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Point-Counterpoint: The Playwright's Intent vs. the Director's Vision

Should the playwright have the final word on what makes it to the stage?

Critics Zachary Stewart and Hayley Levitt visit the Drama Book Shop in their latest debate.
(© Seth Walters)

The theater tends to be quite deferential to the wishes of the playwright. Legally speaking, the play belongs to the writer, giving her or him a huge say over not just the script, but the design and direction. Recent controversies have erupted around plays by Katori Hall and Edward Albee after directors attempted to cast actors whose race did not comply with the writers' original intent. Can we really call the theater a collaborative art form when one member of the creative team has so much power? Conversely, when does a director's interpretation of a play become an auteur's bastardization of someone else's work? Critics Hayley Levitt and Zachary Stewart debate the line between the playwright's intent and the director's vision in the following Point-Counterpoint, which took place at New York's Drama Book Shop:

Hayley and Zach browse the shelves at the Drama Book Shop.
(© Seth Walters)

Zachary Stewart: So Hayley, do you think it is ever justified for a director to work against the intentions of a playwright?

Hayley Levitt: Against? No. Reinterpretation is one thing, but I don't think anyone has the right to manhandle a piece beyond recognition. You have to listen and respond to what's already there, not just impose your own agenda while wearing the hat of an inspired "auteur."

Zach: I agree that it is the director's job to stage the truest version of the script, but I'm not certain that a playwright always knows exactly what that is. Anton Chekhov bitterly complained that Konstantin Stanislavski had "ruined" The Cherry Orchard by turning it into a tragedy, rather than Chekhov's intended comedy. I don't think that play would have such a strong foothold in the theatrical repertoire today had it been originally presented as a farce. Stanislavski's vision won out, and it has been to the benefit of the play.

Zach offers Hayley a book about Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski and his method of "active analysis," which encourages improvisation.
(© Seth Walters)

Hayley: I don't think a positive audience reaction justifies ignoring a writer's intentions, even if it does quiet the complaints. I would probably give Stanislavski a pass because what he did was bring out the inherent tragedy in Chekhov's words (whether he meant them to be tragic or not). It's when a director creates elements that don't already exist within a work that I have a problem. Take the 1995 production of Company at Seattle's Alice B. Theatre that got them a cease-and-desist order from Music Theatre International. They portrayed Bobby as bisexual and changed the genders of other characters to add more homosexual couples to the narrative. Sondheim himself responded to the actions of the Alice B. producers, saying they "distort[ed] what George and I wrote in order to point attention to themselves." When you force new content on an existing work — no matter how honorable that new content may be — you're serving yourself at the expense of the art.

Zach: The sad thing about that story is that if the director had contacted Sondheim about it directly, he probably would have been more open to at least having the conversation, as he has been with Marianne Elliott's production of Company in London, which imagines Bobby as a woman. Unlike a lot of very serious playwrights like Edward Albee and David Mamet, I've always found musical theater artists to be more fearless in their willingness to consider the possibility that their initial notions about their shows are not always the strongest ones. They treat the musical as a living organism, which it must be for truly live theater.

Hayley: Theater should change over time. Just look at all the crazy things we've done to Shakespeare over the past 400 years — some not so great but others that really brilliantly recontextualize his themes. Even so, it's a slippery slope (especially when the playwright in question isn't dead and can claim copyright infringement). The fact that theater is delivered to us in limited runs desensitizes us to the ways we manipulate it and makes us feel like those collaborative conversations you mentioned are an unnecessary courtesy because the changes will only appear for six to eight weeks. But it's the writer who ultimately owns the work.

Hayley returns the favor by introducing Zach to The Economist Guide to Intellectual Property.
(© Seth Walters)

Zach: You really won't get those collaborative conversations by reasserting the unquestioned primacy of the playwright, though. If anything, it does the opposite by giving the playwright the option to say, "Because I said so." This may be perfectly correct from an intellectual property standpoint, but do we really want a bunch of lawyers to be the arbiters of what artistic risks we can and cannot take? That sounds like a recipe for bad theater to me.

Hayley: But do we want to say that artists have no domain over their own work once it's sent out into the world? There are other ways to start a conversation with a piece of writing. Look at Suzan-Lori Parks's riffs on The Scarlet Letter with F**king A and In the Blood. Or Halley Feiffer's Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, her dark comedic spin on Chekhov's Three Sisters. You can create new pieces that respond to an earlier work. But to say that once your work is published, it's not yours anymore? That feels like giving birth to a baby and being denied visitation.

Zach: Yes, but eventually that baby grows up, and you don't want to be that helicopter parent setting up blind dates and negotiating leases for your 40-year-old "baby," do you? Shakespeare has birthed some of the greatest dramas of the English language, but you aren't likely to find a modern production that presents the fully published script, because Shakespeare is almost always produced with major cuts to the text. Also, some of the best productions I have seen reimagined his plays in time periods long after his death, a clear challenge to his original intent. Rather than ruining the plays or turning them into something else, these productions actually reassert the durability of Shakespeare's stories.

As Zach attempts to cut a line from Edward Albee's The Man Who Had Three Arms, Hayley valiantly throws herself in front of his red sharpie.
(© Seth Walters)

Hayley: For every great Shakespearean adaptation there are 100 deadly ones. And how do we praise the good ones? We say the new framework brings out Shakespeare's themes. Cosmetic changes are only celebrated if they bring us closer to the heart of the original work. I don't think a production of The Tempest framed around the dangers of global warming would earn much acclaim. It might be timely, but it's an interpretation that's just not on the table because you're not drawing it from the work — you're pulling it out of thin air.

Zach: That production of The Tempest sounds thrilling! Who says it shouldn't be on the table? Shakespeare is dead, but his plays are alive. As Roland Barthes observed, "A text's unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination."

Hayley: If you pick a destination without considering the origin, you're left scrambling to connect the dots in between.