Saturday, August 3, 2013

Theatre For Thought, August 3, 2013

joel fishbane

A recent article in The Guardian has been making the rounds online; it seems Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott removed his name from a production of his play Alienation. He also went so far as to put a note on every seat in the auditorium informing the audience that “this production does not reflect my original script or communication intentions of the playwright.” The article, by blogger Lynn Gardner, went on to discuss the thorny relationship between authors and producers and asked why “it seem[s] perfectly acceptable to change Shakespeare but not mess with Chekhov or cut lines Philpott?”

First, Ms. Gardner, let’s clear up a point. It is “perfectly acceptable” to change Chekhov, Shakespeare or Philpott so long as you advertise the fact: audience have a right to know they are watching an adaptation. What is not “perfectly acceptable” is attributing authorship when it is not deserved. Take Canadian Stage’s production of Macbeth currently playing in Toronto’s High Park. It’s a great and glorious production, but it is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There are textual edits and director Ker Wells interpolates a new ending that is different from anything Shakespeare envisioned. 

In the cinema, the screenwriter, while necessary, rarely achieves the same celebrity status as the director. 

CanStage isn’t exactly advertising this fact (reportedly, their Taming of the Shrew, running in repertoire, also has textual changes). But I can’t say I’m surprised. Quietly altering Shakespeare is a bad habit that producers, directors and actors aren’t particularly interested in changing. Changing Shakespeare is more or less the theatrical equivalent to smoking in the 1950s: it’s celebrated by the status quo and only a small percentage will tell you it’s bad for your health. 

As faithful readers of this column know, I’m part of that one percent. Treat me as the Surgeon General: the habit of quietly altering Shakespeare reveals poor ethics on the part of the artists involved. But here’s the thing about being this sort of Surgeon General. I’m not expecting to see my warnings become standard fare anytime soon. When it comes to the question of authorship, most people simply don’t care.

Aspects of this have been going on for years. As Lynn Gardner reports, Nahum Tate’s happy-ending version of King Lear dominated England from 1681 until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the cinema, the screenwriter, while necessary, rarely achieves the same celebrity status as the director. Today, playwrights are constantly being pushed out of the spotlight to give room to the director and the actors. Take the recent news that a new production of A Raisin in the Sun will star Denzel Washington; Lorraine Hansberry’s name rarely makes the headlines.

There’s a reason why playwrighting contracts contain a clause that stipulates the size of the author’s name on all advertising: we know that if we’re not careful, we’ll be left off the advertisements entirely. It may be that this is simply the nature of the beast; it may be that audiences are simply more interested in the interpretation than the story itself. But this leaves writers in a peculiar place. We will always want to send our stories into the world. But can we ever trust they’re going to get there in one piece?

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