So, at the end of our last installment, I was about to propound some deep thoughts on directorial interpretation.
I went on and on about Joanne Akalaitis’s version of “Endgame,” which deviated enough from Mr. Beckett’s intentions that he sought to stop it in the courts. Failing there, he had a note included in the program:
Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.
That would seem to have put an end to it. The production got what I take to have been mixed reviews, and even if Mr. Beckett wasn’t satisfied, everyone did make a case for their position.
Mr. Beckett died in 1989, but his estate has closely guarded productions of his work ever since – even ill-considered ones (some of which shall go unnamed, given my potential readership; discretion indeed being the better part of valor …). So it was a surprise to me to find that, in 2009, ART had once again attempted a production of “Endgame” – though by this time, neither Ms. Akalaitis nor Mr. Brustein were on the premises, and ART was committed to doing the play in exactly the way Mr. Beckett had intended. Director Marcus Stern explained, “We had to sign a contract with the estate that we’d stick absolutely to the letter of the script. We are literally coloring inside clearly drawn lines by Beckett.” Leaving that “literally” aside, this is a point I’ll return to in a minute.
According to the Boston Globe:
It’s not easy to pull off, says Stern, who at first thought the directions would be limiting. But instead he says he finds it deeply challenging and exhilarating.
“It’s very labor intensive and really exhausting,” he says. “The task is really hyper-focused, but it’s also very interesting getting the mechanics down. Normally it would be frustrating, but there is a great faith he’s such a great writer that it will pay off to strictly adhere to his description.”
I remember some actor – I think it was George C. Scott, so I’ll give him the credit – talking about how ridiculous it was to give awards in the arts. Not only is it impossible to compare performances in varied plays and movies (I mean, who gave a better performance? Kathy Bates in “’Night, Mother,” Groucho Marx in “A Night at the Opera,” or Robert Preston in “The Music Man?”) He felt the only real way to judge actors was to have everyone play Hamlet and then decide who was best. And even then, it would be purely subjective; there’s no empirical way to say that a performance is good, bad, or indifferent; it’s all up to the observer. We’ve all seen performances that others raved about and left us shrugging and saying “What the hell was that?”
So, to get back to Mr. Stern’s comment, we have to color inside the creator’s lines. Not only is it what’s required legally, it’s also the only basis by which we can determine how closely a production comes to the writer’s intentions. Yeah, you might think “South Pacific” would make more sense if it were set on Mars, or that “The Farnsworth Invention” (remember that one? From all those days ago?) would be better with a different ending, but it’s not your decision to make. It’d be like walking into someone’s house and saying “those walls would look better if they were bright green” and painting them on your own volition. You might be right, but it’s not up to you. You might think my new shirt would look better if the sleeves were cut off, but if you try to do it, I’m probably gonna get pissed off and punch you.
So what’s the solution? Well, three come immediately to mind, but we’ll discuss those next time. (I know, I know …)