I used to read a lot of books. I remember zooming through the Percy Jackson series when I was in middle school, eating through each book in just a couple of days. Maybe that’s not so impressive but I personally am pretty impressed at myself for that feat, considering my English was noticeably worse then too. But during high school, my passion for reading books withered away. In retrospect, I see a few reasons why I lost interest.
It might sound pretty trivial, but this was probably the most detrimental factor among the three; it arguably caused or at least intensified the latter two factors. Although I was diagnosed with narcolepsy after graduation, I’m pretty sure I developed it sometime during high school. My condition combined with a extremely sleep deprived environment meant I had a very difficult time staying awake without physical movement and a hard time even with movement. Reading on a chair basically spelled nap for me. I could only manage a chapter or two before I inevitably fell asleep. Because I was always tired when reading, it just became an activity that I associated with fatigue and banality.
As I fell asleep so frequently when reading, I became much slower at reading, even slower than in late middle school. If I read fair and square, I could never read what was assigned to me in class. So, I started skimming. I’d maybe read the first few sentences of a paragraph then move on or skip a chapter entirely, substituting it with sparknotes or something similar. Of course, nothing made much sense to me. The numerous holes in my understanding of the plot, characters, and themes prevented me from truly appreciating it.
Books I read in high school were more literaturey books than any books I came to read before. Characters didn’t battle mytholgical creatures, they battled with the moral and economical failures of the reconstruction. They escaped not from gods but instead from the feebleness caused by the comforts of modern society.
That is not to say, I remember no books from that time fondly. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five profoundly changed me and the Sound and the Fury I still recount as the finest piece of writing I’ve read yet. But these were the exceptions, and even these books, I’ve only come to like later on.
I did however, enjoy nearly all plays I’ve read during high school. Yes, even the dreaded Shakespeare plays. Plays addressed the three issues outlined previously. I could read them in short bursts, usually a couple acts at a time, without being distracted or sleepy. As I remained focused while reading them, I could manage to finish the reading assignment in its entirety as well. And lastly, plays, intended to be performed in front of an audience, had the pizzazz many books were missing.
I read over 10 plays over high school. Listing just the English plays in loose categories, they are
- Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night
- Arthur Miller - The Crucible, Death of a Salesman
- Absurdist - Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead
- Identity - The Piano Lesson, M. Butterfly
I remember how alien plays felt the first couple of times. Not only were they different from novels, they were vastly different from what I thought a play may look like. The descriptions by the playwright for the setup of a scene or the states of characters were shockingly sparse and ambiguous. No directions were provided as to where a person should go, what they should wear, or even what music to play - all things I expected to be set in stone. The script provided the bare minimum for a the story to be presented in the material world.
While the lack of guidance felt intimidating at first, I found myself cherishing the extra degree of freedom in interpretation. I debated myself ecstatically over how a certain line should be presented, or where each character should position themselves in a scene. I’d discuss with classmates and reenact certain scenes to settle a dispute in intepretation.
Where books asked me to imagine a well-defined scene, plays asked me to infer how a character may feel internally based on an affidavit like a detective.
But without a doubt, the most joy came when I performed a play. As part of my high school’s Shakespeare Play Society, I played Duke Orsino as an actor-director from Twelfth Night and directed an act in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The latter, due to COVID, never really took off but directing Twelfth Night was one of my favorite memories in high school. Directing the play came with a handful of new puzzles for me to solve, many of which I had no idea I needed to take into account. My English literature professor mentoring our club threw me seemingly trivial but massively impactful questions like how should a character walk, which background characters should react to this dialogue and how? These questons, while tough, excited me and led me deeper into the play’s subtext.
Acting in a play was also enjoyable, although not as much as directing. If I managed to get the lines correctly, the delivery was off. If the delivery was on point, I usually forgot a line or two. Even on the day of the performance, I ended up choking and forgetting a couple lines. The high pressure, in-the-moment nature of acting offered exhileration of a different sort, one that happened not to suit me as well as directing.
After hearing my adoration of plays, it may come as a surprise then that I have only watched one play - Richard III performed at the Seoul Arts Center. It was entertaining, but I felt that I missed out on a major portion of the experience because I haven’t read the play beforehand. Simba, who I watched the play with and who had read the play multiple times prior (it was his favorite), commented on how the production modified the original plot, praising some reinterpretations while casting doubt on others. I simply thought it was pretty cool.
Because play tickets are pretty pricey, I want to make sure I’m getting the most out of it when I do watch it. So, I’ve been waiting since for some play that I know of to be performed and have yet to find any.
But this year, I plan on watching plays by my university’s student productions, even if I don’t know the play I’ve recently realized it’s just as important to learn to watch a play as it is to learn the play itself. So hopefully, by the time I do get an opportunity to attend a play I know of performed by a famous company, I’ll be ready to soak up all the emotions and impressions.