Sunday, November 06, 2005

A C Douglas responds:
"I think you need to reread what I wrote instead of responding in knee-jerk fashion as you've done here. Note, please, that nowhere did I used the words interpreter or interpretation, and my focus on the director as servant was as faithful translator (i.e., faithful to the text and the vision of the play's creator), not mindless, uncreative toady. But the director's creative contribution to the work should be to "faithfully and as free from distortion as possible translate the creator's work from its form on the printed page into its truest, most effective concrete physical form so that the work becomes apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its creator envisioned it, which vision is embodied fully in the text or score itself."

I am puzzled about how I have misinterpreted Mr Douglas.But first, the catalyst for Douglas' screed, which are the following words from Isaac's post on the role of the director. Isaac writes:

We make a big mistake in theater by confusing The Script with The Play. The Script is the foundation, or the stem cell. Or, as Simon Callow writes about it, like a piece of music score where you only have some of the notes and you're not sure what key its in. It's just words. It's not the finished thing. We have this ridiculous idea of "Serving the Text." Bullshit! The Text serves the Play!

Now, to me, this seems pretty innocuous statement, almost a truism: the script is not the play, and I doubt that you could find a playwright (or a composer, for that matter) who would claim that it is. It is the raw material for a play, but raw material that is very much incomplete -- much more incomplete than a musical score or an archtect's blueprint, for instance. As I said in a previous past, there is a tremendous number of decisions -- decisions that affect the way the story is perceived by the audience -- that must be made by the director.

However, Mr Douglas uses Isaac's fairly neutral words to attack "grotesque directorial outrages" that he labels "eurotrash," Douglas writes: "And behind such Eurotrash outrages are opera directors who view matters much as does Isaac as reflected in his above quoted remarks; directors who imagine the composer's score is "just words" and notes, and merely "the foundation ... the stem cell" on or from which the director can shape his own "vision." That sort of self-serving, self-important view of things is quite beyond the merely insufferable, and ought not to be tolerated, much less countenanced or, worse, encouraged."

Now, first, Isaac doesn't say anything about using the play to express a directorial vision. Rather, he says the script is not the production. A production is made up of a great number of elements: acting, sets, costumes, sound, lights -- the text may be the founder of the feast, but the minute it enters the production process it becomes one among many.

Douglas goes on: "As a first principle they should be reminded that the playwright or the opera composer is the sole creator of his work, and that the playwright's text is the play, just as the opera composer's score is the opera. Any text or score that isn't, isn't worth the paper it's printed on."

It is very true that the playwright and the composer is the sole creator of his work. But his work is the script or the score, not the performance. If the play or the score were the performance, then we would have no need for all these other collaborators to bring it to life, and theatre and opera would be a helluva lot less expensive. But if we accept Mr Douglas' idea, then it follows, doesn't it, that as long as a singer sang the notes accurately, the composer's work would be served. In fact, he says a similar thing a bit later: "In short, a director is doing what he ought to be doing only when he and his work are perfectly transparent middlemen." But surely he can't mean that, or else why would great opera singers be in such short supply, and so fiercely fought for? Clearly, they add something to the notes written by the composer -- something the composer couldn't put on the page, but that comes from the performer's soul, talent, and heart. They are not "transparent middlemen," because such a thing is impossible -- and actually, undesirable. Why? Today's computer technology allows us to enter a composer's work into a computer program, which will then convert it into sound. But the result is sterile, uninflected, uninspired -- in short, dead.

He goes on: "Second, they should be reminded that the creators of plays and operas neither need nor require partners or collaborators once the work is finished." This is a statement that I find completely baffling. I guess the "work" to which Mr Douglas refers is the script or the score, and if I am right about that, then what he says is unarguable. But as Isaac says, the script is not the play (or, perhaps as a way of eliminating confusion: the script is not the production). And the playwright and composer clearly does need partners to convert the script or the score into a performance.

