10 March 2011

“Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?”

by Robert Brustein

[Twenty-four years ago, I read this column by Robert Brustein, an almost-legendary man of the theater for my generation. I’ve found it endlessly provocative and useful and I’ve drawn on it many, many times in the ensuing years. I’ve published a commentary on classic theater based on Brustein’s analysis (see “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage,” ROT, 18 September 2009); now I find it appropriate to republish Brustein’s original essay, which appeared in the New York Times on 6 November 1988 (sec. 2 ["Arts and Leisure"]: 5, 16).]

The most controversial issue in the theater today continues to be the reinterpretation or “deconstruction” of celebrated classical plays. There is no theatrical activity that more inflames purist sensibilities in criticism and the academy—nothing that stimulates as many caustic generalizations about the debasements of modern culture. Perhaps because “deconstruction” as an assonant noun if not as a method, is so perilously close to “destruction” and “desecra­tion,” the standard purist posture is like that of Switzers before the gates of the Vatican, defending sacred texts against the barbarians. The paradox is that both sides are really devoted to the same esthetic purpose, which is the deeper penetration of significant dramatic literature. The difference is in the attitude. Is classical reinterpretation a reinforcing or a defiling act—a benign or a malignant development in the history of modern theater?

My own position is a qualified vote of support for conceptual directing. I have long be­lieved that if dramatic classics are not seen with fresh eyes they grow fossilized—candidates for taxidermy. Even the most harebrained textual reworking may open up new corridors into a play, while the more “faithful” version is often a listless recycling of stilted conventions. That is why I continue to echo Artaud’s call for “No More Masterpieces”—great plays can be “desecrated” by excessive piety as much as by excessive irreverence. Although I champion a radical auteurism in directing, however, not all examples of this process have the same integrity of purpose. One can support the idea of classical reinterpretation without defending all its forms or ignoring the fact that what passes for originality is sometimes merely another kind of ego-tripping.

Let me refine my position by distinguish­ing between two common methods of reworking the classics—one that depends largely on external physical changes and another that changes our whole notion of the play. It is a distinction that can be illustrated through analogies with figures of speech—the prosaic simile and the poetic metaphor. Directors who are fond of similes assume that because a play’s action is like something from a later period, its environment can be changed accordingly. Directors with a feeling for metaphor are more interested in generating provocative theatrical images—visually expressed through physical production, histrionically through character and relationships—that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.

Simile directing is a prose technique. Its in­novations are basically analogical—provid­ing at best a platform for ideas, at worst an occasion for pranks. Metaphorical directing attempts to penetrate the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equiv­alent—a process considerably more radical in its interpretive risks, since the directo­r “authors” the production much as the au­thor writes the text. Naturally, this process is controversial: critics—though somewhat more tolerant of simile directors, who only change the period—often accuse metaphorical directors of arrogance and distortion. Nevertheless, it is the metaphorical approach, I believe, that has the greater potential for rediscovering the original impulses and energies of the material. Which is not to say that all simile directing is without value, or that metaphorical directing doesn’t have its meretricious side.

The simile approach is the more familiar, at least to New Yorkers, because it is often used by visiting British companies and over the years in Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare productions. But the tradition extends back at least as far as the 30’s. Orson Welles’s celebrated “Julius Caesar” was an early exam­ple, being the transformation of Shakespeare’s tragedy of assassination and retribution into an indictment of totalitarianism. Welles accomplished this by updating the text—always the hallmark of simile theater—exchanging Roman togas for Italian black shirts and turning Caesar into a Fascist leader. Tyrone Guthrie was also a proponent of simile directing long before he inaugurated the Guthrie Theater with a Victorian “Hamlet.” I still have vivid memories of his Old Vic production of “Troilus and Cressida,” set in the American Civil War with Helen reinterpreted as a seductive torch singer and Thersites as a Brady-like photographer of the battlefield. The Old Vic also staged an updated “Much Ado About Nothing” (directed by Franco Zefferilli), complete with peanut vendors, carabinieri and Italian accents, while the R.S.C. and the National Theater produced a variety of modernized classics, including “Taming of the Shrew” on motorcycles. Perhaps the most consistent updating was done at the now defunct American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut: a “Much Ado” set in Spanish Texas during the time of the Alamo, a “Measure for Measure” in 19th-century Vienna, and a “Twelfth Night” in Brighton at the time of Horatio Hornblower.

All these productions were known inside the trade as “jollying Shakespeare up,” a practice much admired by directors who (overdosed on the Bard) streamlined their assignments with decorative environments as an antidote to creative fatigue. But it was rarely more than a novelty of surfaces, skin-deep, and marred by traces of voguishness; critics were right to carp. Recently, A. J. Antoon staged an attractive example of the genre with a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the New York Public Theater set in the Bahia province of Brazil and featuring priests and priestesses of the Umbanda cult. And this summer Gerald Freedman jollied up the much jollied-up “Much Ado About Nothing” in Central Park by updating it to the Napoleonic wars. Freedman’s “Much Ado” had the advantage of a fine cast, including Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner as a ripening Benedick and Beatrice; but its novel setting lent nothing especially original to the interpretation, apart from a few cannon blasts, Empire clothes, and Kline’s grenadier mustaches.

