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The Critical Eye: Interpret This

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 116-119.

Why are critics and criticism falling deeper into irrelevance just as dramaturgs finaly climb within reach of some tertiary, but at least respectable, position within the theater community? Strange, given that the dramaturg has often been described as an in-house critic. As dramaturg for astudent production of King Lear, I gave the director a fraction of the criticism I read, and he read only a fraction of that. Directorial incompetence? Hardly. After all, one of his instructors told him, early in the process, that he shouldn’t read any more criticism. At the A.R.T.’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, Resident Dramaturg Robert Scanlan listed the survey of criticism as the least important area of research. “Criticism is an accumulation of opinion,” on of his handouts said, “That small percentage of criticism which is brilliant needs to be found, winnowed from the rest, and made judiciously available to artists, who are generally waary of ‘interpretation.’ They are right on this score.”

The unflattering equation Scanlan draws between criticism and interpretation is neither new nor invalid. Artistic antipathy towards the critical and interpretive acts stems from a virulent anti-intellectualism in American theater. Dramaturgs, occuping a less than secure position in the “community,” have responded to their colleagues’ prejudices by shuffling nervously to redefine themselves as anything but literary, anything but intellectual, anything but critical. Therein lies the secret of the dramaturg’s nominal success and of the failure of a new generation of artists to reimagine our theater.

In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” But humans have never needed much encouragement to reject criticism or the written word. It was Rilke who advised the young poet, “Read as little as possible of literary criticism—such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games… Everything is gestation and birthing.”

I suspect a lot of directors must write the Rilke quote on the inside cover of whatever script they’re working on. For them, the rehearsal process is gestation and birthing, and reading too much increases the likelihood of miscarriage—because the last thing anyone wants to do is interpret. In his 1974 interview iwth Ralph Berry, Michael Kahn was so averse to critical writing that he hesitated even to concede the intellectual source for his anti-intellectualism: “I don’t want to quote Susan Sontag,” he said, “but I am becoming against interpertation and I am continually fighting my desire to tie things up, and to categorize and interpret.”

On Directing Shakespeare, Berry’s collection of interviews with directors, was published first in 1975, then expanded and reissued in 1988. Ironically, the inspiration for the book was a Jonathan Miller letter to the London Times that condemned the idea that “the director should modestly efface his own personality and allow the text to speak for itself.” Most of the interviews that follow support just such a view of directorial absence.

The myth is that one can produce a play by “getting out of the way of the text.” Peter Hall speaks of

the signals that Shaekspeare writes into the verse about how it should be spoken and the pace it should be spoken at, even the tone. There is a great deal to be learned from the text in notation, almost as much as in a musical score. And it isn’t speculative, it isn’t a question of opinion. It is the given fact, and if you don’t do that you rewrite the text and warp it.

In the last scene of the paly, did Shakespeare intend King Lear to be played as mad or just terribly upset? Did Shakespeare think Lear succeeded in convincing himself Cordelia was still alive, even after he said repeatedly that he kne she was dead? People who think they can divine answers to these question from the text alone merely veil their own interpretive act in a lie of authorial intent, the same way a given religious sect will assume that it alone has found the Truth. Everyone wants to have a direct line to God, and in text-based theater, the author is God.

Even directors who have “interpretation written over everything they do run away from the word. Declan Donnellan says he doesn’t acknowledge “any commitment to the tradition of Shakespearean production.” But later, when Berry asks if Donnellan agrees that, in Twelfth Night, we’re “invited to dislike” Malvolio and then change that opinion in the second half of the play, Donnellan protests that “that is an interpretation. It happens to be mine. But that is for you and me in the audience. I’m staging the play and I have to give the audience the freedom to come to the conclusion you’ve arrived at.” In his essay on Robert Wilson’s German production of King Lear, Herbert Blau says that even Wilson described his approach to staging as “intended to keep interpretation from getting in the way… ‘to make the text available,’ but without the sort of emotional interference that comes, with whatever stylization, from the naturalistic tradition.” Robert Wilson doesn’t think he interprets a text? At a certain point, you have to wonder whether “interpretation” has simply become a byword for heavy-handedness, reductionism, or—sin of sins—intellectualilsm.

