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Is There a Text On This Stage? Theatre / Authorship/ Interpretation Gerald Rabkin "The best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only text. I'm trying to find a way to write one." -Samuel Beckett "Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of construction . Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them." -Stanley Fish "Never trust the teller, trust the tale." -D. H. Lawrence The question of the relationship between the play and its theatrical interpretaion moved last year from theatres and the pages of books and critical journals into the realm of the news. The New York Times and the New York Law Journal asked respectively, "Who's to Say When a Playwright is Wronged?" and "Whose Play is it Anyway?" The occasions for these public questions were legal challenges by two esteemed contemporary playwrights-Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett-to unauthorized and/or allegedly distorted productions of their work: the Wooster Group's L.S.D. (... Just the High Points ...)-which incorporated long segments of The Crucible-and the American Repertory Theatre's version of Endgame. 142 The controversies never made it to court, where it would have been instructive to see the machinery of the Law grapple with the complex critical questions involved. For the question of the relationship between play and performance is at the center of contemporary theatre theory. Artaud's emancipation proclamation of the director from the presumed tyranny of the playwright-"No one has the right to call himself author, that is to say creator, except the person who controls the direct handling of the stage"-became one of the guiding principles of the advanced theatre of the sixties and early seventies. The written text as a sacred, inseminating source which commanded devout fidelity was overthrown in the name of a revolution of physical presence. The function of the playwright was spread among members of the ensemble or subsumed by the director-auteur. Or-as in the early work of Grotowski and Schechner-a classic orginary text became the unprivileged ground from which a radical performance text was created. This latter strategy has persisted, and indeed increased, as a dominant model in theatre experiment, since collective playwriting waned in face of the dissipation of the ideals of communality and the difficulties of the craft. Herbert Blau has noted that "the polymorphous thinking body which had for a while in the theatre displaced the text ... [came] to discover that along with the unreliable duration of group consciousness, it had a limited repertoire of ideas." Even the most committed director-auteurs readmitted playwrights other than themselves, particularly playwrights not around to dispute radical interpretations (Breuer's Tempest, Foreman's Don Juan). The current controversies center on the fact that, even if their plays have achieved , by the frequency of interpretation, "classic" status, the authors of The Crucible and Endgame are still around and possess legal rights over their literary property. The theoretical questions raised by Artaud's deprivileging of the playwright are still very alive in these controversies, for, though obviously crucial to the development of experimental theatre, the question of textual interpretation is fundamental to all theatre representation. Unfortunately -as much of the rhetoric in the recent controversies reveals-it is rarely discussed with critical rigor. What is the theatre text? Indeed, what is a text? How do we (theatre artists, critics, audience) read the meaning of the play and its performance interpretation? In the past generation there has been an explosion of theoretical concern with the literary aspects of these questions, precious little of which has found its way beyond the margins of theatre discourse. JUST THE HIGH POINTS The L.S.D. and Endgame controversies--which climaxed at the same time, November and December 1984-were legally dissimilar: The Wooster Group had never received the rights for The Crucible's incorporation in L.S.D. from Miller's agents; ART, however, had obtained the rights from Samuel French for a standard stock production, but were challenged by 143 Beckett's representatives for violating their contractual agreement to produce the play "without changes or alterations." The L.S.D. controversy was, then, at once simpler and more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 142-159
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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