The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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3 thoughts on “The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

  1. Robert Sokol says:

    The latest exasperation seems to be not being allowed to discuss the author’s intent within two hours of a performance – at least not after a David Mamet play!

    I’m saddened and frustrated by such narrow views from creative artists, particularly ones I admire. How can work be canonical yet so fragile that alternate interpretations permanently damage them? No play is ever unwritten by a production. The text remains. It is tragic to me that a vision that can be so expansive as to create a canonical work can also be so narrow as to not see or, perhaps more accurately, allow the possibility of it inspiring other creative work.

    I always appreciate your clear-eyed view of things. Lately, when taking discussions of this “universal” view beyond theatre into politics and life, I’ve been appending heterosexual and Christian to white and male. (Perhaps partly because it lets me off a small hook.) So much damage has been done – and continues to be done – by those within that cohort to those outside of it. That’s not a free pass for the rest of us, but one can trace an awful lot of world hurt to those demographics. That, however, is a conversation for another platform.

  2. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if your only excuse to continue doing something is just because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” then it’s probably time to STOP doing it. Traditions aren’t frozen to be preserved for all, they either evolve or die.

    Though I have my own thoughts on Cal Shakes’ latest production – particularly the racial aspect that arises with preserving all the dialogue – I find it hilarious that people could be offended by a character explicitly written as disabled could be played by an actor also disabled. To me, that reads as someone able-bodied 😭 about being “denied” the opportunity for an award-baiting, scenery-chewing performance inerasure; as if an actor who actually fits the character’s description is somehow “stealing” a role from the WASP-y able-bodied actor with MILLIONS of roles from which to choose. (I’ve lost count of all the White boys who’ve told me they “can’t wait to play Othello one day”.)

    As far as “preservation” goes, anyone who pulls that excuse out of their ass knows nothing about the process of creating art and/or theatre: the rewrites; the workshops; the delays in production – all of these create major changes to a play. And that’s to say nothing of the plays that got changed even after their highly-publicised runs: Michael Frayn has rewritten “Noises Off!” a few times now; the musicals “Carrie,” “Seussical,” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” all got major overhauls after disastrous runs; and what Tony Kushner script HASN’T he rewritten from production-to-production?

    As a writer/director myself, I’m all about not changing a work – especially not dialogue – on the mere basis of a whim (Remember that legally-liable SF production of “Little Shop” about five-or-so years back?). However, if your only reasons for staging a play are because you lack or fear modern context and are slavishly devoted to its original era, then you aren’t behaving like an artist (which ALWAYS requires consideration of context) – you’re a fetishist.

    • Robert Sokol says:

      “– particularly the racial aspect that arises with preserving all the dialogue –”

      Are you referring to the two uses of “darky” by Amanda? That caught me off guard. Later I went to the text and found they had made a substitution for the second utterance in this production. I still don’t know what to make of that. Your thoughts?

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