Off Directing (Part I)

Cost-Cutting Tip for Theaters: Delete the Art That's Lost Its Meaning

Because the Voice is changing its format later this month, this will be one of the last few times I'll have the space to discuss several productions together. I'd like to use the occasion, this week and next, to broach an unpleasant topic that's been on my mind fairly often in the past few years: I'm afraid it's time for the theater to get rid of directing. Now don't panic. I said directing, not directors. I'm talking about a specific kind of directing, fairly common these days, that functions only as an interference to the work being performed. It's become a fashion in Europe, and in certain academic circles, where various theoretical excuses have been made up for it. And, as lovers of great theater music know to their dismay, it's widely prevalent in opera—so much so that directors coming onstage for their curtain call at premieres are shocked when they don't get booed. Between the Kirov Opera's visit to the Met and the New York Shakespeare Festival's Henry V, I sat through a good deal of it in the last few weeks, and I for one think we should call the game.

First, a little background. Though playwrights shaped the modern theater, its history is really the history of the director's emergence as a central figure in theater-making. Ibsen and Chekhov came into their own hand in hand, as it were, with the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and Stanislavsky. Before them, authors "produced" their own new plays; actor-managers or stage managers did the same for previously performed pieces, customarily following the traditional "business." Just as star actors had often exerted a shaping effect on scripts, as in the partnership of Garrick and Colman, directors soon moved into active collaboration with writers, sometimes visible, like Belasco's and George Abbott's co-author credits, and sometimes buried in the gossip of yesteryear, like Jed Harris's interference with the ending of The Heiress. The issue of authorship tended to become acrimonious only when commercial royalties were at stake.

Simultaneously, around a century ago, a generation of visionaries started looking for a new way to stage plays. Their interest was in reshaping the aesthetics of the stage, not the substance of a script. Gordon Craig wanted to reconceive the way Shakespeare and Ibsen were conveyed onstage, not their texts; Adolphe Appia was hunting a credible visual environment for Wagner. Meyerhold took up scripts by his Expressionist contemporaries and their forebears precisely because they offered him the physical and gestural opportunities he desired for the actor; Brecht's choices were predicated on merging the gestural method with an ideology.

Liev Schreiber in Henry V: Wing-Davey makes war on text.
photo: Michal Daniel
Liev Schreiber in Henry V: Wing-Davey makes war on text.

Details

Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
212-539-8750

Semyon Kotko
By Sergei Prokofiev
Kirov Opera/Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center (closed)

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
By Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Kirov Opera (closed)

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In the disillusionment following World War II, while Beats, Absurdists, and Existentialists competed to map negative space, directors in the commercial arena often struggled to turn that negativism into its opposite, as in Kazan's clashes with Tennessee Williams. European subsidized theaters took Brecht's cue to investigate, and often to subvert, the standard repertoire; on German stages, it wasn't startling, for instance, to see Henry V delivering the Agincourt speech not to his troops but while in bed with a French whore. Such "interpretations" were at least defensible on the ground that they added a layer of comment to a known text; the same could be said, and was, for directors who plumbed the Freudian deeps of a playwright's work, as in the William Ball production of Tiny Alice that so riled Edward Albee. At this time, too, actors and directors in search of an Artaudian textless or post-textual theater were evolving collective creations, with the writer along only as a contributor, a source of usable words rather than a shaper of dramatic substance. Often beautiful and empowering at the time, they had the problem (if you viewed it as one) of evanescence; little of them remains but memories.

Between visionary directors evolving their own work, and interpretive/subversive directors finding new ways to perceive familiar scripts, there should have been a sufficient gap for traditional playwriting to continue on its always-evolving path, and indeed it has. If anything, with the barriers of old-style "well-made" playwriting long since kicked down even in the commercial arena, playwriting has had a richer and more exciting time of it. If a lot of works that fail (or refuse) to give the standard dramatic satisfactions have emerged, so have a lot of works that supply them, and there is room for every taste; the theater is a panoply, not a monolith. The problem, aggravated by the general ideological letdown that followed the Soviet bloc's collapse, has been an unexpected synthesis: Under the black umbrella of postmodernism, visionary directing and the deflationary subversive kind formed an unholy merger, and the target of their takeover was the classic repertoire.

These days, when you see a new play, it will probably look at least somewhat like what the writer envisioned—though even that has become iffy. When you see a play or opera over a decade old, however, the chances are that you will not really "see" it, though in opera at least you have some chance of hearing it. What you will see, most likely, is a mass of drab directorial sludge, occasionally varied by stupid directorial indulgences. It will not convey the dramatic action; the art of representation has been largely eschewed. Beyond underscoring an occasional obvious irony, it will not interpret the substance of the work; that activity is left to you and the playwright. It will not create an environment specific to the work; in the kind of directing I mean, the environment is always a generic post-industrial wasteland, no matter when the work was written, when it takes place, or what happens in it. Occasionally when the people onstage are supposed to be happy, it will look like a shopping mall invaded by hippies in white robes, as in the Carthage of Francesca Zambello's ruination of Les Troyens at the Met. Otherwise, it will be gray, and its dimly lit vistas will be populated by unsmiling, aimlessly wandering people in equally gray or black clothes, as if every act of every opera were an especially noxious gallery opening in Soho. The people will often carry umbrellas, or wear sunglasses; they will mostly stand around in confusion, and are likely to crawl at some point. The one thing they will certainly not do is relate to each other as human beings in a dramatic confrontation.

There will be variations in the ugliness, according to the degree of distastefulness or pointless jocosity the director can scheme up and the producing organization tolerate. Robert Wilson thought it amusing to populate Strindberg's Dream Play with large papier-mâché cows, though none are mentioned in the text; Mark Wing-Davey thinks it amusing for the French commanders in Henry V to pose as a swim team whose bathrobes spell out "Vive la guerre!" But then, Wing-Davey is easily amused; he also thinks it cute for Shakespeare's characters to quote Mary Poppins and Fiddler on the Roof, producing jokes that are neither topical (the works in question being more antique to the young than Shakespeare is) nor relevant. (Didn't the last two world wars produce enough quotable songs?) This kind of cutesy-poo makes a production memorable, where the usual deconstructive reductiveness only makes it trite. But what it does more than anything else is reduce the theater to a matter of cocktail-party chitchat ("You remember, that was the one where the jury in the trial scene all wore Santa Claus costumes"), effectively removing it from the world of communication, where a work is played for the purpose of reaching its audience.

Postmodernism of course believes that there is no point in anyone reaching anybody; communication is always arbitrary and always misunderstood. So why not dramatize the fact? To which the reasonable answer is: Because it isn't interesting. The fact is known to everybody; we all struggle with it daily. When we leave our daily lives and become an audience, we want something else. We want at least to be reminded that the world is a wide and varied place, in which there are many possible ways for communication to fail. We may want to empathize with the people whose story is being acted out onstage, or to see them in a larger context that analyzes and critiques their motives—socioeconomically, politically, psychologically, what have you. What we don't want is to have it represented to us that everything is always the same, except when it is insanely peculiar, like the exactly identical red Carnival costumes, modeled on inquisitors' robes, that made the townspeople of Semyon Kotko look exactly like a convention of Communist Kleagles. Unhelpful enough with a known quantity like Henry V, the approach is fatal to curios like the two rarely seen items the Kirov brought over. But I'm in no position to speak of these works, since their directors have deprived me of the opportunity of seeing them while I heard them. And I'm out of space, so will have more to say on this topic next week.

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