We do not owe fealty to a playwright’s wishes (a response to Howard Sherman)

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.

Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or 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.)

11 Comments We do not owe fealty to a playwright’s wishes (a response to Howard Sherman)

  1. Greg

    Alexander: Fellow writer here. This is an intriguing and provocative article, but a factual point: Henrik Ibsen’s work is *absolutely* in public domain; Eugene O’Neill’s 1917 and 1918 plays were also public domain when the Worcester Group did them in 2012, which is why it was easy for Breuer and the Group, respectively, to do their groundbreaking & deservedly well-received productions.

    Another point: given Brian Friel’s age of 85, it may not be healthy for him to travel, particularly if he doesn’t live in the U.S.; to assume that it would have been ‘easy’ for Friel to see the altered version seems disconnected from the facts on the ground. (If Friel does in fact live in Philadelphia, I’ll withdraw this.)

    In the case of the Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams productions, it’s a near certainty the producers had permission from their estates (no theatre company the size of those referenced is going to risk a lawsuit/cancellation when they could just as easily get permission). Whether or not *dead* writers estates’ should have control over the writer’s work strikes me as a separate, and more debatable issue.

    But with regards to living writers, we’re talking about a simple thing: permission.

    As a writer, I’m pretty flexible with changes necessary to produce my plays, and am in favor of cross-gender and open racial casting (with the sole exception being my play about the life of Miles Davis). But I’m not clear why the current setup–if a director wants to change the work of a living playwright, he/she needs to ask permission in advance–is such a big deal. I certainly don’t see anything morally wrong with requiring the playwright’s permission to textual changes. That’s the current setup, and it protects playwrights from productions that change their work so drastically that the play *doesn’t represent what the author wrote.*

    I guess I just don’t understand your outrage. It would’ve been easy for the creative team to note the changes they wanted to make when they requested the rights, and Friel could have rejected or accepted them–or, for that matter, if they only figured the proposed changes out in the rehearsal room, to request them, understanding they might get turned down. Playwrights can choose for themselves, individually, whether they are comfortable with a radical re-interpretation of a specific play, or whether they’d prefer not to see that done, in which case the producing theatre company/director is free *not* to license the play but do something else. If a writer is making a choice that won’t be beneficial to her in the long run, that’s kinda her right.

    The deal when licensing a play is that you notify the playwright of any changes you wish to make. As a writer, I’m amenable to lots of different proposals. Your last reply to Ian suggests that you think writers will automatically turn down your ideas, but, as a director of others’ work, that hasn’t been my experience w/ writers at all.

    If you want the ability to make changes to a writer’s work without permission or consequences, you can do that on any American play pre-1934 or so, and any non-U.S. play pre-1900 (copyright varies from country to country). Those are in public domain. I’d need to hear more about why it’s a problem to ask permission from the playwright first if one wants to make changes–as a writer, I have yet to have one proposed I didn’t like, and as a director, I haven’t encountered any issues from other writers.

    Reply
  2. Rutegar

    Hmm … I’m not sure what the kerfuffle is about. My reading of Alexander’s position is perfectly clear …

    ———————-

    WE DO OWE FEALTY TO A PLAYWRIGHT’S WISHES

    Sherman is 100% correct in his main contention – the Asolo Rep was in breach of their licensing contracts, & legally in the wrong.

    We do not necessarily think, read, or interpret the world the way people did when these plays were written. They must be made to function in ways that are Renaissance fair & meaningful theatre,

    Plays are symbol systems; each thing on stage is a sign, & they mean something..

    ———————

    Or has Alexander’s words been mangled from the author’s original intent without his permission …

    Reply
  3. Ruben Carrazana

    Wait, hold up, let me get this straight.

    So… you’re saying it is okay to take somebody else’s work, and alter it without their permission? Nevermind the legality of this. On a purely ethical, moral, and artistic level… you’re okay with this practice?

    I’m not familiar with Friel’s work (frankly his play does not seem all that interesting to me and the changes don’t sound like they would have been an improvement but that’s neither here nor there), but I don’t care how “highly-regarded” or “popular” somebody is, you do not take THEIR work and change it without their permission. Asolo Rep did not ask if these changes could be made. This is not out of stupidity or ignorance, it is out of arrogance and disrespect.

