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5. Drama and Performance Art
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5. Drama and Performance Art

It is not surprising that textual critics of literature have written ex-
tensively about drama, since plays are often read in printed form
and since dramatic works—especially those by Shakespeare and his
contemporaries—have figured heavily in the development of English-
language textual criticism. Whereas earlier textual critics and editors of
Renaissance drama focused on authorial intention (treating plays as they
did nondramatic literature), some recent scholars have been more inter-
ested in the performance texts of plays, arguing that drama is essentially
a collaborative art. Although it is true that drama, like all performing
arts, cannot normally be experienced in its intended form without col-
laborative effort, it does not follow that playwrights' intentions are neces-
sarily superseded by what emerges from the production process. Many
playwrights, even when they participate in that so-called "development,"
are not fully sympathetic with the resulting evolution of their plays. Ter-
rence McNally once said, "I worry that in the process of developing my
new play I lose it" (7 December 1986). And Andrew Bergman, noting
that movies "get filtered through other sensibilities," wanted to create a
play that would, he said, "be my voice purely, the way a novel is." He
rejected the idea of writing a screenplay: "I didn't want to have to open it
up and put some action in it where I don't want to" (reported by Mervyn
Rothstein, 12 April 1986). Bergman may have been unrealistic in imagin-
ing the amount of control he would have in the theater, but he made his
point of view very clear.

A celebrated example of a dispute over the alteration of a playwright's
intentions is the lawsuit brought by Samuel Beckett's American publishers
and lawyers against the American Repertory Theater, whose director,
Joanne Akalaitis, wished to set Endgame in a subway station rather than
an empty room. Partly in response to this event, New York University
in March 1985 held a panel discussion entitled "Authors versus Direc-
tors: Who Has the Right of Interpretation?" Opinions were expressed on
both sides (described by Samuel G. Freedman, 14 March 1985), but not
much could have been expected from a discussion responding to such
an unenlightened question. Thus John Guare's comment—"Theater is


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a collaborative art. But the playwright can choose who he or she wants
to collaborate with"—was not helpful, being limited to performances of
works by living playwrights (or during the life of a copyright) and over-
simplifying the issues even for those cases. "Interpretation" by performers
(whether or not so instructed by directors or authors) is a natural part of
the recreation of works in intangible media. The key point for discussion
should have been how to draw the line between interpretation that is in
keeping with the author's intention and interpretation that goes beyond
it and creates a different work. If the goal of a performance is compliance
with authorial intention, the range of permissible interpretation is usually
determined by the author-derived script, which in general (making allow-
ances for errors and variants) is the primary set of authorial guidelines,
subsuming certain kinds of interpretation. Thus the pacing of the action,
the exact brightness and tone of the lighting, and the actors' manner of
speaking can in many instances vary without violating the guidelines. But
a change that contravenes explicitly stated directives (such as moving the
setting of Beckett's play from a bare room to a subway station) is an act
of "interpretation" not in line with authorial intention.

If authorial intention is not a concern, directors are of course free to
make such changes or more drastic ones (at least for works out of copy-
right). And authorial intention need not be, and certainly is not, always
the aim: works in intangible media can be expected to undergo all man-
ner of changes in their performed texts over the years. Alterations not in
line with authorial intention may seem aesthetic improvements to some
people, and there is no reason in principle to disapprove of such changes.
What may legitimately be deplored, however, is confused thinking about
what does, or does not, conform with authorial intention and thus about
whether or not a given performance is within the matrix of possibilities
embodied in an authorial text.

The range of those possibilities varies in inverse proportion to the
explicitness of the stage directions and set descriptions. Some playwrights
compose extremely detailed paragraphs of such commentary, which in
published form make the plays read almost as novels but also provide sub-
stantial insight into how the playwright visualized stage presentation. The
use of furniture and other physical objects in staging is one indication of
the mixed-media nature of drama, for such settings resemble installation
art; but in drama, where physical details are usually ancillary, some of
those details can be altered without violating the guidelines of the script,
whereas in an installation any change of a detail (except one aimed at
correcting an error) would compromise the artist's intended text. (These
points obviously apply to stage settings in opera as well.) Controversy
has recently arisen as to whether directors should be granted copyrights
for their staging: playwrights believe that such copyrights would limit


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their control over their plays (the issue is commented on by Jesse Green,
29 January 2006). But since any given staging would normally not be the
only one consistent with the authorially intended script (and might well be
inconsistent with it), any copyrighted staging could not logically be tied to
the copyright of the play, and permission to perform the play would not
entail the use of that particular staging.

Generally speaking, then, the consequential alteration of settings is an
example of a directorial change that would depart from authorial inten-
tion; but the exact pronunciation of the words would not—except when
a particular dialect is specifically indicated—be a matter controlled by
the concept of an authorially intended text. The 2004 Globe Theatre
production of Romeo and Juliet in what was thought to be Elizabethan
pronunciation was naturally an enlightening experiment in historical re-
construction, just as there is a valid historical interest in hearing a piece
of music played on instruments from the composer's time; but in neither
case are those precise sounds dictated by authorial intention. Similarly,
a filmed record of a dramatic performance, even one in which the play-
wright was involved, does not supersede (though it may well supplement)
a printed text, any more than a film of a dance work can replace choreo-
graphic notation. In a cinematic work, of course, the angles of the shots
selected for inclusion, as well as the pacing of the alternation between
close-ups and more distant views, constitute the work; but for dance and
drama, a film is only one limited record of one performance—and the
performance itself cannot demonstrate all the possibilities inherent in the
score or script.

Performance art presents a somewhat different situation in that nor-
mally the performer and the creator of the spoken language are the same
person. (Lecturing is clearly one category of performance art.) There
may or may not be a script or outline, but in any case whatever the per-
former does and says reflects authorial intent, except in those instances
where a mistake is made or where the performer is reluctantly conform-
ing to the advice of someone else. Deciding when these situations obtain
is one of the judgments that a textual critic must make. Similarly, when
a performer-author adapts the language and action to a specific local
situation, the textual critic must consider whether the adaptation is a
departure from the essential work or whether the work encompasses all
such variants that occur in individual performances. (The textual criti-
cism of performance art, in other words, entails much the same process
of thought as that applicable to jazz.) Filmed records of performance
works are in one sense only documentation, since the work itself is the
live performance. Yet these records have a different status from the filmed
documentation of a conventional play, for the variants preserved in them
(and perhaps nowhere else) may be parts of the intended work as much


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as if they had been written into a script. From the point of view of autho-
rial intention, the work may comprise all (or many) of its variant perfor-
mances; this observation, however, could be made about a conventional
play only by thinking of the work as a social product rather than as a
reflection of individual authorial intention. Sport, which involves impro-
visation within clearly defined frameworks and plans, may be regarded as
a genre—predominantly collaborative—of performance art; the textual
history of a sporting event takes into account not only the various docu-
mentary records of what happened but also the variations that occur,
as a result of editorial decision or the equipment employed, when those
records in visual media are shown on different occasions.