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November 09, 2005

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A.C. Douglas

My answer to this can be read at the following URL:

http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2005/11/answer_to_a_the.html

And BTW, Isaac, your call for commenters here "not to make fun of AC Douglas" was quite unnecessary, totally uncalled for, and thoroughly insulting. I'm hardly in need of protection from any quarter, and welcome any attempts to make fun of what I write here. Such attempts will only provide me greater opportunity to make my points.

ACD

Scott Walters

I am very puzzled by ACD's response to my comment in "Round 1" about the fact that Shakespeare wouldn't have staged "Hamlet" in period garb, but rather Elizabethan. ACD responded: "And this is the 21st century, and, when the text clearly suggests an historical context, be it past, present, or future, that's the context one uses..."

But in the discussion on my blog from which this thought experiment springs, ACD says the playwright, like the composer, "writes it complete as he hears it in his inner ear and sees it with his inner eye, and what he hopes for most fervently, even most desperately -- as does every playwright worth his salt -- is that those others will serve his work in the most faithful manner possible, and that thereby what he wrote will be presented to an audience in as distortion-free a manner as possible so that his essential vision (or idea(s), or fill-in-your-own-term) embodied in that work -- his vision -- is what emerges in performance." He concludes, with definiteness, "Thus has it always and universally been, and thus it will always be."

According to this universal statement, it sounds to me that the playwright's "vision" is, according to ACD, the touchstone for interpretation. But in his post on his blog, he seems to contradict himself: "it makes not a whit of difference how Shakespeare's actors were costumed. His theater, like all theater, followed the theatrical conventions of the time. Valid then. Not valid today." In fact, he goes on, "it really makes no difference at all which in-the-past period he chooses so long as it commits no serious anachronisms vis-à-vis the text," which is an odd caveat, given the sheer number of anachronism's in Shakespeare's own text. But OK.

ACD goes on: "Were I directing this play, however, I would not choose to stage it using period-specific sets, and in period-specific costume. Rather, I would choose to stage it period-neutral (i.e., as few physical clues as possible as to specific period), and with as bare a stage as the action would permit consistent with an effective and dramatically coherent realization. I loathe stage trappings and busy-ness, most especially when the text itself is as evocative and rich as is the text of Hamlet. Staging Hamlet bare stage and period-neutral produces, I think, the most transparent translation possible (i.e., transparent vis-à-vis the realization of the essential dramatic core or vision embodied in the text), and transparency in a director's finished work is, as I've already remarked (here), the directorial ne plus ultra."

At this point, I am baffled. The message seems to be that it is OK for ACD to follow his own personal preferences as far as production is concerned ("I loathe stage trappings and busy-ness"), but NOT OK for other directors to do similar things. I'm not certain what line is being drawn here.

While I didn't agree with ACD's earlier position -- that the director should follow the playwright's original vision as closely as possible -- at least it was consistent. But the idea that the approach to a play SHOULD take into consideration contemporary conventions seems to me to open the door to all of the other "abuses" that ACD condemns.

Perhaps what we are arguing about is the DEGREE to which a director takes liberties with a playtext -- that MODERATE alterations are fine, but RADICAL alterations are not. To which I say Amen.

Or perhaps we are dealing with the concept of an "essence" of a play, the distilled central idea that must not be tampered with. Again, I say Amen. (Except that most "concept directors" would probably assert that they are communicating the essence of the play in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience...)

But we have wandered a long way from the idea of the text as the master and the director as the servant. So I don't know what to make of this.

Will

Whatever Hamlet's wearing, plus a feather boa.

Scott Walters

Something just occurred to me... A former professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, H. Wesley Balk, was an opera and a theatre director. He wrote a book called "Performing Power," which was based on the idea that there are three primary ways we receive and communicate information -- hearing mode (primary communication: sound), seeing mode (primary communication: face), and kinesthetic mode (primary communication: body). As an opera director, he noted that there was a very strong split in his audience between the hearing mode people, who wanted to focus as much as possible on the music without too much distraction from visual and kinesthetic elements; and the seeing mode people, who disliked it when the singers planted themselves and simply sang. The different modes had different preferences in the arts: hearing mode preferred music, seeing mode preferred theatre, and kinesthetic mode preferred dance.

