Warren Leight’s “Nine Ten” is a play that could only be a play. Its ensemble focus and emphasis on character interactions unfolding in apparent real time are essential to its theme – and these are two effects that can be created with far more strength and certainty in performance than on the page.
The play portrays five people who have been summoned for jury duty and are waiting for their names to be called. They are split into two groups. First, we are introduced to John, a dull bond trader, and Lyris, a new-age “spiritual dancer,” who are soon joined by John’s former classmate Karrie.
This group is a study in contrast and conflict: John and Lyris are as different as could be imagined but seem to get on well. Karrie, meanwhile, has a similar profession and background to John’s, but a drastically different personality: angry, driven, hyper industrious, and dissociated from the rest of the group.
The other group consists of Nick and Leslie. Their roles are smaller and their backgrounds are less explicit; they are secondary characters, providing visual and verbal variety and adding to the flavor of irritable “new yorkiness”.
The five characters make mildly interesting conversation, mentioning in passing their jobs and relationships, dwelling on the inconveniences of jury duty and their plans for avoiding it. There is no clear indication of where the plot will go, and Leight seems to be encouraging the audience to guess at the central story: Is it found in the hint of career risk for Karrie? In the possibility of flirtation between Lyris and (bored, married) John? This cultivated thirst-for-action increases the impact of the slam ending, in which we learn that the events of the play take place on September 10th, 2001.
The theme of the play – that life is shatterable, that an event can invest preceding events unpredictably with significance or insignificance – is supported by the use of two dramatic techniques which give the illusion that events are not being controlled by an authorial hand. First is the use of an ensemble cast: there is no main character.
This contributes to the elusiveness of the plot (as the audience cannot easily predict to whom things will start happening) and to the effectiveness of the ending (in which the audience’s experience of briefly focusing on or empathizing with each character reinforces the diversity and individuality of people directly affected by 9/11).
Second is the apparent real-time unfolding of events. There are no time-skips or changes of setting, nor are there any of the asides or long speeches which would make the dialogue seem to be an expression of one of the characters’ (atemporal) internal states rather than a representation of his (temporal) behavior. Not only does this make the events seem more “real,” it also serves to conceal the heavy strokes of foreshadowing, pushing past the hints before the audience fully processes them – again, giving the ending more punch.
Neither of these techniques is as natural to prose fiction as it is to drama. Ensemble casts in prose require either an omniscient or an alternating point of view (either of which tends to strain the reader, especially in a short work) or else an objective narration (which is so close to a play that, if it is used, there must be some additional justification for the story even being in prose). And it is most likely impossible to write a story such that the reader experiences it continuously in real-time.
Even if the writer avoids all-time play and refuses to dwell on characters’ internal states, readers still read at different rates, are liable to be distracted or interrupted, and may choose to go back and re-read passages before they have finished the story. These variables can increase the risk of the reader failing to be immersed in the story – or of his figuring out the ending ahead of time and so failing to feel its force when it comes.
The paradox of this play is that it gives an effective illusion of a natural, an uncontrolled slice of life, with no structure imposed on it and (except retroactively) no significance attributed to it. Yet this illusion is itself the product of an exquisite control over the audience’s perception of events and their expectations about dramatic structure. No equivalent control is possible in prose fiction. “Nine Ten” is a play that could only be a play.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell, eds. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 7th edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.
Leight, Warren. “Nine Ten.” Kirszner and Mandell, 1148-51.
 John, being the first to appear, having a marginally larger part than the others, and actually telling his life story in line 79, seems almost like a main character. But then again, everyone is introduced quickly, Lyris’s part is almost as large as John’s, and Leslie reels off several paragraphs of her near-term backstory.