    Think about it. Really. Somebody created something, you ask them for permission to use their work, they grant you permission to use their work… and then you change it without letting them know, but you still promote it as being theirs on all your marketing? And you charge people money for it? How is this okay?

    If you have problems with a play, don’t produce it. Make something new. You probably won’t because you don’t have the resources, skill, talent, time, patience, whatever. This does not give you the right to take someone else’s art and alter it. Existing plays are not templates for you to create your own plays. You don’t read a play and say, “Hm, yeah, I’m gonna choose this one. I like most of it except for these three characters, these two intermissions, and it could use some song-and-dance numbers here and there.” You read a play and either say, “Hm, I like it, I’m doing this play” or, “Hm, I don’t like it, I’m not doing this play.” You can’t do both. Write your own damn play. If you can’t, produce the play of someone else who can. If you can’t/won’t do that either, then get out of the theatre and do something you are capable of doing.

    You’re right. Theatre IS a collaborative art form. But guess what? It ain’t a collaboration if the playwright isn’t asked about the changes. It’s artistic theft.

    And by the way, just because a playwright is dead doesn’t make it okay either. What a weird stance. “Oh, this playwright died, now I can do whatever I want with his work! Yay!” What? What a disgusting and macabre notion.

    Shakespeare may or may not have approved of his star-crossed lovers living on the moon, or being of the same gender, but just because the man is dead doesn’t mean we should assume the reply to be whatever benefits our selfish artistic pursuits. Poor guy has been dead for hundreds of years and can’t defend himself so we, as an entire community, have deemed it okay to rape his lifelong work? What a sad and sorry state we find ourselves in. Ever hear of something called respect or integrity? And ya’ll call yourselves artists?

    Reply
    1. Alexander

      So notwithstanding the puerile & empty insults you’ve decided to toss my way (though, maybe skill-less, talent-less, impatient [incapable as I am of writing my own "damn play"] me is just being sensitive) I have to congratulate you on your consistency, Ruben. You’re right: this is a zero-sum game.

      Which is why your position is so self-evidently ridiculous. Please, can you share with us how exactly you purport to know what Shakespeare intended? Do you commune with the dead? If so, could you ask him how well the existing texts (which were not written by Shakespeare but by a team of editors) hold up to his originals?

      (Seriously, Ruben, are you really suggesting that all productions of Shakespeare plays should be done in out-door venues with all-male casts, no set, few costumes, using rhetorical gesture as a primary mode of expression? Should Oedipus Rex or Antigone only be performed in Greek-styled auditoria, with actors wearing elaborate masks and cothumi? I mean, have you thought this through at all?)

      You & I appear to have different understandings of the word “collaborative.” In your dictionary, it seems to mean “subservient to the desires of the playwright,” which is the virtual opposite of what it says in mine. All you have to do is pursue your reasoning to its logical conclusion to yield the idea that the job of the actors, director, & designers is just to do what the playwright wants them to do. Maybe in some version of the universe the counts as collaboration, but not in mine.

      Besides, such an exercise would be doomed from the beginning, for reasons Prof. Holger Syme writes about here: http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1829.

      For someone who is so eager to deride & insult other artists, Ruben, your artistic worldview seems so deeply conservative & safe & shy as to be reminiscent of what Peter Brook called “Deadly Theatre.” How anyone so terrified of breaking a few rules, or doing something interesting or innovative with a play, or you know, doing the work the rest of us just call “being creative” can affect the tone disgust & indignation you’ve chosen to is well & truly beyond me.

      I find it hard to believe the work you do is really as eye-gougingly boring as what you advocate for, but as you’ve pointed out, maybe I’m just too “incapable” & “selfish.”

      Reply
      1. Ruben Carrazana

        Hm… you have an interesting way of reading what you want to read, instead of what is actually written.

        I clearly said that Shakespeare “may or may not” agree with the liberties that are oftentimes taken with his work. At no point did I claim to “commune with the dead”, as you put it. For someone who was so quick to throw accusations at Howard Sherman for his supposed use of “straw men”, you yourself proved to be quite skillful at attacking a point that I never actually made. In fact, I tried to make it very clear that “we” (meaning you, me, and everyone else) should not assume to know what Shakespeare intended were he alive today. How you managed to miss that point, the actual point that was made, is beyond me.

