Essays

On the Nature of Interpretation: Act One of an essay by Arnold Wesker

By Arnold Wesker

9 February 2011

In Part One of our serialisation of Arnold Wesker's three-act essay "Interpretation - To Impose or Explain", written in 1988 and updated in 2010, the playwright makes a combative case for the integrity of the playwright's intentions.

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The problem of what should happen when a director accepts to realise on the stage what has been written on the page – a process that is often called interpretation – is a complex problem and one that raises principles of fundamental ethical importance.

There can be no doubt that in the last 70 years directors have emerged who have changed the visual, audio, and choreographic experience of the theatre.  My own experience of working with directors is mixed.  The worst lead to changes to which I never should have agreed, and resulted in disaster; the best have been rewarding and resulted in changes to text and structure which have enhanced the power and meaning of the play.  But -

- a madness is sweeping through world theatre, a madness that elevated the role and importance of the director above the role and importance of the playwright.  The stage has become shrill with the sounds of the director’s vanity; it has been cluttered with his or her tricks and visual effects.  No play is safe from their, often hysterical, manipulations.  The productions we are seeing claim attention to themselves rather than to the play. The playwright’s vision of the human condition has become secondary to the director’s bombastic striving for personal impact; the playwright’s text, the playwright’s visual concepts, his rhythmic arrangement of scenes, her emotional tensions, his unfolding of narrative action, her perceptions of human behaviour, are distorted, re-arranged, cut, or ignored by the director and sometimes the actors.

Let us remind ourselves of something that is perhaps forgotten.  The raw material of the playwright is their individual experience of life.  The experience is a kind of chaos into which occasionally there shines a light, a tiny light of meaning.  A small part of the chaos is identified, sometimes comprehended.  Playwrights give this comprehended chaos a shape, an order; they call it a play.  And like scholars they are handling what are called primary sources, which no one else has explored.  Those primary sources are their own being and experience for which an original quality of imagination, and a kind of courage is called upon because they are going where no one dared to go before.

The metamorphosis which seems to be taking place in the theatre is this: directors are usurping plays as their primary source, as their raw material to do with it as they fancy.  The playwright endures the life and from it shapes the play; the director often rapes it.

The difference between the playwright and director is usually defined in terms of function – the playwright writes, the director enables what has been written to be performed.  I don’t believe mere function adequately describes the difference.  For me the most important difference between the two of them is that whereas the playwright commits his private being to public exposure, at the end of a production you know of a director only the degree of their talent for organising spectacle, and their skill for orchestrating performance and movement onstage.  Occasionally a text is clarified.  But you end knowing nothing about their private life, their fears or self-doubts, and little of the quality of their thought, their poetic powers of perception.  They have not committed or risked ambivalences, uncertainties, they have not articulated views which go against the cant in vogue, you do not know in detail what the director thinks about sex, politics, or human beings in the way you know what writers think and feel after they have written plays.  And in exercising their power the director seems to be supported by critics and academics, and, finally, the audience; playwrights are relegated to the role of innocent children needing the stern hand of a father, a fuehrer, to control and guide them.

My own view is that this power, like the power of the bully, has grown out of a deep sense of inadequacy.  The creative artist takes exhilarating risks either by handling explosive material or daring to think, utter, record, describe what few others dare, and to identify what no one has before identified.  Directors, understandably but mistakenly, often feel lacking in comparison with what they have to offer; and because they can’t repaint da Vinci, or re-write Crime and Punishment, or publish Dante’s Inferno to be read back to front; because they can’t put the choral part of Beethoven’s 9th symphony in the beginning or middle instead of at the end, so they turn to theatre.  There is something about the process of rehearsing a play which, requiring the physical presence of a director, encourages them to slip in and indulge what it excites and flatters them to call their ‘concepts’ at the expense of the playwright’s vision.  The playwright’s work can be distorted, even censored, and no one objects.  When it is a new play no one even knows.  It is considered to be legitimate directorial interpretation.


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