Peter Brook, whose collaboration with Jan Kott for his 1962 King Lear is widely upheld as the model interaction between literary criticism and theatrical creation, concedes that actors, directors, and designers inevitably bring their own subjective interpertation to a production. But he insists to Berry htat one must limit that subjectivity, and protests the form of directing and designing that “proudly presents very subjective versions of hte play without a glimmer of awareness that this might be diminishing the play.” According to Brook, what Shakespeare wrote is “is not interpretation: it is the thing itself.” And you’ll never guess who Brook singles out for straitjacketing the texts. “[I]t’s very necessary,” he says, “to see the harm that’s done when a fixed meaning is established, which is what so much scholarship has done.” He chastitses scholars for trying “to make choices… which is what the whole world of footnotes has been.”

Acknowledging that productions are inevitably subjective while insisting that subjectivity should be reined in can result in the flim-flam that posits a “concept” production as somehow not interpreting a text in a diminutive way. Supposedly, the concept provides an air for characters to breathe, specific yet polysemous, magically informing the actors’ work without their necessarily being aware of it. Brook’s Lear is a case in point; Brook credits the Kott essay for inspiring his production’s Beckettian framework, but the heart of Kott’s essay—the interpretation of Gloucester and Lear’s scenes as having a grotesque, Beckettian humor—was not an actively sought end. As assistant director Charles Marowitz says in his published production log, “our frame of reference was always Beckettian. The world of this Lear, like Beckett’s world, is in a constant state of decomposition.” The log, however, doesn’t mention Kott at all, and Paul Scofield, who played Brook’s Lear, says he never considered the Kott conception in his performance. The Beckettian concept, or frame of reference, is an atmospheric tool meant to suggest interpretations to the audience without a reductive, explicit meaning.

“The work of rehearsals,” Brook told Marowitz, “is looking for meaning and then making it meaningful.” This implies that you cannot start rehearsals with an interpretation in mind—actors and directors must discover meanign through trial and error, relentless probing and exploration that yields unpredictable results. That said, how can a critical essay be anything buta  “point of entry” or “frame of reference”? I don’t belittle the importance of having either of these, except that both terms are vague, nonthreatening, and noncommittal. This juggernaut called process invariably limits the relevance of critical essays and, by extension, the role of the dramaturg.

Unfortunately, most of theater’s in-house critics have responded to the attack on criticism by joining it. Mark Bly, now co-Chair of the Yale School fo Drama’s dramaturgy department and Associate Artistic Director of the Yale Rep, told me he considers his approach intellectual, with criticism tkaing high priority. Nevertheless, he stands by his retreat, in the 1986 Theater issue on dramaturgy, from descriptions of the dramaturg as an “in-house critic,” “theorist,” and “resident intellectual,” calling such labels “pretentious, self-aggrandizing, insensitive, and inanely abstract.” And dramaturgs such as Russell Vandenbroucke, in the same issue, and Lila Wolff-Wilkinson, in a recent issue of Theatre Topics, join Bly in advising dramaturgs not to give directors any “declarative statement” (Vandenbroucke) of criticism. They stress the importance of phrasing critical opinions as questions. This recommendation, demeaning both to director and dramaturg, inevitably hinders the latter’s ability to express an idea with any sophitication or cogence.

In his ’86 interview with Theater, Oskar Eustis describes the dramaturgical preproduction process as, first, discussing with a director what it is about the play the two of them find exciting, and second, going through the text line by line with the director in order to udnerstand “everything the author intended to do”—a project he calls “a very difficult step.” Eustis, then, buys into the notion that the living artist can use the text somehow to channel with the dead author in order to get at an organic, uninterpreted meaning of a play. When asked what he feared most about the profession of dramaturgy, he said it was that “dramaturgs will see themselves and be seen iwithin theaters as part of an intelletual and academic tradition rather than as part of a living cultural tradition,” and explained that academic and intellectual backgrounds “don’t have to be the main constituents of the dramaturg’s tools… at times the intellectuality of my approach can serve as a damper on other people’s creative impulses.” The answer betrays a dangerous and offensive, artificial dichotomy between intellect and the “living cultural tradition.” And in Eustis’s dichotomy, what else does the phrase “intellectuality of approach” signify but the critical, interpretive  act?