        Again, at no point did I suggest that all of Shakespeare’s works should be produced as if we lived in Elizabethan England. I don’t know where you pulled that from. I specifically said that we should not take the death of a playwright as an opportunity to do as we wish with his work. I realize that it might be easier for you to argue against views that were never actually stated instead of addressing the ones that actually were, but please don’t refer to me as if any of what you were saying had anything to do with what I said. My point: If you wanna tell a story of star-crossed lovers on the moon, go for it. But don’t call it Shakespeare, and don’t use words that you didn’t write.

        Now, when it comes to collaboration. Why are you so eager to use another playwright’s work? Really. If you want to use other people’s words so badly, why can’t you at least do them the decency of presenting the words as the writer suggests they should be presented?

        I see that you call yourself a writer. Hm. I question whether you have any earthly idea what it means to write a performance text. Are words, stage directions, and lines of dialogue arbitrary to you? Or do you put any actual thought into what words you choose to use, and how you choose to use them? I ask this because you seem to be suggesting that plays can, and maybe even should, be manipulated in whatever way the director feels best serves his needs and desires.

        Why must you use another person’s words? I really don’t get it. It’s a childish thing. To want to take somebody else’s work, that THEY worked hard on, that THEY put lots of time and energy and effort on, and then just… alter it? Change it? That’s not called being “creative”, and it certainly isn’t “collaboration” because the playwright sure as hell didn’t write those words for you to do with them as you will, otherwise we wouldn’t have productions being shut down for exactly that reason.

        You seem to have no respect for writers and their craft. And you certainly don’t seem to understand what the job of a director is. Many directors are quick to litter productions of existing plays with their own little takes and interpretations. They do this, I guess, out of fear that they, specifically, won’t be recognized for their work. Or maybe they’re afraid of being called out in the rehearsal room, or in reviews, for “not directing”? Maybe they feel that if they don’t add stuff, and change stuff, and cut stuff that they aren’t actually “directing”? I don’t know. (I think your friend Mr. Peter Brook says something about this in his little book if you bothered to read past the first chapter. Congratulations, by the way, on remembering something from that Intro to Theatre course you took in college.) What I DO know is that these directors usually have good intentions, but unbeknownst to them, they make it near impossible for the actual play to happen. Instead, they end up doing everything in their power to distract the audience from what they’ve actually come to see.

        I came to watch William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but instead I have been subjected to choreographed circus acts, pop culture references, and a Puck who raps all of his lines. Hm. Interesting, I guess. Maybe it’s even well done, and maybe I even enjoy myself a little bit. But Shakespeare this is not. I’m no fan of the Bard, so usually all this other non-Shakespeare stuff is a welcome distraction, but it is just that. A distraction.

        Do the play that you set out to do. I wish directing were as easy as getting a text and altering it so that that it is more manageable for me. However, that, my dear friend, is cheating. Grow some balls and try to actually do the play. I know it’s hard, and I know it might actually take some work, and I know it means giving up your own selfish wants, but that’s the beauty of it. That’s what makes it art. If you’re not prepared to do that, you’re not prepared to be a director, and you’re certainly not prepared to be given the PRIVILEGE to work with someone else’s words. (In case you missed it, notice how I used the word “privilege” and not the word “right”, because, contrary to whatever you might believe, you have NO right to another artist’s work.)

        If a playwright does not want his work altered, do no alter it. They are not an artist who wants to “collaborate” in that way. Don’t alter it anyway without their consent, like a spoiled brat whose parents won’t let him into the cookie jar so he sneaks around behind their back in the middle of the night and shoves his greedy hands in there anyway. Work with a playwright who IS willing to discuss possible alterations. There are plenty of them. Or, like I said before, write your own damn play. You are not entitled to do as you wish with other people’s work. I really have no idea where you got that impression.

        And I guess I apologize for the “insults”. I would just like to clarify, however, that I was not just referring to you when I suggested that “you don’t have the resources, skill, talent, time, patience” to write an original play, I was referring to everyone who agrees with you that a playwright’s work should be altered at the director’s will. Glad I could clear that up.

        Reply
        1. Alexander

          Ruben,

          I’ve been mulling over your last comment for the past few days, but its internal incoherence has made it difficult for me to formulate a response; I’m no longer exactly sure what it is you’re arguing. I’m therefore reduced to dealing with your response on a point-by-point basis.