In his comment above, he seems to be referring to the following lines in his self-defense: "What the creators of plays and operas need and require are gifted servants of which the director is one; servants who will faithfully and as free from distortion as possible translate the creator's work from its form on the printed page into its truest, most effective concrete physical form so that the work becomes apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its creator envisioned it, which vision is embodied fully in the text or score itself." I have already addressed the impossibility of being a "servant" to a master that is incapable of giving thorough orders, so I won't review that. But what Mr Douglas seems to be referring to is what has long been referred to as the Intentional Fallacy: the error of assuming that what a text means is what the author says it means, and the even greater problem of knowing what a dead author thought something meant. What did Shakespeare "mean" by Hamlet? What did Sophocles "mean" by Oedipus Rex? And perhaps as importantly, is what it mean to them more important than what it means to us today? Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in reference to a very specific war -- must it continue to do so, or can it now refer to any war since then? I think Mr Douglas thinks we know more from a text or a score than is actually available, and he apparently believes that the way something was originally meant to be heard (say, played by ancient instruments rather than contemporary ones) is how it should remain. This is museum theatre and museum opera -- artifacts, not living experiences.

This has nothing to do with postmodernism, by the way. Wimsatt and Beardsley proposed the Intentional Fallacy over half a century ago; Vsevelod Meyerhold was reinterpreting texts in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and Nahum Tate was rewriting King Lear with a happy ending in the 18th century.

This issue is complex and many-sided. I, too, don't like director's who seem to disrespect the play they have chosen to bring to life. But I don't think "transparency" is possible.


A.C. Douglas said...

Please read my response to George Hunka's remarks in the comments section of your previous post on this matter. That should make more clear to you my position in this business. And just to make very clear my position on the text, you, and Mr. Butler, and Mr. Hunka take it as inarguable that the text is not the play. I, on the other hand, insist that the text IS the play -- if it's worth something, that is. That's the core of our disagreements on everything in this business, and I now see (well, actually I saw it before) we'll simply have to agree to disagree on this core principle.


Freeman said...

I'd like to add to all this, if I may, that it honestly depends on the writer. Beckett, for example, wrote the plays in their very finest and purest form and moving text around or changing blocking or re-invention (using a video instead of a reel-to-reel in Krapp's Last Tape) changes the play into something else.

BUT, Pinter assumes the actors and the director. The language is there to be turned into something else and used as it is.

And when I hear about First Folio Shakespeare purists, who claim that the stage directions can be found in the thous and yous, and that you can tell how loud to speak by the number of iams, I get a headache. His plays, often, contain bits of script or business that truly do require us to look at them from our own perspective. In Shakespeare's case, often the director MUST act as interpreter and creative force.

So it honestly depends on the writer and what he is leaving open to the director. Not all plays (or texts, if you will) are the same and should be approached in one way.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've refrained from commenting on this whole thing, because I wanted to finish the series I was writing for the site first, and because I find that arguing with ACD is an exercise in futility.

But let me make this clear: in my post, I give an extremely specific example of what I mean by not serving the text, but instead serving the greater whole (not following an author's stage directions when they won't work in the space and with the actors you have) that ACD has left out of both times he quoted my post.

I think this is because it doesn't fit within the framework of the accusation that is being levelled against me. I wasn't talking about taking "In Public", a play that is set in the troubles marriages of UWS of Manhattan amongst intellectuals, and resetting it on a slave ship in the Middle Passage becuase I think marriage is slavery, or some bullshit like that. I was talking about very specifically finding the best way to bring The Play to life.

Everything serves The Play, including me as a director. What ACD is accusing me of advocating is that scripts serve a director's vision. I don't believe in scripts serving directorial visions unless the director has specifically hired and paid a writer to write something according to the director's specifications. Or rather, I don't beleive in scripts serving my vision unless I've comissioned them from an idea I had. There are other directors who work differently, and theater is a big umbrella and can encompass a lot of different approaches. It's just not mine, ACD, not matter what you want to accuse me of.

It's difficult to describe for the civilian what is meant by The Play, and I think this gets to the heart of the misunderstand via which ACD uses my writing to attack directors in a completely different art (opera) for doing something I'm not advocating for (but, I'll admit, don't have as big a problem with).

