A Private Performance

A few weeks ago Scout and I invited some friends over to read Hamlet. It was our cut of the play, which we had altered to fit into our apartment; the Claudius prayer scene takes place in the bathroom, for instance, “To Be or Not To Be” on our balcony, and the closet scene in my bedroom. We imagined an audience of two following the characters from scene to scene. With no footlights to mark the boundary between the inside and the outside of the play’s world, the audience’s experience would be (I imagine) both particularly intimate and particularly uncomfortable.

Part of the appeal of this idea is, for me, the total irrationality of it. With an audience of two, the performers would far outnumber the people they were performing for. And then there’s the fact that the stage would be my actual home, populated with my actual possessions, rather than a set that can be assembled up and torn down again over the course of an evening.

I thought of the idea again recently when I stumbled upon a Public Domain Review piece on Flaubert’s unstageable play The Temptations of Saint Anthony. Although Colin Dickey describes Temptations as “the antithesis of [Flaubert’s] great writing,” I have to disagree. Temptations is a stubbornly bizarre gorgeous mess, and it captured my heart as any piece of writing containing a description such as the following must:


(round as wineskins, flat as blades, denticu-
lated like saws, dragging themselves over the
sand as they approach)

Certainly Temptations would not have affected me nearly so much if it had not been presented as an impossible-to-stage play. In the “Beasts of the Sea” section, for instance, Flaubert has all the spoils of the ocean present themselves before St Anthony, sea-plants sprouting and branching and then reshaping themselves, transforming into insects and stones, as if the whole history of life is playing out before his eyes. It’s the excess, the indulgence, the ridiculous grandiosity of the conceit that makes it so enthralling.

There have been productions of Flaubert’s The Temptations of St Anthony, but I’ve never seen it performed. I experienced it as (I think) it was intended to be experienced, meaning I read it to myself. I let the scenes play out in my head. If you read a play to yourself, it is still a performance?

Before doing some research for this post, I had never realized that there was an entire genre of plays called “closet dramas,” plays written not to be performed but to be read to oneself or aloud in company. Of course, I want to write one. It’s such a fascinating concept. There is the openness of possibility that comes with writing a piece with no concern for how it might be staged, something as wild and fantastical and sublime as you can possibility make it, married to the mundane domesticity of reading at home with a friend or two.

You could write a bespoke closet drama, intended just for the people reading it, and they would be at once the actors and the audience. You could introduce elements of choice and chance, probably more easily than for a mounted, staged production. Are RPGs just collaborative improvisational closet dramas?

I guess what I’m saying is let’s all do more theater in our living rooms.




Hey, this is Scout! Just here to point out that you missed a great opportunity to make some kind of joke about Apartment Hamlet being a parlor play and Temptations being a closet play… because parlors and closets… they’re both rooms…!!!


A 13th-century hermit trapped in the body of a millennial.