Welles played him. What I've always said is that it's performance without reading that makes it all fall apart. If you're content to walk out of a Shakespeare performance saying, "Yeah, that was good," then I suppose I'll never be able to make my case. If I can't convince you that every word is an atom, with infinite energies waiting to be released, well, then, I guess I'll have to keep trying.