Directors found operas as convenient to modernize as plays. Peter Sellars, for example, has often used the metaphorical approach in his theater work, but his productions of Handel and Mozart were clear-cut examples of simile directing. Setting “Orlando” in Cape Canaveral and “Julius Caesar” near the Nile Hilton, transporting “Cosi Fan Tutte” to a modern diner (his trump Tower “Marriage of Figaro” I didn’t see), Sellars managed to coat the original libretti with a visual varnish that created more flash than clarity. Sellars’s operatic work is usually spirited and impish, but what he tends to substitute for any deep probing of the material is technical dazzle and anachronistic high jinks—inventions that distract attention from the composer and librettist while attracting it to the director. (Sellars’s work with contemporary opera—“Nixon in China,” for example—is, by contrast, considerably more forthright and simple).

Updating is a shorthand way of showing how the material of a classical play has topical meaning for contemporary audiences. And when directors use this approach for thematic rather than ornamental purposes, it can be valuable and illuminating. But simile productions are rarely as powerful as those that try to capture the imaginative life of a classic through radical leaps into its hidden, sometimes invisible, depths. And while updating is sometimes a component of metaphorical theater, it is rarely the basic device. It may be that what I am trying to describe is a difference in national temperament. Whereas simile theater originally comes from England, metaphorical directing—which originated with the Russian Meyerhold—is usually associated with continental Europe. It is true that the English-born Peter Brook devised at least two fine examples of metaphorical theater with his Beckettian “King Lear” and his circus-oriented “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But Brook’s chief influences in those days were Brecht, Beckett and Artaud, and his subsequent work was largely prepared in Paris. Brecht himself, though celebrated as playwright, was also a metaphorical auteur director as daring as any who today raises purist hackles. His work is virtually a pastiche of plundered literature (“In literature as in life,” he admitted, “I do not recognize concept the of private property”). These thefts, paradoxically, were authorized by Shakespeare, a writer also notable less for originality of plot than of conception. And just as “Hamlet” was a reworking of an earlier play, probably by Kyd, so the great bulk of Brecht’s dramas were conceptual revisions of classical material—“The Threepenny Opera,” to take just the most famous example, being an adaptation of John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera.”

Brecht revised these plays in order to make them conform to a political purpose: he even began an adaptation of “Coriolanus” in which the emphasis was shifted from a story of human fallibility to a study of the economic problems caused by the price of corn. The completed “Coriolan” at the Berliner Ensemble was a brilliant example of metaphorical theater where Marcius and Audifidus stalked each other like Kabuki warriors and Menenius visibly aged before our eyes.

Partly under the influence of Brecht, partly under the influence of Meyerhold, a horde of metaphorical directors soon arose in Rumania—among them Liviu Ciulei and Andrei Serban (both of whom later had associations with my own theater) and Lucian Pintilie. Each of these men turned to the great classical tradition in their efforts to reinvent the modern theater, each doing much of his work in the United States. Ciulei’s reworking of Shakespeare, Buechner, Ibsen and Wedekind—Serban’s of the Greeks, Molière, Beaumarchais, Gozzi, Chekhov and Brecht—Pintilie’s of Molière, lbsen and Chekhov—are among the most powerful and controversial classical productions of our time. And it is possible to argue that, for all their liberties with texts and deviations from received notions, they come closest to the spiritual core of the plays.

Lucian Pintilie’s recent “Cherry Orchard” at the Arena Stage in Washington, for example, dispensed entirely with orthodox Stanislavski furniture and canvas flats, taking place in an environment that brought this familiar play to vibrant new life. The design was basically a bare, painted floor and ramps, with an armoire at one corner that served as bookcase, storage area and crèche. In the second act, sheaves of golden wheat appeared through the floor, presided over by an ominous scarecrow. After the family’s departure in the final scene, as stage tremors rattled the glass of Lopahin’s champagne, the ghost of Ranevsky’s child Grisha materialized to hover over the house as a rebuke to his mother’s irresponsibility. At Firs’s death, the glass rattled more violently, and wheat rose again to gather his body into the artifice of eternity. Thus the metaphysical quality that is always implicit in Chekhov’s work became tangible and manifest through spiritual presences.

Rumanian productions invariably impress us with vivid memories of similar tableaux: Serban’s “Cherry Orchard” with its circular images of confusion and disorder, and his maze-like “Uncle Vanya” with its sense of mechanization and imprisonment; Ciulei’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with its themes of sexual strife and contention emotionally reinforced by an angry Chinese-red surround; Pintilie’s “Wild Duck” with its climactic scene of eggs falling from the loft above, followed by Hedwig’s body smashing to the floor—each provided suggestive visual stimulations in order to generate strong new visions of the play.