          What you call a “straw-man” is fairly basic modus ponens. Since this was obviously less than clear to you, I’ll spell it out: if you start with premise A, that (quoting you): “[J]ust because a playwright is dead doesn’t make it [i.e., radical interpretation or alteration of the text] okay…”, & then go on to say B, that the hypothetical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “isn’t Shakespeare,” it follows, then, that C: you have access to knowledge of what is or is not “Shakespeare,” & that you know what Shakespeare would have wanted.

          Yes, you did say “[we] should not assume to know what Shakespeare intended were he alive today.” But you also said, in the same post, that the aforementioned hypothetical Midsummer “isn’t Shakespeare.” So since you wouldn’t dare to assume what Shakespeare intended (or – gasp! – be contradicting yourself), presumably you commune with the dead, or at least have access to some source of knowledge the rest us of lack. So I’ll ask again: how do you propose to distinguish between “Shakespeare” & “not”? What are your criteria? From where do you arrogate authority to make such a distinction? Surely electric lights & air-conditioning have at least as much influence on an audience’s experience of a play as an actor rapping his lines? Given that neither existed when Shakespeare was alive, why should one be okay in your view & not the other?

          & just to be clear, it’s okay to do that production of Midsummer, provided you “don’t call it Shakespeare”? Isn’t that just a totally semantic point? It’s okay to “vandalize,” “thie[ve],” & “rape” (your words) another’s text, just so long as you don’t put their name to it? Really? The moral issues extend only in so far as whose name is on the poster? I find this weird, & as I said, semantic, but if that’s what you believe, fair enough.

          Not to belabor the Shakespeare point, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Shakespeare himself committed precisely the “rape” you have harangued me for, liberally stealing from the anonymous 1594 King Leir when composing his “own damn play.” Whole lines in Antony and Cleopatra are stolen basically verbatim from Plutarch. Or is it okay to steal in this way, provided you “don’t call it [Plutarch],” to borrow your line?

          I do write plays, not that it’s relevant, & of course I know that writers (at least good ones) are extremely precise & careful about what words they use, & how scenes are constructed. I am also a director & a performer, so I also know that how a creative team chooses to excise or alter or interpret those words, or fragment those structures, is equally precise, careful, & well thought-out. Why should the creative team adapt to the playwright, & not vice-versa? The only way such a lop-sided power arrangement can be justified is if you believe that the playwright is the most important member of the creative team & that the rest just exist to fulfill her desires. Do you believe this? If so, can you justify it? Other members of the creative team are forced to change their vision all the time, to better suit the production; could you imagine if an actor refused to change his performance, even if it was sabotaging his fellow actors & the production, just because the actor put “lots of time and energy and effort” into it?

          Your whole bit of free-association about directors is not at all relevant to the discussion at hand, so I won’t address it, except to say that if you concede the fact that it’s possible (maybe even common) for a director to ignore the playwright’s intentions without altering the text, it seems wholly arbitrary for you to draw the line at textual changes.

          & since you seem to know enough about Peter Brook to sneer at me just for quoting him, I’ll quote him again, this time from There Are No Secrets: “It’s pointless to perform the play as Shakespeare wrote it.”

          The rest of your comment isn’t really an argument; you assert what needs to be demonstrated, & no amount of charming bathos (“grow some balls”) will cure that. The adduction of “selfishness,” which you did in your last post, is irrelevant – why should motives matter more than outcomes? If selfishness means Brook’s Midsummer, the Woosters’ Vieux Carre, & McKee’s Lear, or Studio BLR’s A Streetcar Named Desire, then selfishness is an emblem to which I’ll gladly commit myself. I’ll also commit myself to their defense – unlike you, I don’t believe these people lack “balls,” or are afraid of doing “work.” I certainly think they are more than deserving of the “privilege” of reinvigorating a playwright’s work.

          #teamvandalism

          Reply
  4. Sylvia Fisher

    Wait until the playwright is dead and the copyright expires, then, do what you will. Until then, though, have the manners to ask for permission. Mr. Friel is still alive and is owed that courtesy.

    Reply
    1. Alexander

      So just to be clear, Sylvia, you have no moral objection to taking creative liberties with a playwright’s text, just a moral objection to offending copyright law?

