Here's an article I wrote a few months ago about theatrical revivals. It seems as good an introduction as any and is the closest thing I have so far to a manifesto.
Last winter’s production at the Court Theatre of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw raised for me many questions about the means and merits of revivals. In the theatrical landscape of Chicago, revivals are everywhere. The Court, for instance, has dedicated itself exclusively to “classic theatre” and it is by no means alone. On any given night of theater one is more likely to see an old play than a new one. (For the sake of full disclosure, in the past four years I have been involved in the production of 14 plays, the most modern of which dates to about 1734.) It is necessary, then, to understand what it means to produce an old play, and how it must be treated. The views expressed in this article will be dismissed by many as conservative, but I reject the pejorative connotations of the label. My program is rigorous and insistent on the widest diversity of theatrical experiences and the continued creation of new and vibrant plays.
The production of What the Butler Saw and its director Sean Graney received varied but generally positive reviews from the major arts and news sources of Chicago. In fact, one of the few negative reviews centered mostly on the author’s personal distaste for Joe Orton rather than on any feature of the production itself. Overall, the design was inspired: the antiseptic façade of clinical calm provided the perfect canvas on which insanity could splatter itself, jolting to life with the satisfaction of anticipation well-rewarded at every flower cut and every table overturned. The acting was evenly exceptional, particularly the ecstatic madness of Joe Foust and the doe-eyed desperation of Mechelle Moe. For all this though, the show, which was enjoyable, failed to reach its potential.
Sean Graney’s direction, while laudable in providing the environment necessary for a cohesive and glittery production, seemed ultimately antagonistic to the play. Setting it in the modern day, rather than the play’s contemporary 1960s England, allowed Graney to indulge in unmotivated and overwrought excursions through the Ridalin-addled subconscious of the immediate present. Dr. Rance’s fetish (?) for robot masks and spaceships (wholly absent from the text) was unveiled as Elton John’s “Rocketman” blasted from the speakers; the policeman, stripped, revealed an unmotivated and exhausting cat fixation—these additions obscured with bold brush the more pointed sexual revelations of principal characters Dr. and Mrs. Prentice. Graney seemed unconcerned also with the tireless pace and dazzling wit of Orton’s style. He slowed to an accentuated crawl dialogue written for the snap of a wit and the quick sting of the rebuttal to follow.
All this, I am confident, was undertaken nobly with an eye toward “modernizing” the play, and making it more palatable to an American audience of our present day. Unfortunately, ever intent on wrestling from it some new meaning or hip relevance that the play itself is entirely unconcerned with, Graney missed its native excellence. What the Butler Saw is still dirty, still smart, still fast and funny, as when it was written. Barely forty years old, it deals with themes that the avant-garde of every generation for over a hundred years has taken credit for—it is accessible.
When we revive classic plays, we universally strive for the least interference toward the greatest intelligibility. If the play is foreign, we need to get it into English. Other aspects of the dramatic environment we leave uninterrupted because they are either essential to the piece, or at least convenient and delightful. We don’t need to translate Shakespeare but we acknowledge his language offers many barriers to immediate comprehension. This is one of the better reasons we have to defend the contemporary necessity of transplanting Shakespeare’s plays to any number of times and settings, or for forgiving the much worse habit of the winking, bucking, over-expression of every possible sexual pun. And even when such unmistakable linguistic barriers drop, there are always others—subtler and discreetly located but still challenging. Throw-away lines about obscure pop-culture figures, should these be changed, cut, or left to fall to a twitter? And how can we wrestle with impertinent themes or outdated styles?
It is appealing for these reasons to think of every revival as a kind of translation, but this flirts with missing the point of revivals in the first place. Indeed, why insist that a revival is a translation when it could be rather a journey into the realities and concerns of a different time? How marvelous, when there, to learn that these concerns are still my concerns, that I am not alone in the universe! Why, in theater, do we feel the need to bend the texts to us? We do not ask this of books or of films. We never ask why the Joads didn’t take a plane to California. We can watch Dr. Strangelove and not lament its foreign Cold War paranoia. We don’t remake it to our current tastes. Art worth revisiting is worth revisiting honestly and worth acknowledging for the author’s intents and concerns. If these are seen as too foreign, or if anyone has an idea to position the piece in some entirely new way to render it more fresh and exciting for a new generation, he is welcome to write a new play. We should take as an example the recent Merchant On Venice produced at The Silk Road Theatre Company. The play has its own imperfections, certainly, but it strikes me at least as more honest about its deviation from its Shakespearean kernel then, say, Court’s more recent Titus Andronicus. Theater has an illustrious history of telling stories everyone already knows, why pretend homosexuality or Indian-Pakistani relations into Shakespeare’s play when we can rather endow new circumstances with the weight and brilliance of the well-known tale?
By avoiding the analog of translation, we can also escape the translator’s traumas. When translating Plautus or Molière for production, we must determine whether we are asking ourselves if he were alive today in our country, what would he write? or are we acknowledging the singularity and concrete existence of a piece of work and allowing it to live for its time again on stage—an ancient voice in present tense? This is not a simple question. In his production, Graney was insistent on the former. He wanted to put on the What the Butler Saw that Orton would have written had he been alive in the early Chicago winter of 2007. But he didn’t succeed for the simplest reason: it wasn’t good enough. The textual changes were poor and noticeable—“Aunt Jemima Dolls,” for instance, loses all the rhythm of “golliwog”—and the unscripted additions were meandering or asinine.
We have an incredible inheritance in the masterpieces of the past. But, let’s never forget that iO is free at midnight, that the Neo-Futurists are on Ashland: options exist for an audience that wants well-written comedy tuned precisely for the contemporary ear and the same is true for tragedy. Not least of all, sublimating the native desires of the expressions of past generations, while insisting on the necessity of dwelling on them, injures the present as mortally as the past. As long as we consider it legitimate to inject any contemporary theme or point of reference into weathered masterpieces we rob ourselves the chance of letting a new play do that talking.
Theater is activity in time, it is fleeting and to some degree impossible to recreate. When we do a revival we insist that the two dimensional map of the drama is so excellent or so popular that it is worth walking through again. Certainly, we are not bound to produce the show exactly as it was originally done, this would be never fun and rarely interesting. We must produce shows that speak to our current circumstances as they honor their origin. We must draw out themes, arguments, characters, and ideas overlooked but extant in the dramas. But there must be something in the text sufficiently excellent to merit revisiting on its own terms: characters, language, themes, plot, or comedy; the list is long. In Orton’s case it is plot and comedy. The play is funny enough to warrant seeing again, and sufficiently unique in its comedy to merit being singled out and revived. Let then, the comedy, alone. In every case it is the justification for revival that must be preserved. If the comedy is not funny enough as written, why produce it? Let it fade into obscurity. We are not required to perform old plays. The academics can have them to ruminate and footnote. But if it is worth producing again—and What the Butler Saw is, Titus Andronicus is—let it be worth producing honestly.