This week, I read an article by Philip Kennicott, which appeared in the Washington Post. It was entitled:
In it, Kennicott argues that the arts, and especially theatre and opera, are guilty of removing from classical texts their less politically-correct elements. In other words, if a play reflects a worldview which has fallen out of fashion (ie: casual racism), the producing body will simply omit that element.
It’s a point that warrants some discussion. It’s true that these sanitizing omissions change the meanings of the original texts, and therefore shield us from the full force of the artists’ intentions. A classic example of this folly is the de-racialized Huckleberry Finn, which, when you really think about it, is not a real book. These alterations are more comfortable for audiences, as they do not have to face unpleasant emotions or revisit their collective history of, say, domestic violence or anti-Semitism.
But Kennicott glosses over an important issue: when these works were originally performed, the audiences were very different. If a play contained casual racism, and the audience was casually racist, then that aspect of the play would not be offensive or uncomfortable for that original audience. The original intention of the text did not contain the discomfort that our modern sensibilities bring to it. It is not the play that has changed, it is the audience.
So what do we do? Do we preserve the text, so that contemporary audiences can interact directly with it as a cultural artifact? Do we embrace the text, and let audiences experience it as raw art? Or do we attempt to reconstruct the experience an original audience might have felt? Do we follow the author’s original intention instead of the the author’s document?
Letter of the law, or spirit of the law?
This is an irreconcilable problem. The raw fact is that culture has changed around the piece of art, and now it can never have the same meaning as it did originally. And this is something all artists who work with revivals must contend with. In fact, one could argue, no theatrical event is ever the same after its first production! Once context is changed, meaning has changed with it! How then are we to preserve an author’s intention when every reiteration contains a mutated meaning?
I know this one:
I applaud Kennicott for taking a stand with originalism, and I tend to fall into his camp — though I don’t think this is a rule that can be applied in every case. I think I may have found a solution, though! I think there is one way to resolve this issue:
Stop doing revivals.
That sucks, I know. And obviously there is a place for classic texts on stage. But it seems to me that this whole debate is propagated on the fable of the Classic, which somehow overrules the validity of the New. We continue to re-stage classic texts more than we produce original works of our own. Even Hollywood doesn’t reboot as often as we do in the theatre. I think it’s a crutch.
What we need is more NEW WORK, an art for our times, made for our moment, which speaks to our issues as we understand them today!
There. I fixed it.