When productions of time-tested plays are reviewed, the article usually only lightly touches on the merits of the play itself. For Shakespeare’s more popular plays, for example, the worth of the playwright’s words seem beyond debate. At least, it’s beyond scrutiny of the exposé sort, since the author cannot be reached for comment.
Such reviews analyze what happens when a work’s creator and executor are not the same person, as with Baz Luhrmann’s pointedly titled film “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” Shakespeare, being long dead, has little say in the revivals of his plays. Historical paintings can be found in Victorian or Baroque frames regardless of the era or context in which they were made. Many contemporary artists, having deduced that they too will inevitably die, take legal action to secure the integrity of their vision.
In order to include men onstage in Eve Ensler’s strictly female “Vagina Monologues,” a 2007 University production claimed that the silent males served more as props than as actors. Swiss visual artist Christoph Büchel went to federal court with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September when, after their working relationship blew up, the museum opened Büchel’s incomplete installation to the public.
In a column I wrote in March, I argued a way to analyze a work of art. In the case where an individual produces both the idea and its execution, one must ask: does it accomplish what it sets out to do? Does the actual work reflect what the creator says he was going for?
Current legal disputes reflect that artists who feel their work passes this first test want to ensure a resounding “yes” to this question, even when the work is out of their hands.
The late playwright Samuel Beckett, author of the enigmatic “Waiting for Godot,” stipulated in his estate that his works be staged with exacting fidelity to the written word. His scripts even dictate how to fill the air around his words: “(step forward.) You’re angry? (Silence. Step forward.) Forgive me. (Silence. Step forward. Estragon lays his hand on Vladimir’s shoulder.) Come, Didi. (Silence.) Give me your hand. (Vladimir half turns.)”
Beckett is notorious for the literalness of the control he exerts. In 2006, a court overruled his estate’s objection to female actors in the main roles in “Godot,” which calls for five male characters. The Italian theater company’s lawyer framed it as a victory for gender equality.
On the same principles that Büchel fought Mass MoCA, Beckett’s estate fought the attribution of his name to a work they felt misrepresented Beckett’s work: “That’s not what I made – and that’s not what I meant.”
Reading Beckett in the privacy of your home is unlikely to attract this kind of legal attention. Under the principle that “everyone gets something different out of it,” whatever speaks to you personally is yours to take away.
But in critical discussions, some opinions are better than others. Talking about how we feel is one thing – talking about what a work does is another, even if it seems that the work is “making” us feel that way.
A work can evoke meanings that the creator would never have stood for being attributed to him. Such a success puts the work itself between a rock and a hard place. If the piece is legitimately interpretable in such an alternative light, it’s shown to contradict itself, or at least to contain loopholes. In that sense, it is a poor work of art.
I mean to say not that the work is devalued – a successful revisionist production would rather articulate its value – but that the author didn’t accomplish what he set out to do. If his work were as fully crafted to his vision as possible, only his interpretation could be the most convincing (again, distinct from the most “felt”) one.
One work I saw in New York’s Museum of Modern Art tried to evade being analyzed this way, copping out of responsibility for her work in an artist’s statement next to her piece. She explained that her work, several nearly identical plastic vases arranged on the floor, could be reordered in any way the curators desired. In this, she removed herself from nearly the only distinguishable creative decision in the work.
This criticism does expose a redemptive possibility (although the author himself, as shown by the protectors of Beckett’s estate, may find the observation more condescending than redemptive): that the author was the carrier of more meaning than he was aware.
Fiona Shaw, the Irish actress who plays the main character in a current production of Beckett’s “Happy Days,” expressed this idea to the New York Times recently: “Today, when the shock of the play has worn off, we can see that it’s not so abstract, that it does have a terrifying emotional center. It’s something that when [Beckett] wrote it, he couldn’t have known, because good writing comes from somewhere more profound than the intellect.”
A conversation with Alexander Fabry, a friend of mine and an editor for the Harvard Crimson, prompted the train of thought behind this column. Alexander shared Shaw’s opinion, one that is conveniently, if not always defensibly, applied to all art forms: “The author creating something and not really understanding what it is – being a skilled wordsmith and sort of making unconscious connections – can’t that be as much of a skill or a talent even if they can’t understand it?”.
This line of thought subjects artworks to the shifting sympathies of time. The alternative, to consider works fully in their context, would be along the lines of art history analysis. Although a work may remain popular and even rise in popularity, over the years, there is a difference between visionary creative decisions and just plain misunderstanding – look no further than the paramount of Western aesthetics, the plain white forms of the once multicolored Classical statues.