The Playwright as King ~ theatre notes

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Playwright as King

Chris Goode, of the admirable Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, once made a distinction between those who are playwrights and those who write for the theatre. It struck me as an interesting distinction between different kinds of practice, the question revolving around the question of theatrical collaboration: a playwright offering his deathless prose for theatrical minions to interpret and "serve", the theatre writer as a glowing member of the ensemble. Most playwrights are somewhere in between these extremes, but Edward Albee is most unambiguously a playwright (no, a Playwright) and has lit much blogospherical heat by describing those who impede the writer's vision as "the forces of darkness". Catch up with the debate at Superfluities, Parabasis, and the Guardian.

UPDATE: Mr Goode himself steps into the fray with a long and fascinating rumination in which he expands on his distinction between playwright and theatre writer, and suggests why "old-guard playwrights" might be feeling defensive. Pin your ears back and drink it in; I think he hits a lot of nails bang in the middle, especially when he talks about a necessary violence to the text that is part of making theatre. As here: "The director's fidelity is to the demands of theatre, not to the demands of the playwright; indeed, once the director has the text in her hands, there is no playwright. There is only theatre. The playwright in the rehearsal room is utterly and irretrievably fallacious." I know playwrights who completely agree with this. Oh, wait, they're probably theatre writers. Things I'd argue with too, but I should be writing, and not about theatre.

12 comments:

Jodi said...

Having ranted early in the morning on your last post, clearly defending the rights of the writer - I feel it incumbent upon me to comment here. I personally feel that the distinction between a 'playwright' and a 'writer for theatre' is a false one, based on an ideological distinction - also false - between collaborative practice and the supposed ivory tower of the traditional playwright. It's a distinction used to denigrate a particular kind of work - the text-based play - and as such, I find it tedious and specious. It has been particularly evident in the Australian theatre scene for the last few years, largely pushed by directors who ought to know better, but apparently don't. No names, no pack drill - but all know to whom I refer. Albee, it seems to me, is being deliberately contentious - which should come as no surprise to anyone.

There is, in reality, no real difference of practice between the writer who turns up with a script, and the writer who creates a script on the workshop floor. The script is then worked on, rewritten, changed to suit the timbre of particular actors, takes in the vision of a director and a designer and all the other myriad artists who create the finished piece. The writer that doesn't know this is neither a writer nor a 'playwright'. To continually emphasize that theatre is a collaborative art, as so many do, is to state a fact that any professional knows - and relies upon, to a greater or lesser degree. Albee's response is to the orthodoxy of director's theatre - which is based upon a deep fear of the writer - and leads to the kind of infantilisation that I discussed in my previous post. This kind of squabbling comes down to a tussle about who is the more creative and important, and as such, should be sidelined along with French doors and drawing room farce. Not productive. Not helpful. Very dull.

Jodi.

Alison Croggon said...

Rant away Jodi - that's what we're here for.

Actually, I think it's a very useful distinction, because there are differences of process, even with the same writer. Projects can be initiated by a director, the writing itself can involve tons of collaboration and input from various artists, including the performers, and yet still be written by an identifiable writer. And then others are just written by a playwright alone in his or her study and given to others as a completed script. These seem to me to be markedly different ways of approaching writing in theatre, and in fact I think neither is superior: each means produces its share of masterpieces and duds.

Some playwrights incline to one extreme, some to another: as I said, most exist somewhere in between. After all, Miller, whom I seem to have characterised as a kingly writer above, speaks of the ensemble as the root of "prophetic theatre", and Albee's position is a little more nuanced than it seems here. But there are without doubt writers who think of themselves at war with all other practitioners, or who consider other practitioners not "creative", but merely "interpretative", and so inferior partners, just as there are other theatre artists who consider writers interlopers. But those kinds of arguments are, as you say, power struggles, and ultimately not very useful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison et al,

As someone who works in a devising company which as part of its process generates 'writing' (words that are spoken by the performers for specific dramatic purposes), I've always been disappointed when punters ask us who the writer is, and don't seem to believe any of us when we tell them there wasn't a writer, but rather a team. this isn't ideological, but a fact of process for us, and its striking how dominant the idea of the writer is over the reception of theatre practice. anyway, thought that might be of interest in this discussion thread...

