The playwright has her cake and eats it too

As promised, the first in two posts responding to Manjula Padmanabhan’s follow-up criticism of our production of her play Harvest at UC Berkeley. She labors under the misapprehension that we need her approval and benediction. This is absurd — everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if she didn’t like the performance then that’s fine. It is nice, of course, to have people like the work, but her backhanded praise (“the actors were very gifted; it isn’t their fault that they were encouraged to over-act recklessly”) and patronizing tone certainly don’t earn her points in my book.

I firmly believe in the prerogatives of the writer as long as they are willing to act on their objections. Unfortunately, Padmanabhan is unwilling to recognize the possibility that her play may be less than clear stylistically:

It is hard therefore, for me to understand the need for me to specify what I want from a production. I already know, from past experience, that some directors succeed in interpreting the script appropriately.

In other words, because someone else thinks the way she does, clearly everyone should reach that same “correct” conclusion. It’s a very appropriate attitude, given our contemporary political atmosphere in this country. Why start a dialogue when you have at least one supporter?

Now that she is safely validated by one production and three readings, she has eaten her cake. However, she says:

It’s not true that once a play has been written and published it is automatically “out there” for the world to do with it what it likes… So long as the playwright is still alive, it is considered quite normal for him/her to exercise some control over how the work is performed.

But she does not excercise this control. She has had problems with interpretations of her play before — does she merely go into every production offer, wide-eyed and full of naivete? No, her policy is “don’t ask, do tell.” She does not ask about the aims and aesthetics of the production, and she does tell people that the authorial intent, so clearly seen by at least one director, has been deliberately bypassed. Having eaten her cake in one production, Padmanabhan wants to have it as well.

Padmanbhan throws in a few platitudes that once she realizes that “a production that has set off down the wrong path” she still wouldn’t want “to object and to insist that it be done differently,” because “it’s kinder to permit the show to go on.” These are nice sentiments, but short of withdrawing her contract granting the rights to the production, there is little she can do in those situations. What undercuts this highmindedness is that after the first weekend she withdrew her permission to have the production videotaped, so I will never get to see my own performance in which I “over-act recklessly.”

I have already addressed the issue of her instructions within the text in my previous post. However, she believes the real problem to be that

some directors believe in allowing a play to breathe on its own, while others try to force their own breath into it. The first variety is wonderful to work with — and I have no difficulty accepting the minor cuts and/or additions such directors might request. The directors interpreted my script in a straightforward manner and didn’t add any unexpected flourishes to the existing text. The result was cool, austere and true to my intention; a happy place for all concerned to be in.

Padmanabhan writes of the director as an enabler, a technician who facilitates the embodiment of the text. This limited view of directing runs counter to the more modern (as modern as automobiles) idea of the director as a creative artist. She thinks of this as a difference of an “internal” intent that she has placed in the text versus and “external” intent imposed by the reader. But the play is in the end merely a collection of words, and the intent or interpretation she ascribes to it is her own “external” intent, validated by her authority as author. If she really wanted to be clear about her own intent, she could easily write some prefacing remarks about how the play should be performed exactly, following the script to the letter.

To her, this is completely unncessary, because some directors have produced the “cool, austere” production that she desires. Fundamentally, Padmanabhan believes that newer text should be privileged over older text:

I believe it’s because they don’t allow the text to breathe. When they’re performing familiar, classic plays, it doesn’t matter because the audience already knows what the original is like. The problem arises when they approach new work. In such situations, what they produce can appear to be what the playwright intended.

In her world, only those “classic” plays (what is classic?), the plots of which are universal or whose “original intent” is known by the audience (who is the audience?), are open game for non-authorial interpretations. Her fear is that any production that doesn’t conform to her view of the play is an inaccurate representation. Instead of excercising some artistic control, she says “one has just got to grit one’s teeth and let the thing run.”

Despite all of my nitpicking about her complaints, I am sympathetic to the underlying dissatistfaction that fuels Padmanabhan’s comments. It is incredibly frustrating to be misunderstood, especially if your ideas have been validated in a previous production. However, she cannot seem to make up her mind about how to deal with this disappointment. Indeed, she believes she shouldn’t have to do anything, not even exercise choice over where and how her work is performed. Instead she accuses others of acting in bad faith in an attempt to keep control of the interpretation after the performance. How can we view this other than having her cake and eating it too?