Digested Drama | Page 46 | Newberry

Digested Drama

I have advised you before on the difference between “collectible” and “valuable”. A recent donation included a few books that are fun to collect (and possibly to read) but not especially valuable. They came out annually, so they are numbered and easy to keep track of, and they are, in fact, still published today, some 90 years after the series began. They are also among the oddest choices of reading I made as a child.
These are the “Best Plays” series, begun by Burns Mantle in 1920 and continued by him until 1947, the year before he died. (He did some retrospective volumes, too, taking the series back in several installments to 1899). After his death, the series continued under other editors, including a lengthy run by Louis Kronenberger. You can check their website nowadays, where the newest volumes can be obtained. Each year, the editor chooses the ten best plays of the season, say 1934-35, presents them, and goes on to a synopsis of every play presented on Broadway that season, with a brief cast list and the number of performances it ran.
“So you read plays as a kid,” sez you, “So what?” I see you have never sampled a volume of the Best Plays.
What kind of idiot with a hit play running on Broadway would allow somebody to print the script in a book? Bootleg productions would start appearing at once, before the Broadway run ended, cutting into the Broadway profits and devastating the appeal of an official traveling version. Most plays are not published in a form available to the general public until after that significant New York run.
So Burns Mantle instead presented a long synopsis of the story, interspersed with bits of the actual dialogue or, in the case of musicals, a verse and chorus of a song. What you get is a twenty-page prose abridgement, not unlike those “Hamlet in 60 Seconds” videos on YouTube. It went kind of like this:

The woodchopper and his wife are tired of feeding their two children, Gransel and Hetel. The kids do nothing but read books all day and will never be eligible for an athletic scholarship. By leaving a trail of pages torn from the New York Times Book Review, the adults lure the children into the dark woods, where they soon become lost. Night falls, and they are sure they will die of the cold.
Hetel: There’s nothing else we can do, Gransel. We must burn the books!
Gransel: No, no, Hetel. Not that!
Hetel: What else is there, Gransel? Here, let’s start with one of mine.
Gransel: No, no: we can’t lose The DaVinci Code! Cut off my hair, Hetel, and burn that instead.
Hetel: What a brain you have, sister dear! Then you shall cut off my hair, too.
The light of the fire attracts a wandering librarian, who is amazed to find two bald children reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by the flickering flames. He takes them to his house and promises that in the morning they shall become volunteers at a Book Fair. The children have never heard of such a thing. The librarian, a cracked baritone, sings to them of the splendors of the event.
A Book Fair! A Book Fair!
Oh, what can compare to the atmosphere rare
With prose everywhere and romances to spare
At the Book Fair?
The children go to bed dreaming of this fantasy world.

The synopsis would also be sprinkled with photos of the cast at pivotal moments in the story, doing its best to give you an idea of the greatness of the play in question, without your having to a) read a hundred pages of stage instructions and dialogue or b) sit through two hours plus intermission. And, at the same time, it gives you more of the text than, say, Cliff’s Notes.
A complete set of these in dustjacket will run you several hundred dollars, but you can collect them one at a time for anywhere from $3 to $10 apiece. We have a few every year, frequently discarded from a high school library. The jackets are decorative, too, where they still exist, from the early ones with black and white photos on the covers to the more recent colorful ones which just list the top ten plays. Just an idea if you were looking for something fun to collect and make the Newberry a few bucks while you’re at it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got this idea for a musical I have to finish. Hetel rhymes with kettle and metal and stuff, but would it be wrong of me to rhyme Gransel with pencil? 

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