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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 515-516
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Mis-Directing the Play:
An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre
Mis-Directing the Play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre. Terry McCabe. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001; pp. 130. $18.95 cloth.
A professional director for two decades, Terry McCabe teaches at Columbia College in Chicago, where his career has been based. In this book he contributes forcefully to a discussion that is central to the contemporary stage: the relationship of the director to the text, and by implication to the playwright. As the subtitle suggests, he positions himself in opposition to most of what he sees around him: "What I have seen is a theatre drifting toward decadence. I have no illusions that anything I say will reverse this drift, but I do hope my book can be useful to the discussion" (10).
As an interlocutor he is provocative, certain of the rectitude of his positions, and downright Manichean in his denunciation of the dark forces, the practitioners of "artistic quackery" (25). At times his work reads as if he meant it to be a straightforward guide to his charges, his students of directing, but was persuaded that its strengths lay in the cautionary tales he spins of direction gone astray: "It is arrogant directing . . . that is the subject of this book" (109). In 2001 the book provoked a flurry of outrage when an abbreviated version of one chapter appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education with the title "A Good Director Doesn't Need a Dramaturg."
And what is good directing? "The director's proper role is that of the interpretive artist who communicates, precisely and vividly, the vision of the theatre's only creative artist—the playwright—to the group of interpreters—the actors—who bear ultimate responsibility for communicating that vision to the audience" (108), McCabe says. The only auteur to be countenanced is the author of the text. McCabe is nothing if not apodictic. Hovering over his shoulder is Aristotle, who provided "[t]he most sensible guide to analyzing plays ever written . . ., a clear explanation of what plays do and how they do it" (41). McCabe's explication of this supposed model of clarity is, like many of his predecessors', more prescriptive than the original and tailored to suit his ideal theatre, virtually eliminating all that is inconvenient in favor of plot, character, and thought, which add up to action, which in his cosmology is all that matters: "a play consists of action, and of action only" (49).
McCabe champions the actors, as well as the playwright, against the arrogant director, without taking into account how treacherous his ally Aristotle is on that score. Live theatre, says the author, is an actor's medium, but Aristotle had little interest in live theatre, or in actors. They were, in his schema, part of the spectacle—opsis, the visible—and as such the least important part of his subject. McCabe adopts Aristotle's scornful tone, but selectively; there's bad spectacle, of course, but he asserts—without the master's support—that there is good spectacle. This comprises staging and design that never call attention to themselves and that derive either directly from the playwright's stage directions or from the director's humble, good-faith attempt to convey precisely what the playwright had in mind. Directors should never forget: "You are the deliveryman, and the play is the package" (38).
This sounds very clear-cut, but McCabe admits the existence of nuance. The package exists only in the playwright's mind, and honest attempts at delivering it will result in very different productions. At any rate, there's no controlling how individual audience members will receive it. The author's stage directions are "as much a part of the play as any of the lines" (57), but what McCabe calls for "has nothing to do with mindlessly following the printed stage directions" (62). After all, he says, some of these derive from the stage manager rather than the author, and it is an easy and necessary task to differentiate...