I recently got myself into a bit of a pissing match with self-styled “theatre pundit” Howard Sherman on Twitter, over his blog post yesterday, “Who thinks It’s OK to ‘Improve’ Playwrights’ Work?” As quick perusal of Sherman’s opening paragraph reveals, the title is itself a total straw man (out of which, rest assured, Sherman proceeds to whack the stuffing), & pretty well emblematic of what’s to come.
The impetus for Sherman’s post is the recent controversy between Sarasota, FL’s Asolo Repertory Theatre & esteemed Irish playwright Brian Friel. The Asolo Rep, which by all reports has had a long history of taking supposedly daring &/or creative approaches to texts (having not seen their work, I can’t speak to the truth of this), has programmed a production of Friel’s play Philadelphia, Here I Come under the direction of Frank Galati. Galati’s original concept for the production included the excision of three of the play’s original eleven characters, & a stripping out of the intermissions, reducing the show’s runtime to a cool 90 minutes. Friel & his estate, upon notification of these changes, instructed the theatre to restore the play to the text as published, or risk losing the licensing rights. The Asolo Rep acquiesced, & has gone back into rehearsal.
Notwithstanding that Galati’s proposed changes constitute a radical or creative approach to the text only in the most deeply conservative & limited sense, Sherman’s ire towards Galati & the Asolo Rep’s AD Michael Donald Edwards is apparently a kind of moral outrage – as Sherman himself writes: “Mr. Edwards appears to have a fundamental lack of understanding of (or respect for) the rights of authors and their estates.” Adducing the Asolo Rep’s evidently successful (& author-approved) musicalized version of Yentl as “affirmation or precedent for this practice isn’t just foolhardy, it’s just plain wrong.” (N.B.: nothing that I’ve read indicates that the Asolo Rep necessarily argued this; Sherman’s straw men emerge as a motif.)
Except that, confusingly, little in Sherman’s argument has to do with artistic ethics at all; the bulk of his piece is dedicated to defending copyright & excoriating artists who subvert it (including – O tempora! O mores! – all those high school & college productions which, you know, change the characters’ genders & stuff). So since Sherman won’t (or can’t) distinguish between mala in se & mala prohibita, I will.
Of course, Sherman is 100% correct in his main contention – the Asolo Rep was in breach of their licensing contracts, & legally in the wrong. But to conclude therefore that the company was acting bad faith I think belies a bias that might have a little more to do with Sherman’s affiliation with Samuel French, Inc. than perhaps he is willing to admit. I can’t help but feel that his probity is better directed at the imperious dominion of copyright & estate law than at artists who, after all, are only trying to take some initiative & put on interesting productions. Since Sherman himself doesn’t quite make clear whether what irks him so much is this breach of law or some kind of moral transgression against a playwright’s wishes, I just want to make sure that you, my readers, understand that I am arguing against the latter, which may or may not be Mr. Sherman’s position (I don’t know him, so I can’t tell). On the legal point, Sherman is correct; but that’s a matter of quantity, not quality.
There are reasons why new plays, in their first or second or third productions, tend to be done “as-written”; they are untested, untried, unexplored. The text itself has not had the benefit of, say Philadelphia, Here I Come’s 50 years of productions. The reason Shakespeare’s text, or Goethe’s, or Buchner’s (or maybe Friel’s?) benefits from revisions, reworking, restructuring, or general fragmentation is that they were written within particular eras abiding by particular (here I go again with this phrase) aesthetic paradigms. These paradigms are not ours. We do not necessarily think, read, or interpret the world the way people did when these plays were written – they must be pulled apart & turned over, made to function in ways that are new – otherwise, what we’re watching is historical re-enactment, a Renaissance fair & not meaningful theatre. This ought by now to be so obvious as to be a cliché.
I don’t think any sane theatre-goer would accuse Philip McKee of attempting to “improve” Shakespeare with his production of Lear at the Habourfront Centre’s World Stage last March (a production which saw massive cuts to the text, as well as the casting of a woman, the phenomenal Claire Coulter, in the title role, among other significant artistic choices). Why then isn’t this generosity extended to the Asolo Rep?
For Sherman, of course, the kind of stuff McKee does is perfectly “kosher” – an apposite word, since apparently his (or Beckett’s or Albee’s for that matter) view of what is permissible in an interpretation or alteration to a play is as restrictive in artistic terms as anything in Leviticus. I’m not so ready to ignore the fact that Friel refused to even see Galati’s – which he was invited to do – version before summarily condemning it. Surely that’s the very definition of narrow-mindedness: the refusal to accept as valid or worthwhile that which one has oneself not experienced. If Friel is so insecure about his reputation as a playwright after having numerous Tony Awards, the Laurence Olivier Award, the New York Drama Critics Cirlce Award, being named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters & the British Royal Society of Literature & the Irish Academy of Literature, as well as being one of the most highly-regarded & popular living playwrights writing in English & generally being a kind of living legend, then I think it likely that Mr. Friel’s doomed to die insecure whether his play is expurgated or not. He also seems to be ignorant of productions like this.
The point being that far more radical reinterpretations & reworkings of plays still in copyright that Galati’s have taken place, & I think it would be difficult to argue that the reputations of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill & Henrik Ibsen have exactly suffered for it. Mr. Friel at least owed the theatre the respect of seeing the production before deciding it wasn’t any good.
Tangentially related to all of this are some of the bewildering statements Howard Sherman makes about the theatre qua art form, among them, this:
…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.
This is so self-evidently bogus it’s barely even worth discussing, but I’ll do it anyway; I’ve a masochistic streak. There are three media that are “author’s” media – the novel, the short story, & the poem. Theatre is a collaborative medium, in which the director, actors, designers, & text work in dialectic, being informed by, & informing each other. To Mr. Sherman & Mr. Friel: if you can’t respect that, do like Percy Shelly & write closet dramas. Your reputation will be intact, & your plays enjoyed by no one.
Lastly, there’s Sherman’s remarkable statement about colour-blind casting, which he makes in the comments section of his blog post:
…as an avowed supporter of color-blind casting, I don’t see the issue as equivalent, since the race of an actor doesn’t necessarily alter the meaning of a text. But I do favor consultation if the meaning is altered by casting
This is a pretty unbelievable departure from reality. The notion that changing a character’s race won’t make that character “marked”(to borrow from a certain tradition of semiotics) is frankly bizarre; we do not (& should not) watch plays in bubbles, we watch them in particular contexts framed by our history, culture, & politics; a black Martha & George in Albee’s Virginia Woolf? (since that’s the example he uses to defend a refusal to alter genders) would fundamentally change how those characters are viewed, because black people in America have fundamentally different experiences than whites do; the cultural/historic forces that would make a white George & Martha behave as they do would be axiomatically different than those which affect a black George & Martha, or a Chinese or even Native American. Plays are symbol systems; each thing on stage is a sign, & they mean something.
I personally think a black George & Martha would be utterly fascinating (so too would a gay George & Martha, or a gender-swapped). Sadly, I may not ever see such a production, because of the unassailable edifice of estate & copyright law. So please, Mr. Sherman, if there’s something to get your knickers in a twist about, let’s make it that, & not artistic exploration.
(N.B.: There’s a whole other conversation to be had about the historical damage that copyright has done to the proliferation of the arts; particularly, from a counterfactual historical perspective, there’s an argument to be made that had Sherman’s principles been applied, say, to the First Folio, we wouldn’t have any of Shakespeare’s plays. I would be interested in reading more on this, & on the history of copyright in general.)