A quick check with the Dramatists Guild in New York confirms that the magpie culture of borrowing and re-appropriation that drives current pop music is largely alien to playwrights, even when one work is in creative conversation with another. Unlike Hollywood screenwriters who get paid but lose copyright control to the studios, playwrights—usually poorly paid—at least retain copyright. If a playwright were to try a freewheeling, blurry-lined adaptation of, say, Tony Kushner’s early 1990s “Angels in America” or Ntzoke Shange’s 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” without first licensing the rights, odds are pretty good that would be stealing.
So wrote Washington Post theater reviewer Nelson Pressley in a comment about the repercussions from the Gaye v. Thicke and Williams copyright-infringement verdict on 10 March. I just posted an article about plagiarism in the arts, “What Constitutes Theft in the Arts?,” which focused on pop music (see 5 May on ROT). That seems to be where most of the copyright-infringement charges turn up and, as Pressley remarks, there aren’t many cases of alleged plagiarism in the theater. Derivation, yes; actual theft, not so much.
I imagine that there have been instances of charges of plagiarism and copyright infringement levied against playwrights in the past, but I can’t recall reading of any in recent memory (and, trust me, I’ve been around and about for a fair number of years). There’s a related case, but not of copyright infringement, in the film industry from 1989. Chris Costner Sizemore, the woman on whose story the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve was based, sued 20th Century Fox when she learned that she’d signed over the rights to her whole life story when she agreed to the making of the film. Fox insisted that she couldn’t sell the motion picture rights to a memoir she’d written (A Mind of My Own; Morrow, 1989) because the studio owned the rights to Sizemore’s entire life, not just the period covered by Three Faces. Fox lost the suit, but this wasn’t about theater and it wasn’t a copyright-infringement case.
In a case a little like Sizemore’s, but this time in the stage world, David Hampton sued playwright John Guare for $100 million in 1992 with the claim that Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation had infringed on Hampton’s copyright on his personality and his life story. Though Hampton’s criminal activities were, in fact, the basis for Guare’s successful 1990 play (it was nominated for 1991 Drama Desk and Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prize; it won the 1990-91 OBIE Award, the 1991 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the 1993 Laurence Olivier Award), the case was dismissed. The charge against Guare was copyright infringement (although I’m not sure anyone can copyright a personality or a life story), but this wasn’t a case of plagiarism since Hampton didn’t have anything written that Guare could have stolen. Further, the suit was clearly frivolous, intended merely to pressure Guare and his producers and publishers to avoid the expense of a trial. Hampton had previously been convicted of harassing Guare with threats and phone calls demanding money. Fox had been serious in its suit against Sizemore—serious though arrogant; Hampton was just audacious.
This dearth of litigation among playwrights and stage producers (who, since they don’t own the copyrights to the scripts they produce, unlike film producers, don’t have much standing to sue anyone anyway) doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of borrowing, adapting, and appropriating in the theater. It’s ubiquitous and goes back to pretty ancient times. I doubt a season just in New York City alone doesn’t pass without at least one adapted or derived play on the boards; nationwide, I can’t imagine that there isn’t at least one in production somewhere at any given time. Many of our greatest and most popular plays are versions of something else that came before and even if you eliminate non-theatrical sources—movies, novels, even TV shows nowadays—the list would be endless.
The traditional American musical has mostly been an adaptation of a straight play. In fact, in its earliest incarnation, the musical theater was almost always the result of the musicalization of a straight drama or, more likely, comedy. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) was based on the play Green Grow The Lilacs by Lynn Riggs (1931); Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady (1956) was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913); A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim was based on several classic Roman comedies by Plautus; Purlie (1970) by Gary Geld, Ossie Davis, Peter Udell, and Philip Rose was a musicalization of Davis’s Purlie Victorious (1961); and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (1983) was based on the French play of the same title by Jean Poiret (1973). Add in shows adapted from films (Carnival!, 1961; Woman of the Year, 1981), novels (South Pacific, 1949; Camelot, 1961), TV shows (The Addams Family, 2010; Cinderella, 2013), and even newspaper and magazine features (Pal Joey, 1940; Guys and Dolls, 1950), and the list is endless. But none of these, regardless of quality or ultimate critical evaluation, are copies—derivative, perhaps, but all of them are original works of theater.
She Loves Me (1963) is a perfect case in point which even comes with an expanded web of connections. The musical with book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick is, first, adapted from the 1937 Hungarian play by Miklós László that’s known in English as Parfumerie. (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, of course, had been previously responsible for Fiorello! (1959)—my very first Broadway play—and would ultimately create Fiddler on the Roof (1964). Joe Masteroff would go on to write the book for Cabaret in 1966—itself an adaptation of John van Druten’s 1951 I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 collection, The Berlin Stories.) Parfumerie wasn’t produced on a U.S. stage until 2009 when it was presented as The Perfume Shop by the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, in an English adaptation by E. P. Dowdall, László’s nephew. (A Toronto staging of an adaptation from Canadian writers Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins was also produced that year at the Soulpepper Theatre Company.) As far as I can learn, the play’s never been presented in New York City. (I'm not sure the script is even available in English.)
