Tony Award winning playwright Brian Friel has something to say about Asolo Repertory Theatre‘s production of his play Philadelphia, Here I Come. Well not too much to say, more of a resounding “No.” Asolo Repertory Theatre of Saratosa, Florida is producing Philadelphia, Here I Come as one of their eight plays being produced between January and July of this year (a large undertaking for a large repertory theatre). In this production, director Frank Galati (A Tony Award Winner as well) choose to cut three characters, two intermissions, and add some music and dancing. A crime? According to Friel’s agent, a big no-no.
The full article goes on to discuss the artistic discussion behind the actions taken to the play, claiming more than anything, that Asolo had previously added music to Leah Napolin’s show Yentl and the Napolin loved it. However, in this instance the playwright had also been notified, unlike Friel and his agent, and most of the original script was maintained, music was simply added. In fact, it was only Friel’s agent catching wind of the alterations that lead him to inquire and eventually object to the modifications in the play.
I am wondering at what point theatres/directors/collaborators may be allowed to modify texts as they see fit to meet the needs of their theatre? To the playwright, this was an act of butchery of his text and artistic ideas. The modification of the text did not fit the timber with which he wrote the scenes, characters, interactions. Nor do I think the production I saw of Midsummer Night’s Dream when Puck and Oberon were 80’s coke dealers fit the aesthetic ideal Shakespeare had in mind. But we so many theatres take classical texts (Shakespeare, Moliere, Greeks) and warp them so as to appeal to the current audience. But this is a contemporary playwright, who is still living, and who has opinions about the way in which his text should be performed. The needs and artistic license of the theatre is in a combative conversation with the Friel’s artistic voice. Whose right? Or, maybe more accurate, is there a right?
If this is reminding anyone a little of Edward Albee‘s precision of his play production, you understand my original interaction with the subject. But this is to a far less degree. Friel is asking his characters, words, and structures to remain what he had intended. The music and dancing was not the issue, it was the removal of his work. The play was not as he had written it in the text and pauses.
That being said, what artistic leaps can we make with contemporary plays without jeopardizing the artistic backbone the playwright has sculpted? Cutting characters, eliminating breaks, etc. may seem like no big deal to us as we devise a piece of theatre from a given text, but if we are still calling it the playwrights name, are we really performing their work? No, we are then doing just that: devising. Creating something new which is inspired by, but not married to, the original work. By billing and purchasing rights to Philadelphia, Here I Come Asolo Rep. signed an artistic promise to uphold that work, which was not done. Not due to any means to hurt the play, but an attempt to make it work better for the company. An understandable goal, but in the end, not Friel’s play.