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.)