That's because The Play is this thing we all come together to create... but it doesn't exist except to the extent we make it exist. The Script exists.. its words on a piece of paper, it's a noun already completed, an object. The Play only exists when we will it to be, and we all come together to make that thing. Writers who believe The Play serves The Script tend to write crap plays. Great works of literature sometimes, but crap plays. If we all work together to create great living art, something amazing can happen. But it can't happen if we're all deferring to one part of the collaborative team, whether that's me as a director or someone as a writer. It can only happen if everyone is deferring to, well, the greater good. The director's job is to be a leader towards that greater good. It's very hard to do, and it's very hard to really try to create The Play and not force all elements to serve "your vision". I'll admit that, but it is (at least my) goal.

I wouldn't ever put something in a play that the writer told me not to do. Period. I might argue with them about it, and certainly I'd demand that we get a chance to try it in the rehearsal hall and, I suppose, if I felt really strongly about it, in a preview. But if ultimately the writer said "look, that doesn't work, that's counter to the play" I'd cut it. This happened all over the place with Volume of Smoke (a play, by the way, with no stage directions, thus forcing you to do more than "translate" it).

What I think is ultimately ridiculous about this is that we're spending a great amount of time as theater professionals arguing with someone who doesn't even like theater very much. I don't like to be dismissive of people's arguments, but I don't really accept that anyone who has regularly been through the process of putting on a play (or seen others regularly do it) could believe what Douglas beleives. Perhaps, ACD, if you'd like, you could come see some of my work. I'll send you a script before hand, and you can see what we've done, together. You might not find it so abhorrent.

A.C. Douglas said...

Just to clear up a few things...

First, it wasn't my intention to "[e] [your] writing to attack directors in a completely different art (opera)." I brought up the Eurotrash example, and included it in my argument for the sole purpose of justifying my entering an argument concerning an art form (theater) in which I've only a marginal interest, and because what you wrote (the one portion I quoted) underlies the egregious directorial outrages practiced by the avant-garde directors responsible for Eurotrash.

Second, what I was accusing you of was NOT "... advocating ... that scripts serve a director's vision," but for advocating the notion that the text (or script, to use your word) is "merely words" which is nothing more than "...the foundation, or the stem cell [of The Play]," and is " a piece of [a] music score where you only have some of the notes and you're not sure what key its in," and that The Play is something which is created from that stem cell. As I've already said, that notion is appallingly wrongheaded. Mr. Walters excoriates me (in a separate post) for not backing up with coherent and detailed argument my contention that the text IS the play (lower case), and not merely something that's the stem cell, to use your term, from which The Play is made.

I know very well what you mean by The Play. One needn't be a genius to understand it. But apparently neither you nor Mr. Walters (nor, I'm guessing, Mr. Hunka) understands what I mean by saying the text IS the play (lower case). What I mean by that is simply that a well-made text, far from being "merely words" or a "stem cell," contains in words everything necessary from which to make The Play, and what's required of the director is that he translate what's there written into concrete physical form so that it can be apprehended by an audience. One needn't be a genius to understand that, either.

Finally, I don't go into detailed argument to back up my contention that the text IS the play (lower case) simply because even were I to back you both against the wall with that detailed argument, in the end what it would come down to is what you've both already declared in your own ways: viz., that I'm a "civilian," and couldn't possibly understand the intricate realities of the theater, and that it's futile and a waste of time for experienced professionals such as yourselves to argue with such know-nothing civilians such as I. As long as any of you are willing to use that particular weapon as a final argument against any argument I may offer (and you already have), my arguing in detail would be nothing but a waste of time on my part.


Anonymous said...

Hey AC, Scott Et Al

Over on Parabasis, I have proposed a thought experiment which might help all of us reach, if not a common ground, than at least an understanding of what the hell we're all talking about. I think that sometimes a specific example can help a lot. I call it "The Isaac Butler Challenge". Please go check it out and comment!


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