Beckett: Seeing Red on Stage

The major winner at the Tony Awards this year was Red, a biographical play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, with six wins including the award for best play. The action surrounds Rothko’s commission for paintings to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. While Rothko did complete the paintings he ultimately refused to hand over the works after taking exception to how pretentious the restaurant was. He returned the commission money, derided the restaurant, and the paintings are instead on display in various other galleries. Recently the Four Seasons got in contact with the Red production team and requested for some of the paintings created during the show’s performances to be displayed in the restaurant. The request was denied to the bewilderment of the restaurant. A spokesperson from representatives of the Rothko estate thought it would be quite bizarre when “an almost-completed-but-fake painting is hung in the place where the artist decided he was not going to let the real painting hang.”

Another artist whose wishes have been respected from beyond the grave, though with much greater determination, is playwright Samuel Beckett. Beckett was extremely particular about maintaining the integrity of his plays and contracts for the staging of Beckett’s plays have clauses in order to preserve the integrity of the text and stage directions. In fact he was so determined on this point that when he was approached by a company who wanted to stage Waiting for Godot with an all female cast for the Berlin festival in 1982 he agreed only on the conditions that the production go no further than the festival and that his total disapproval was made clear to the audience. In 1988 a Denver group were allowed to stage a version and cast female actors (though all references to sex in the script remained male) but a statement in the production’s program was required to clarify that Beckett had written the play for five male characters and “has never approved otherwise.”

Things were not so civil when, in the same year, a Dutch theatre company attempted to produce the play with a female cast. Beckett refused permission for the production and took the theatre company to court in order to prevent the performance. Beckett’s argument was that the female casting would violate the integrity of the text (for example the effect of Vladimir’s enlarged prostate in the script) and he also questioned vocal quality. Beckett lost the case in the Netherlands and as a result he banned all further productions of his plays in that country. After Beckett’s death in 1989 his estate has since continued with attempts to block female casting for a 1991 production of the play in France (unsuccessful) and in Italy in 2006 (also unsuccessful). The estate did have success in preventing a French production with female leads in 1992 because the judge claimed it would infringe on Beckett’s integrity right.

The Beckett examples have raised questions about how much control a playwright should have on the production of plays. These kinds of considerations have motivated philosophical investigations into the relationship between a script and a performance that utilises that script. If the performance is really an interpretation of the play, and the play is the artwork, then perhaps a playwright’s claim for authentic performance is stronger. Aristotle, for example, held the text to be the work and the staging to be a mere pleasurable accessory:

The Melody is the greatest of the pleasurable accessories of Tragedy. The Spectacle, though an attraction, is the least artistic of all the parts, and has least to do with the art of poetry. The tragic effect is quite possible without a public performance and actors; and besides, the getting-up of the Spectacle is more a matter for the costumier than the poet. [Poetics 1450b15-20]

More recently this traditional view of the script as artwork has been questioned by philosophers like James Hamilton (see related article link below). On his theory the script is merely one of many ingredients that go into the creation of a performance (along with props, lighting decisions, etc.). Productions then have the option of using the script in any number of ways in the service of a performance. Such usage of the script reflects some developments in avant-garde theatre practice over the course of the last century. If the ingredients model of theatre is accepted then the claim for authorial control to the extent of that exercised by Beckett and his estate could seem weakened.

Related articles:
The Text-Performance Relation in Theater
By James Hamilton , Kansas State University
(Vol. 4, June 2009)
Philosophy Compass

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