Not all metaphorical productions offer equal satisfactions. Lee Breuer’s rendering of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus”—located in a pentacostal black church and retitled “The Gospel at Colonus” (perhaps more a simile than a metaphor)—featured some rousing gospel music by Bob Telson but vitiated the power of the original by adapting a Greek dramatic myth to Christian sacraments and Afro-American rituals. Similarly, Peter Brooks’s [sic] celebrated production of “The Cherry Orchard” done last season at Brooklyn’s beautiful Majestic Theater was the first Chekhov without walls, being located in an abstract space furnished with lovely Persian carpets, bleached and aged is if by Clorox. But the atmosphere was too penumbral, the interpretation too denatured, to capture Checkhov’s [sic] unheard music, and the acting (with notable exceptions—Erland Josephson’s Gaev, Roberts Blossom’s Firs, Linda Hunt’s Charlotta) alternated between British staginess and American clumsiness. In fact, if there is a generic weakness in metaphorical production, it is usually found in the acting performances, which are sometimes neglected in the directorial concern with visual elements.

For me, the most brilliant recent expression of metaphorical reinterpretation was Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish-language “Hamlet” during its brief run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this summer. Rethinking every character, every scene, every moment of the text Bergman managed to invent not just a fresh approach to the title role reflecting the current style of a generation (the actor-oriented pattern of English Hamlets), but rather a comprehensive and original reading of the entire work that prophesied the nightmare of the future. Performed on a bare stage decorated only with an arc of lights, the action followed the disintegration of a completely depraved, in which even Hamlet— sulky, sullen, entirely self-absorbed—was part of the brutalization process. Only Ophelia preserved her innocence. A witness to every vicious action, including Hamlet’s premeditated murder of her father, she fell into a degenerative psychosis—mutilating her hair with a dangerous pair shears and distributing heavy iron nails as if they were flowers. She ultimately appeared as an angelic presence at her own funeral.

The final scene, a stunning coup de théâtre, superimposed a simile coda on an essentially metaphorical conception. Up to that point, the action had occurred in an unknown European country during an indeterminate period. With the entrance of Fortinbras, accompanied by the earsplitting sounds of rock music from a ghetto blaster, the setting became site specific. Outfitted as a Central American military leader in beret and jackboots, and leading soldiers wearing Korean riot helmets and brandishing machine guns, Fortinbras ordered his men to throw all the stage corpses into a pit and take Horatio off and shoot him. His speech over Hamlet’s body—lying on a crude platform—became a photo opportunity in front of Kleig lights, a microphone, a hand-held video camera. The final line of the play—“Go bid the soldiers shoot”—was punctuated by deafening machine gun blasts.

It was a scene of ferocious intensity that penetrated the audience’s soul like a stab wound. It also managed to reinvent the meaning of catharsis for our time. It is true that Bergman’s “Hamlet” evoked more terror than pity, but then so does our century. By reconceiving Shakespeare’s tragedy as a bleak prophecy of the totalitarian future, Bergman managed to shake his audience to its very being while preserving the basic outline of the play.

One cannot argue that such interpolations are faithful to Shakespeare’s original intentions—and it is glib to use the familiar defense that we don’t have the playwright’s telephone number. Still, charges of “desecration” are meaningful only if you subscribe to the idea of a “definitive” production. I don’t. The specialness of theater—alas, the poignance of the theater, too—is its impermanence. Culture is a series of echoes and responses, and a “desecrated” classical text can always be reproduced again on stage in versions closer to the purist’s heart. Texts develop fullness of being only through continuing intervention of collective minds. They are not frozen in time but rather subject to discovery, and each new production generates others in response. It is the proper role of theater to let us look at plays through a variety of perspectives rather than in a single authorized form. It is also the function of criticism. Both act as prisms through which to view the limitless facets of great works of art.

Obviously, metaphorical reinterpretation is a process more appropri­ate for classics than for new plays, and living playwrights—Beckett, for example, who was outraged when Jo­Anne Akalaitis set his “Endgame” in an abandoned subway station—are often resentful of the director’s grow­ing privileges. Still, it was a play­wright, Luigi Pirandello, who put the matter best: “The Theater is not archeology,” he wrote. “Unwilling­ness to take up old works, to modern­ize and streamline them for fresh production, betrays indifference, not praiseworthy caution. The Theater welcomes such modernization and has profited by it throughout the ages when it was most alive.” If our own theater is once again showing signs of life, it is partly because of such bold investigation and daring interpretation.

[Robert Brustein was the founding artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cam­bridge, Massachusetts, where he remains Creative Consultant, and the Yale Repertory Theatre; he is the long-time drama critic of the New Republic. His most recent books are The Tainted Muse (2009), Millennial Stages (2006), Letters to a Young Actor (2005), and The Siege of the Arts (2001).]

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