Dramaturgs cannot reduce their function, as Richard Nelson portrayed it in his interview with Theater, to sitting in rehearsal with a thumb pointing up or down. Nelson tells of Liviu Ciulei, alone in rehearsal, turning to an actor’s seven-year-old son and asking him what he thought. Nelson recounts, “The kid sort of wavered his hand back and forth as if to say, ‘Well, not so good, Liviu.’ And Liviu went up and changed what he was doing. (Laughter.) That kid di the one thing a prodcution dramaturg should do: be there at the right time.” No wonder Nelson says “there’s very little necessary background I can think of for a dramaturg.” If dramaturgs abandon their field’s theoretical and literary foundations, they doom themselves to becoming nothing more than assistant directors with an esoteric title, powerless dilettantes in design, direction, and acting.

Critical interpretations are not the director’s enemy; nor are they merely points of entry. A director can enter the process with a certain critical endpoint in mind, and the rehearsal could strive to get the actors to achieve that end with facility, the same way Yeats would choose the word to end a line before writing the words that led to it. One need not start bulding a road with the hope that there might be a metropolis at the end of it; one might also choose the destination and let it govern the chosen route.

Lessing was the first dramaturg to use dramatic theory and literary criticism in shaping theatrical production; he wasn’t the last. Brecht is an obvious descendant; Richard Foreman’s work is also steeped in literary theory while remaining inarguably theatrical. One can turn to less momentous, though still important, contributions such as those made by Kenneth Tynan at the National THeatre. Thoguh called a literary manager, he functioned as a dramaturg as well—one who was expert in the filed of criticism. Tynan, director John Dexter, and Olivier had all read the F.R. Leavis essay that reimagined Othello as an arrogant general who would reclaim the dramatic focus usually taken by Iago. Olivier, then, began the process with a claer idea of what he was working towards, and Dexter, under the same influence, explained at the outset the parameters of his interpretation to the entire cast.

Perhaps directors also view the possiblity of critically inspired productions as a threat to their originality, itself viewed as “the vivacity of creation, the leap into irreducible difference,” as Foucault puts it. Nobody wants to be derivative, to fall back on the “implicit density of the already-said, a perhaps involuntary fidelity to acquired opinion….” But any production of a classic inevitably becomes a palimpsest, where the ghostly marks of critical opinion and productions past come alive. Much if not most newness will come from resetting old choices in the context of the present, thematically and stylistically.

Rilke, in spite of his condemnation of literary criticism, harbored some respect for the critical act. “Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it,” Rilke writes to the young poet,

It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

This knowing, this criticism, will be most powerful and effective if it comes from a theoretical framework. The dramaturg should not only present a salutary doubt regarding the director’s choices but challenge the director with an interpretive ideal: one that revels in its subjectivity, which the director can adapt wholesale or partially—or diametrically oppose.

Too man ttheater artists never move past thinking of the critical mind as the “destroyer.” They view the intellect as dead, say taht people in academia aren’t experiencing the real world—as if professors didn’t have lives outside the classroom, as if they didn’t experience pain and loss, struggle with relationships, participate in the community, or experiment with new ideas. Criticism and interpretation also arise through “gestation and birthing.” If someone writes to tell me this essay is a misapprehension typical of one who has never directed a play, I will be wounded, yes, but I’ll be eager to see how my views are opposed. And in grappling with the opposition, I will either clarify or change my views—either way, I’ll learn. That process, to me, feels active, vulnerable, creative. It’s those  who work only from thier first impulse, who hide behind a deified process and false self-abnegation, who say, “You can’t criticize my interpretation because it isn’t there; I’ve simply gotten out of the way of the text,” or who find critical essays distracting  and have no interest in reading the responses of reviewers—these are the people who live in a hermetically sealed universe. And the dramaturgs who succumb to them only shove themselves further to the margins and diminish the esteem they receive from their colleagues, who might just as well hire the seven-year-old son of an actor.

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