It occurs to me that ACD is a hearing mode person who resents all the visual and kinesthetic bells and whistles that are rooted in the theatrical tradition, whereas I am a seeing mode person who focuses on more visual elements. ACD's call for a "transparent" production that doesn't get in the way of hearing the essence of the play (see his description of his production of "Hamlet") fits this perfectly.

I could be wrong, but this may be the root of this continuing exchange. When theatre directors like Peter Sellars and Georgia Strehler and Peter Hall began to direct regularly in opera, traditional hearing-mode opera fans were outraged by all the visual distractions they brought work, elements that seemed to undermine the score.

A.C. Douglas

Scott Walters wrote: "But we have wandered a long way from the idea of the text as the master and the director as the servant. So I don't know what to make of this."
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The closing graf of my answer (linked above) should have made it perfectly clear to you. Far from "hav[ing] wandered a long way from the idea of the text as the master and the director as the servant," the overarching directorial principle which I've called the theater director's Categorical Imperative establishes the idea absolutely. To repeat it here, that Categorical Imperative states: Thou mayest do any bloody thing thou wilt in order to realize a dramatically and aesthetically effective translation of the text to its concrete physical realization on the stage so long as what thou doest is consonant with the text at every point, and contradicts or diverges from it at none.

The text rules.

ACD

A.C. Douglas

"I could be wrong, but this may be the root of this continuing exchange. When theatre directors like Peter Sellars and Georgia Strehler and Peter Hall began to direct regularly in opera, traditional hearing-mode opera fans [which Mr. Walters imagines ACD is] were outraged by all the visual distractions they brought work, elements that seemed to undermine the score."
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In opera production (or, rather, those operas I consider worth concerning myself with) the problem is quite different from what it is with a stage play as with all genuine opera -- i.e., opera as _dramma per musica_ -- the core of the drama is contained in the music itself, not the libretto which is merely the armature about which the drama is constructed. Please see my post at the following URL for my detailed thinking on this as it concerns the most difficult staging challenge in all of opera:

http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2005/04/staging_ithe_ri.html

ACD

Scott Walters

ACD writes: "The closing graf of my answer (linked above) should have made it perfectly clear to you. Far from "hav[ing] wandered a long way from the idea of the text as the master and the director as the servant," the overarching directorial principle which I've called the theater director's Categorical Imperative establishes the idea absolutely. To repeat it here, that Categorical Imperative states: Thou mayest do any bloody thing thou wilt in order to realize a dramatically and aesthetically effective translation of the text to its concrete physical realization on the stage so long as what thou doest is consonant with the text at every point, and contradicts or diverges from it at none.

The text rules."

Hmmmm. We may have reached a point of agreement! I can hardly believe it!

John Branch

I think Isaac asked a perfect question to support what I take to be his point, that the text is not the play. However, the situation appears to be somewhat different in those numerous dramas that spring from our modern awareness of history. One example would be to ask how, on the basis of the text, one would choose a costume for the pope in that scene in Brecht's Galileo in which he's outfitted in his full popely attire. I don't have the text in front of me, but what I'm getting at is that in this case the text is talking about a specific person in a specific time and place. Even if we can locate images of that pope, though, we're still not bound to duplicate the costume we find there.

Maybe we can put the whole issue in terms of two questions. One, what idea does the text give us about a particular time, place, and person? Two, what's our response to that? The text only exists on a page, or in our mind's eye as we read it. What goes on the stage is our response to it.

This might be obvious enough to those who agree with it that it doesn't bear repeating. But I'm fond of trying to put things into words with some degree of precision.

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