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Theatre: When is a play not a play?

By Robert W. Bethune
Spring 2014

Very recently, Terry Teachout wrote, “The script of a play is not a finished product: It's a set of instructions. A play is not a play until it's performed, and unless it's a one-person play that is acted, directed and designed by the author, many other people will be deeply involved in the complicated process that leads to its performance.”

That’s an excellent summary of the position many, perhaps most, theater artists take today, and have done for some time. I can go one step further without getting out of my comfort zone: that the author of a play is not in a privileged position with respect what the author wrote. Artists, writers, playwrights worthy of a dose of sodium chloride work from levels of which they are not fully aware, indeed, of which they may be completely unaware, levels that can be seen by others in the work, but very likely not by the person who wrote it.

However, there is a major problem when Frank Galati, one of today’s hotshot directors, decides to take Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a major play by a living playwright, cut dialog, delete characters, add music and dance and generally re-shape the play to suit his own wishes. No, it’s not the legal problem, though that certainly comes into play. It came into play to the extent that Brian Friel yanked the rights until Galati and Asolo Theater agreed to stage the play as written.

It’s actually a simple matter of respect for a fellow artist. Even if Brian Friel were not one of the most important living playwrights, even if he were an unknown delivering his first play, he deserves to be respected by his fellow artists for the work, talent, time and skill he put into the script. Just a simple matter of respect—yet somehow, in today’s world of creative practice, somehow this simple matter turns out not to be so simple. There are quite a few of today’s creative people who need to take a good look in the mirror.

Of course it is true that a script is incomplete without the production, as so many theater artists point out. Why is it that so few people other than playwrights understand that the production is incomplete without the script? Is there any such thing as an element of the art of theater that is complete without all the other elements? Didn’t we figure that out, uh, hmm, let me see, about 2,500 years ago, when Aristotle noticed that fact?

It’s obvious that the matter changes when the playwright is dead. Unfortunately, death cuts off collaboration. Even in that case, if you mean to mess with the text, you still need to work with the author’s estate, simply out of respect for the memory of that artist, your fellow in the creative endeavor.

If any theater artist thinks he or she has the right to just play fast and loose with somebody else’s work, somebody who is alive, that person has no concept of the meaning of mutual respect among artists, no understanding of theater as a collaboration (as opposed to a series of power plays) and therefore no business working in the theater at any level.

Last but not least, if the urge to expand your personal creativity gets hold of you to the extent that this play or that play will no longer serve you, than don’t Osterize somebody else’s work—write your own!

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