Before the musical adaption, Parfumerie was the source for a still-popular romantic film comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, entitled The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. That movie was itself musicalized as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, with the setting shifted from 1930s Budapest to turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago. That film adaptation was followed several decades later by the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan 1998 romcom You’ve Got Mail, directed by Nora Ephron from her own script which reset the tale in contemporary New York City and turned the letters the secret lovers send each other into e-mails. (The shop also changed in each incarnation: in Parfumerie, it’s obviously a perfume shop; in Shop Around the Corner, it’s a gift shop; in Summertime, it’s a music store; in Mail, Hanks and Ryan run rival book stores on the Upper West Side.)
Finally, at least so far, the MGM straight motion picture, whose script was by Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, was re-adapted (and translated into French!) by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann and Evelyne Fallot in 2001, when it was staged by Zilbermann as a non-musical play, La boutique au coin de la rue (“The shop at the corner of the street”), at Paris’s Théâtre Montparnasse, where it won five Molière Awards (the French equivalent to New York’s Tonys).
On New Year’s Eve in 2006, I saw a performance of She Loves Me at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (I also saw the Broadway revival in May 1994, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Boyd Gaines, but I never wrote a report on the performance.) Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the Arena production of what executive director Stephen Richard characterized as “an endearing story of letters and love” starred Kevin Kraft as Georg Nowack and Brynn O’Malley as Amalia Balash (the characters called Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak in Shop), and was, of course, staged in the round. She Loves Me, which Arena artistic director Molly Smith called “a nearly perfect musical,” is old-fashioned in the vein of My Fair Lady or The King and I (getting a major revival right now at New York’s Lincoln Center). An “homage to one of the greatest romantic ideals, finding a soulmate,” as production dramaturg Michelle T. Hall put it, She Loves Me “courts all the different facets of love: boyish crushes, erotic affairs, married love, broken hearts, and the most elusive of all, true love.” It’s charming and fun, even if the songs, which Smith described as “completely character-driven” and “expressions of the characters’ feelings and situations,” are not especially memorable (I no longer remember them, a scant nine years later).
Alluding to the letters of poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the love sonnets of Shakespeare, and the fictionalized proxy love correspondence in Cyrano de Bergerac, Hall positioned the musical “in the tradition of epistolary love affairs.” She also quoted director Donnelly in an oblique comment on the up-dated e-correspondence of You’ve Got Mail: “There is something so tangible, visceral and immediate about a letter. It can be tucked away and pulled out to read at a moment’s notice. You hold something that the other person touched, created, and e-mail just doesn’t compare.” Like the play’s format and structure, the romance at its center is also old-fashioned; outside of the exchange of letters, Georg and Amalia clash like Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick and Beatrice.
Arena’s production of She Loves Me, which included no stars or actors whom I knew, was even, solid, and much more than just competent, though no performance stood out in the ensemble. Director Donnelly made good use of the Fichandler’s arena platform—I always feel that staging a musical in the round is particularly hard—and everyone’s voice was strong (they were miked, as usual these days) and vibrant. I especially liked Arpad’s one solo number, “Try Me,” his self-promotion. Clifton Guterman, the young actor playing the delivery boy-who-would-be-a-clerk, may have looked a tad older than a teenager, but his tenor was youthful and his enthusiasm in selling himself (and the song) was delightful. But in the end, this was an ensemble production (though its past includes stars: Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash in the original Broadway run along with Jack Cassidy, who won a Tony as the self-serving Steven Kodaly; and near-stars: Boyd Gaines, who won a Tony as Georg Nowack in the 1993 Roundabout/Broadway revival, and Louis Zorich, “Mr. Olympia Dukakis,” as Mr. Maraczek); the cast as a whole did a very nice job. (By coincidence, one of the cable channels ran both The Shop Around the Corner and then In the Good Old Summertime the week before I saw the stage musical. That was kind of fun, though the station unhappily didn’t run You’ve Got Mail as well, and it illustrated many of the aspects of theatrical adaptation.)
Alongside musicalization, the most common form of adaptation in theater is probably translation. Every translation of a play, usually accomplished by another playwright or other theater professional or a writer from another genre, is a form of adaptation, even when the translator’s intent is to render the original author’s text as directly as possible. Many translations are also deliberate adaptations, from simply transferring the setting from the original one to one based in the culture of the new language or an up-dating of the play’s time period to even more extensive changes. A case in point is Nora, a new German version of Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House by Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, a Berlin company, which I saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre in November 2004.
