"How much emptiness can you say you've read?"
That's from the illustrious Griffin.
To be fair, it was sort of a crack at one of my favorite authors (Anne Carson) and her penchant for using negative space in published works. It borders on art.
BUT, it feels like an apt description for how to read a play. Also, how to write them I guess. Play scripts should be about the emptiness. Each play is ambiguous. You don't know who will direct or act in your script, you don't know who will see your production, and you don't know what other works they've seen before this. A theatrical play should be intentionally ambiguous.
Or, as my writing instructor at Second City told us a director once said to him about writing stage directions: Fuck you, that's my job.
Beats/Pauses/Silences are permission for readers to imagine succinctly in a play script. In teaching, we talk about how to connect with different types of learners. Kinesthetic learners need time and permission to play – even briefly – in an hour-and-a-half class. The two minutes they have to play with the problem in front of them is time to refocus and refresh their brains. I think this is true of plays also. These moments of emptiness give you temporary permission to imagine what could be happening on stage. They engage your ability to tell the story and give you a chance to set expectations for what you think might happen next in the story – only to have the story satisfy or rebuke those expectations later.
Harold Pinter is, of course, the master of such things.
Every line is a realignment of expectations and frustrating rebuttal to whatever you might've been expecting from the last insatiable pause you sat through. It's a cocktease. And some Pinter plays I admittedly love (Celebration) and some I hate (Homecoming). So I'm not saying drop everything and read Pinter, but you should at least know who he is. He is the most recent playwright to win the Nobel Prize (correct me if I'm wrong please, internet).
Pinter aside, every play script is rhythmic exercise in emptiness. Anne Carson may write for visual emptiness and they may be why I enjoy her work, but I can say I've read quite a bit of emptiness even without counting her poetry.
For further reading: John Cage (composer of 4'33") on silence: