A couple of days ago, Howard Sherman, a US “arts administrator and producer,” “communications, marketing, and branding consultant,” and “theatre pundit” published a blog post in which he excoriates directors and theatre companies for their invidious practice of “improv[ing] playwrights’ work” — altering words, adding or cutting characters, removing (the horror, the horror) intermissions.
His arguments against such habits are in part legal: the companies have signed contracts that license, but also restrict, their use of copyrighted material, and their actions violate those contracts and the broader laws of copyright. I’m sure he’s right about that. But his claim extends further: the violation in such cases, he suggests, is both a legal and and ethical offence. Now, ethics are, of course, a much murkier area than the law. If remaining true to an author’s words (OK) and intent (a much trickier undertaking) is not just a legal or contractual obligation, but an ethical one, then copyright should not actually be the guiding principle — right? Because if one is ethically (rather than just legally) obliged to obey an author who died 20 years ago, why would that ethical obligation disappear a few decades later, when copyright expires?
Despite his apparent conviction that keeping faith with authors should be a key obligation for theatre makers, Sherman is not in fact willing to stick to his ethical guns, writing that he “enthusiastically support[s] artists’ free rein to rework and alter the text as they see fit” in the case of “classical works where copyright has expired or never existed.” But why? If it’s the right (and not simply the legally necessary) thing to do to follow Beckett word for word, then why can we do with Wilde as we please? And if Sherman really thinks the only reason to treat a copyrighted work as deferentially as he argues is its copyrighted status, then why does his post adopt such a tone of moral outrage, even hoping that companies that act irresponsibly will be caught out by vigilant audience members or critics?
The part of Sherman’s post that has rightly received the most attention is his marvellously misguided conclusion: “Although I feel as if I’ve heard it over and over again for decades, it seems that for so many, a basic thesis of the theatre isn’t being said and understood enough: theatre is first and foremost an author’s medium. If you can’t respect that, write the play you want to see instead – or go make movies.”
He later qualified that statement by suggesting that it reflects his particular perspective, and only really applies in the US, whereas he recognizes that “in some countries and with some companies” scripts have a less privileged status. But even with that caveat, it’s still a remarkably strange claim. As others — including Alexander Offord — have noted, theatre is obviously a collaborative art form; defining it as the “medium” of any one participant in that collaborative effort is conceptually reductive and reduces the other participants to secondary roles. Sherman confirms the latter view when he clarifies, in an update, that he didn’t mean to show a “lack of respect … for directors, actors and the range of artists who collaborate to put a play on stage” — and then follows that up by enlisting all those collaborator in the author’s service: they are, he writes, “essential in collectively exploring and realizing a playwright’s vision.” In other words, while he acknowledges that theatre is not made by authors, he insists that everyone who actually puts theatre on stage does so in an effort to help an author out; which is to say, actors, directors, designers, and stage personnel ARE the author’s medium.
Now, of course Sherman is probably right that playwrights in the US, or perhaps the English-speaking world more generally, hold a position of much greater authority than elsewhere. That this is not necessarily a good thing even from the playwright’s perspective has been suggested recently by Simon Stephens’ reflections on his collaborations with the German director Sebastian Nübling. In the prefatory materials to Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, he describes the rehearsal process as one in which the director, the dramaturg, the designer, and the actors “responded” to what he had written — their job was not to “realize” his vision, but to develop their own in reaction to his text. Consequently, as the author, his own authority shrunk to that of a mere “privileged reader,” someone who could give the director notes, but couldn’t expect that they’d be heeded: “Mainly he ignored me,” he writes. In rehearsal, Stephens’ main responsibility was to “encourag[e] the British actors not to be frightened when Sebastian behaved in a way that felt counter-intuitive to their culture. They’re so used to using the playwright’s text as a bible. Sebastian had an instinct to tear it up. I had to let them know that I was happy with that.” For this particular playwright at least the immersion in a collaborative system that does not privilege his words or ideas over those of the other artists was clearly an exhilarating experience.
Then again, one might think that Stephens’ story just confirms Sherman’s view: other places work differently. What Stephens encountered was a gentle version of the German way of making theatre — gentle, because he was involved in the process (although, as he mentioned in other interviews, the director did wonder why the author should be at rehearsals). From the opposite extreme of the German spectrum, my favourite story is that of the 1993 premiere production of Rolf Hochhuth’s Wessies in Weimar, directed for the Berliner Ensemble by the legendary Einar Schleef — a production that interpolated so much material into Hochhuth’s text and cut it so liberally that the author threatened to sue the theatre to prohibit the performance; he was only appeased when the theatre agreed to distribute the full playscript along with the program and included a lengthy note by the author pointing out that twenty minutes into the show, “not a single syllable” of his words had been spoken. Hilariously, the reviews broadly agreed that Schleef’s staging saved whatever was worth saving about a play they described variously as clunky, clichéd, ill-informed, or boring. In Sherman’s world, he would have expected those critics to identify Schleef’s many violations of the Berliner Ensemble’s contractual obligations and of Hochhuth’s copyright.
So, yes: things are done differently in other places, and that may even be a good thing. But the parochialism of Sherman’s initial conclusion isn’t what’s most vexing about it. What troubles me most is that his thinking is informed by a profound conceptual confusion — or rather, a conceptual simplemindedness — that seems to me quite common among mainstream theatre commentators in North America. To wit: firstly, the belief that authors are a source of meaning; and secondly, the assumption that the theatre is a medium for texts.
One doesn’t have to wade into the theory wars of the 1970s and 80s to complicate the first assumption — as far back as the earliest articulations of American New Criticism in the late 1940s, the “intentional fallacy” was becoming doctrine, and for good reason. An author writes a text, but she doesn’t control its meaning; this has for a very long time now been a truism. It can’t be the goal of serious criticism to unearth an author’s intended meaning — or his “vision.” The best you can hope for is a rich, compelling, and inclusive account of what’s in the text, whether the author intended to put it there or not. That’s English 101. Further truisms one might learn in such an introductory class? No text is fully coherent. Any text worth reading is likely to be pulled apart by all kinds of contradiction, and the critic’s task cannot be to reconcile those contradictions into a coherent whole; following them, tracing how they are at odds with the ostensible pull of a text, is at least as rewarding. None of this means disrespecting the text — quite the contrary. Attention, even if it’s deconstructive in its effects, is a form of dedication. Again, nothing advanced or especially controversial in any of this.
Of course, plays are a bit different. A production, after all, usually isn’t quite the same as a critical essay. More likely than not, in interpreting a play with a view to performance, a dramaturg or a director or an actor will have to come up with some kind of coherent reading, although it’s not hard to imagine productions that embrace incoherence and contradiction. Most commonly, then, a production will begin by simplifying the text. That may involve actually changing the words, cutting them, or even, oh horror, rewriting them. But it doesn’t have to — and that is my point. If it’s a truism that no text just “means,” then every performance is predicated on a prior act of interpretation; and that interpretation necessarily reduces the text. The words don’t have to change for the meaning to change. And unless you have the author in the room, constantly, as an ever-present nagging censor of interpretation, always shutting down anything he didn’t mean, correcting any interpretation that she didn’t intend, no production could ever possibly “be true” to an author’s “vision.” (To be on the safe side, you might also want to keep the author around for the entire run, to make sure she can stop the actors whenever a particular inflection, or a move, or a breath, doesn’t conform to her vision.)
This shouldn’t be news for anyone, really. Playwrights have known it for centuries. Ben Jonson was perfectly aware that actors could make him mean things he never intended (or so he said): he complained about players who were “too witty in another man’s works and utter sometimes their own malicious meanings under our words.” The script does not need to change for the meaning to change. In fact, the meaning will change, from production to production, from audience to audience, no matter if the text changes or not. Being true to an author’s intentions is a fool’s errand. Being true to a text is impossible enough.
So that’s the first profound conceptual problem with the position Sherman advocates: how could you ever legislate interpretation? And this challenge is insurmountable under any circumstances. It’s not a question of mainstream vs. avant-garde. It’s a question of understanding basic ideas about interpretation.
The second problem is easily as serious, and just as fundamental. If it’s true that interpretation necessarily simplifies, performance necessarily complicates — enriches, adds, transforms — the text. But even that’s not quite accurate. As a generation of performance theorists has elaborated, a performance of a play is not actually a performance of the play. A show is a show is a show. It functions according to a very different set of rules than a text; it uses very different sign systems than a text; it exists in a very different medium than a text; and it is received by its audience in very different ways than a text is received by its reader. Saying that a production “translates” a script into a performance is inadequate. A performance and a script have things in common, of course, and the script can, under certain conventions, limit what a performance can do. But that’s about it. To think about performances as mere interpretations, and to judge them according to their ability to realize the “vision” of the author of a text, is not just badly reductive, it’s a meaningless exercise. It requires ignoring a huge array of sensory information that no author’s text could ever anticipate or dictate (even as controlling a text as, say, Beckett’s Not I does not prescribe the exact length of pauses; the quality of voice; the sound of breath; the exact light levels in the theatre; the shape of the actor’s mouth; the precise accent; the cultural resonance of that accent; the cultural resonances of the specific actor’s voice; the levels of heat in the theatre; the behaviour of the audience; the noises from elsewhere in the theatre, the auditorium, and the outside; the smells in the theatre; and so on — but all of those and many more are unavoidably part of the show). Thinking of theatre as an author’s medium means reducing most of what theatre does to the status of paper and ink.
Now, none of this is to say that it’s pointless to think about how a particular production relates to its script. But to judge a production based on its purported success in transporting an author’s alleged vision is not so much reductive (although it is that) as pointless. After all, if a performance finds its ultimate justification in its ability to be absolutely true to its text, then why bother performing — and why bother watching performances? If texts are that powerful, then why not just read the text? If playwrights’ visions are this important, then why interpose so many mediating bodies, images, and sounds between author and audience? If all one wants is a clearly audible signal, why spend so much time and money on theatrical noise?
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