David Williams, version 1.0

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, David, it's most interesting, and points out that it's important - perhaps especially for writers - to remember that theatre can be created without writers. Though I was speaking specifically of cases where there is a writer involved.

And Albee is provocative - he says "The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote."

Sometimes writing a play is a collaborative act. Sometimes it isn't. And collaborative acts can be profoundly creative. Etc.

Jodi said...

You present the case for this distinction with a rare reasonableness, Alison. Just one point then. Let's take two directors - Tom Healey and Kate Cherry. I've worked fairly extensively with both of them. Their working methods are chalk and cheese. Certainly they share a common goal, the creation of work on a stage. But their approaches are entirely different. Why, then, given your reasons for finding the distinction between the 'writer for theatre' and the 'playwright useful, do we not have different names for different kinds of directors to delineate practice? Actor one follows method and sensory practice, actor two concentrates on the body, actor three learns the lines and chooses a particular pair of shoes. Common goal. Entirely different ways of getting there. What shall we call them, I wonder?

The distinction between the 'writer for theatre' and the 'playwright' is a false dichotomy almost invariably used to argue the primacy of director's or writer's theatre. We agree on the essentials - that these arguments are power struggles. It is good to remember that theatre can be created without writers. Although, I would have thought that in the case of the collaborative theatre mentioned above, they were all writers rather than suffering the absence of one. Let's be provocative, shall we? It is, after all Sunday morning. Theatre can also be created without directors. You just newed a really good stage manager...

Jodi

Jodi said...

I really should be more careful about the typos.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jodi

Well, I don't know. It is, like all these distinctions, an arbitrary one, and therefore must not be allowed to fall into orthodoxy; but it does express a certain basic difference of writerly attitude. And is therefore, for me at least, useful.

The only thing theatre can't do without (unless one is Artaud, of course, who thought puppets were better: and even then you need animators) is actors. Period.

George Hunka said...

Watching Richard Foreman in rehearsal recently -- certainly a writer/director/designer who's had a reputation for rather dictatorial stage practice -- was a surprising experience for me. I'd expected to see Foreman ordering his actors about with little concern about their input, or those of the fellow designers and technicians around him. Instead, he seemed relatively open (at least as director) to gestures, movements suggested by the performers; he would give them a try, keep them or dispose of them, as he, in the end, decided. Perhaps he hasn't been this way in the past, but this also goes to another point here -- that each production and each play is different, even with the same playwright or group of performers. (Or, to take another example, what do we make of Mike Leigh, who has a collaborative, improvisatory rehearsal style that ultimately ends up in a stage or screen play, under the title of which his -- and only his -- name appears as author?)

To these two distinctive theatres -- writers' theatre and directors' theatre -- we might add a third, auteurist theatre, which privileges an individual artist's idiosyncratic worldview instead of a collective's, whether that individual is a director, writer, performer or even designer. As useful as these distinctions are, we're eventually going to begin splitting hairs. Albee's statement to me is largely rhetorical and deliberately provocative, and I don't think it can be said to reflect even his own practices of revision in rehearsal. And we don't know what those are. My personal preference and perspective as a playwright is towards that auteurist theatre, but of course it's only one approach.

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe that's the most important point, George, that every work is different, with its own shape and experience.

One of the jobs of criticism, maybe its primary job, is to attempt to make distinctions. One thing, Jodi: not all theatre has the same goal, unless that goal is generalised to the making of theatre: people work in different ways for different reasons to different effect, and all of us have our preferences. And it's fascinating (and perilous) to try to work out how and why one thing is different from another. To make distinctions is not necessarily to privilege one thing over another. Although, of course, it can be.

Jodi said...

I was actually generalising the goal in that argument to the making of theatre. Purely for the sake of this discussion. And apart from actors, I believe it does require an audience...

Jodi

Jodi said...

Also I think - happy to be proven wrong - that it was Edward Gordon Craig who had recourse to puppets...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jodi - you're right, of course, on both counts (I hate smilies, but here goes - :) )

On the other hand, so am I. Audiences don't help to make theatre, as in participate in the process before it is unleashed on the unsuspecting public (well, sometimes it happens, but fairly rarely): they are simply necessary for its occurence. Unless you're Grotowski. And Artaud suggested puppets too.