Swans Commentary » swans.com November 17, 2008  



The Alchemy of Theatre


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



The Alchemy of Theatre: The Divine Science (Essays on Theatre & The Art of Collaboration), Edited by Robert Viagas, Playbill Books, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books - ISBN-13: 978-1-55783-698-4, 284 pages, $29.95.


(Swans - November 17, 2008)   As far as the theatre is concerned, Intelligent Design definitely trumps Evolution. The former has been responsible for some of the most outstanding work in the past two hundred years and its exponents have included directors such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Evgevny Vakhtangov, Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Copeau, Jean Vilar, Tyrone Guthrie, John Dexter, Peter Brook, Richard Foreman, and Robert Wilson. All these men have exercised their creative imagination on works both modern and classical. The "Evolutionary" directors have relied on the fruits of collaboration, the input of talented performers, the egalitarian impulse to let every artist in the creative process make their own (often self-styled) contribution. There have been some outstanding successes with that free-wheeling approach, but the zeniths have been achieved by men who were single-minded, dictatorial, autocratic, and often tyrannical.

That proposition outrages many actors, designers, and, I daresay, directors as well, who genuinely believe that in a collective art like theatre, a collective approach should be fastidiously applied. But no first-rate painter, although he may employ "assistants," would yield the content of his canvasses to others; no composer would permit instrumentalists to "improve" or improvise on the score they have assiduously created, and no author worth his salt, though attentive to outside input, is prepared to relinquish the main thrust of his personal inspiration to accommodate the whims of editors.

The argument is in fact loaded against Intelligent Design because no director, strictly speaking, is "a god" -- although often characterized as one. His mise en scène is the result of proddings, suggestions and insights constantly being made by the members of his company. But these are never automatically incorporated into their productions but filtered, tweaked, and re-angled to reinforce the director's initial notion of how he perceives the material. And the irony is that some of the best actors in the world, rather than balking at the despotism, actually welcome it -- because they admit they lack the objectivity to judge whether their input is helpful or a hindrance. In those instances, the director is utilizing the interpretative talent of his company in precisely the way a composer or a conductor taps the skills of the members of an orchestra.

I have found that where untrammeled democracy rules, the result is often fractured, diminished, or confused -- whereas when a cogent directorial vision is supported by a committed ensemble, the results can, in some instances, be awe-inspiring. That shouldn't imply that all directors, even the zanies and the goofballs who impose fatuous visions on malleable actors, are deserving artists. There are as many stupid directors around as there are stupid actors, and stupidity, no matter what its rank, always invites disaster. But, if we are generalizing (and what else can one do in so disparate an art form), the ruling conception of one mind performed by supernumeraries who support his or her overall view, has the best chance of creating a worthy piece of theatrical art.

This is not the prevailing view of The Alchemy of Theatre, which, in virtually every chapter, celebrates the virtues of collaboration and communal practice. Modest and self-effacing directors and playwrights such as Harold Prince, George C. Wolfe, Terence McNally, and the late Wendy Wasserstein all add their voices to the hymn of democratic process, collective interplay, liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Interestingly, Edward Albee hits a slightly discordant note when he writes: "I dislike the term 'collaboration.' No one collaborates with me on a play because I am not writing the play with them. The process of working with directors and actors after I've written the text may be termed 'collaboration' by them. But they aren't creating anything. When they try to 'create,' it's destructive creation, usually, unless the play is terrible. Let us call it 'having my play done properly' rather than 'collaboration.'"

David Mamet (who is not included in this anthology) argues in his book True and False that virtually nothing is more paramount than the text. "The actor does not need to 'become' the character," says Mamet. "The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page." In Mamet's ideal theatrical world, no collaborator is required other than the playwright. Addressing actors he writes: "The author's contribution is the text. If it's good, it doesn't need your help. If it's lacking, there's nothing you can do to aid it. Recognize the fact and learn to live with it -- the words and their meaning are not your responsibility. Wisdom lies in doing your job and getting on with it." Emphatically Mamet advises just "learn the lines." But of course, Mamet's True and False is essentially a comic book disguised as a primer on acting. It is so full of hot air it would make the Hindenberg look like a toy balloon. But I allude to it simply to suggest that, whereas serious-minded directors, producers, and designers may throw manna upon the art of collaboration, there are talented egotists -- both writers and directors -- who ignore the injunction.

The idealization of the playwright over all the other artisans of the theatre is by no means limited to David Mamet. Detailed scripts of Bertolt Brecht's plays under the rubric of modellebuecher were regularly sent out to theatres contemplating productions of the Master's work, the intention being to help these theatres duplicate the original productions of the Berliner Ensemble. A disastrously misguided venture that never worked and only aroused sarcasm and antipathy in equal amounts. Brecht, like Mamet, believed the trick was simply cloning the original work and resisting the individualistic suggestions that feed and nourish "collaboration." For all we know, Sophocles and Euripides were just as insistent as contemporary playwrights in preserving the purity of their original creations. In 5th century Greece, there may have been "collaboration" between actors and choregoi but it is more likely that authors wielded the baton themselves and supervised every word spoken behind their masks.

It is indisputable that of all the performing arts, theater (and its off-shoots opera and ballet) depends on collaboration. That is a truism that doesn't require 284 pages to win our agreement. It is not the principle of collaboration that needs parsing, but the innumerable ways in which collaborations succeed or fail depending on how the balance of power shifts in each respective situation. It is not that "collaboration" is, in any sense, a flawed process but that in the theatre, unless there is an overriding conception that is able to harmonize all the disparate elements of set, costumes, lighting, text, and interpretation, there is a danger that too many cooks will spoil the broth; i.e., diminish and diffuse the enveloping idea that makes all those parts blend into a unified whole. Some collaborations work like a charm; some rapidly unwind and fall apart. Some are instinctively dominated by certain influential members of the team -- playwrights, directors, or star-actors, sometimes high-profile designers. Collaboration is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The Alchemy of Theatre, edited with great care and affection by Robert Viagas, is a glossy, beautifully turned out, coffee-table volume with high definition photos of all its illustrious contributors and full of a lot of good sense contributed by leading practitioners drawn from all corners of the American stage. It is, in my view, built on a dubious theoretical foundation and although it overtly avoids controversy, cannot help but provoke counter-arguments to many of its underlying artistic contentions.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 17, 2008