      Reply
  5. Ian Thal

    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 [...] Galati’s proposed changes constitute a radical or creative approach to the text only in the most deeply conservative & limited sense

    Based on the caveat that your provided, you are not qualified to determine how just how radical Galati’s proposed changes were.

    As to your main argument that Asolo Rep’s contractual (and thus, moral) obligation to honor the agreement made with Friel and his representatives stifles innovation in the arts is also specious on several levels.

    1.) According to reports, there is no evidence that any effort was made in advance to find out if Friel would be agreeable to any changes. That the Asolo used the example of a completely different playwright who was post-facto agreeable to changes made to a completely different play– with the aside that it would have been inconvenient to ask for permission, is not an argument.

    2.) As “interesting” as it might be to cut characters, change their genders, sexual orientation, or ethnicity– sometimes the spoken dialogue or narrative structure of the play does not jibe well with such re-imaginings, making whole scenes nonsensical, not just to the author, but to the actors, and more analytical audience members.

    It really takes a first-rate director to pull it off and as a life-long theater goer (as well as a theater artist) I know that very few of the directors who think they are good enough to so radically reimagine a classic actually are.

    3.) Without knowing Friel’s play, one cannot assume that he is merely being “precious” about his words. He is one of his country’s most acclaimed literary figures, and so there is good reason to have confidence that his narrative choices were deliberate. The poster in the lobby would still read “a play by Brian Friel” and if Galati’s proposed changes turned out to be misguided, an audience encountering Friel for the first time, would be more inclined to blame the playwright and not the director.

    (I can only hazard to guess what would happen if the Asolo decided it would be “creative” to take a play familiar to Americans like “Angels in America” and cut out the references to gays, or angels, or McArthyism, or the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the failings of the Soviet system– it would destroy the coherency of the play, and would be damaging to the reputation of Tony Kushner in the eyes of the Asolo’s audiences — assuming the Asolo’s audience cares about the art form.)

    4.) The Asolo has several options, including: commissioning a new play with similar themes but structurally more to their liking; combing through their slush pile and picking a play out of obscurity; or even even picking a playwright like Charles Mee, who is agreeable to radical reinterpretations of his work.

    Furthermore, there is a whole tradition of appropriation art (of which Mee is a major exponent within the theater world) in which preexisting works are radically transformed into completely new works– thus constituting “fair-use” under any existing copyright law– but clearly, the folk at Asolo aren’t talented enough to do that, otherwise they would.

    Reply
    1. Alexander

      Hi Ian,

      In order:

      1) I acknowledged all of this, & specifically argued that it was, if not exactly irrelevant, at least beside the point. In fact, the whole crux of my position was that Friel should have been amenable to changes as a matter of course, & even if he wasn’t, it shouldn’t really matter. That, I think, was made explicit in the title of my post, no?

      2) Why does it matter if such changes don’t “jibe” with the text? Isn’t the point of experimentation in theatre to find new ways to make text work, in ways that are unpredictable? Is there something wrong with “nonsensical” theatre? I think Alfred Jarry, Tristan Tzara, Robert Wilson, Peter Brook, & Elizabeth LeCompte might take issue with such a contention, just to name a few. Moreover, who’s to decide what a “first-rate director” is? You? You’re perfectly entitled to dislike particular productions, but here you’re trying to make a case for an over-arching aesthetic code-of-conduct that precludes a creative team from making alterations to a text. To justify that, it seems to me you need to make a better case than just “there are a lot of bad directors.” Frankly, there are a lot of really, really bad directors who make really bad, nonsensical productions of plays where the text isn’t altered, so frankly your probity here is wangled up ex nihilo.

      3) The very fact that he is one of “the most acclaimed literary figures” is exactly why an audience wouldn’t blame the playwright for a misguided production. In my article, I link to several productions of plays by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, & Shaw – all of which are, as far as I know, still in copyright. Are you seriously going to tell me that audiences are so stupid that they don’t know, for instance, that the original text of Death of a Salesman didn’t include references to technology that wasn’t even invented when it was written? Come on.

      4) The “options” you list are actually just one option: Don’t mess with Friel’s perfect little play. This is not an arguement for your position, merely a reconfiguration of it.

      5) Maybe the whole point isn’t to transform the play into something entirely different; maybe there is artistic value in exploring the tension between old & new?

      Reply

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