Nora is the standard German title for Doll House (1879), but this was more than just a new translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel—and less than a full adaptation. The pay was reset in the 21st century, both in look and in language (some of the music in the production was by Pharrell Williams), but everything from the original was still in this version—the Helmers were still Norwegians (that is, they weren’t transported to Berlin or something); Torvald was still a banker; Nora was still a stay-at-home wife; they still had three kids; Rank (still a doctor), Krogstad, and Kristine were all still there in the same relationships as Ibsen put them in; and, most significant, Nora had still secretly forged her father’s signature on the loan agreement with which she had borrowed money to pay for her and Torvald’s trip to Italy when he was ill. There were a few minor changes—there was no nurse in this version, and Helene, the maid, had become Monika, an au pair from Africa.
The Schaubühne did make some more significant changes to the text/story to make it seem more current, however, and some of them seemed to have diluted the original dramatic impact. One wasn’t very large—though the meaning was more significant than it might seem: Rank wasn’t dying of cancer; he’d gotten AIDS from having been omni-sexual in his youth. Now this may not seem like much of an alteration, but it struck me as weakening Ibsen’s point—which is, itself, a little hard to buy today also. Ibsen believed, as did many in his day, that moral corruption is manifested later in physical illness—and could be passed on, like a hereditary disease, to the children. This was a pseudo-scientific belief in the late 19th century, and Ibsen used it in a more prominent way in Ghosts, of course—where Osvald’s father’s sexual profligacy is inherited by Osvald as syphilis. What’s the difference between this and the new version? Well, as I see it, cancer isn’t a disease we generally blame on willfully unhealthy behavior—especially in the 19th century when no one knew about the connection to smoking and other carcinogenic activities. So, if Rank has cancer and he blames it on his corrupt youth, then it must be some kind of moral retribution since the youthful behavior didn’t directly cause the cancer. However, if he has AIDS because he had unprotected sex with infected men and women, his illness is a direct result of his willful behavior. (Because the adaptation was set in the 2000’s, he can’t even use the excuse that no one knew what caused AIDS when he engaged in the behavior.) Unless you subscribe to the notion that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality or promiscuity, the moral element was erased from the situation. (As I said, this aspect of the play is hard to play today, but it only works at all if the play remains set in the 19th century when people actually believed this theory.) This was somewhat more significant than just as an element in the Rank-Nora subplot—the same theory was applied to Krogstad, who was considered to be morally corrupt and therefore a danger to his family, especially his children. It was this moral corruption that permitted Torvald to reject Krogstad and forced Krogstad to blackmail Nora with the letter and loan document he left for Torvald at the end of the play. It was also this belief, which Krogstad explained to Nora, that impelled her to leave her children when her transgression had been revealed—she couldn’t stay in the house with them for fear that she’d infect them with her corruption. Without this motivation, she didn’t have to leave, and the play’s ending became a purely selfish act and had no dramatic strength.
Now, if all that’s true, then the other, really big change in this version had even greater repercussions. According to the New York Times review, the company wanted to restore the shock Ibsen’s original audience felt at the end of the play. (According to theater history, there were even riots in Europe when Doll House opened and Nora leaves, it was such a unheard-of action.) Without reading the review, you’d never guess what Schmidt-Henkel had done. He had Nora shoot Torvald before she left. And it wasn’t just one quick shot—she unloaded an automatic pistol into him, even as he was writhing on the ground, half in the giant fish tank that was a prominent part of the starkly modern apartment set. Okay, this was shocking, but it changed the whole dynamic of the ending, and made Nora into a straight-out murderer rather than a distraught but enlightened woman who acted out of what she believed was selflessness. First, for her departure to be justified, she still had to believe that by staying, she endangered her children. That’s hard to do in the 21st century, but with the “evidence” of the physical manifestations of mortal corruption no longer as clear as it was in Ibsen’s original, it’s even harder. Second, since Torvald’s only real fault was still that he didn’t leap to Nora’s defense when he learned of her forgery on the loan document—just like in the original, he feared for his position at the bank and that Krogstad would now be able to manipulate him. Perhaps even more today than in Ibsen’s time, this came off as a supremely egocentric posture, and that made him a chauvinistic pig, as we used to say—but it was hardly a capital crime. It justified leaving him—maybe enough today not to need the matter of corrupting the kids—but hardly shooting him. So, instead of being a brave and selfless woman, Nora was a fugitive from a murder charge—and maybe even nuts. This alone changed the entire meaning of the play. The shock may have been restored, but it was shock for its own sake, as a theatrical effect, not based on dramatic necessity.
I suppose that was enough to make the translation/adaptation questionable, but there were other problems I had with this show. I know that Europe is behind the U.S. in enfranchising women, especially in the marketplace, but they’re not 50 years behind. (After all, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and England have all already elected female heads of government—we haven’t yet.) It’s hard for me to accept that a woman as self-consciously modern as Nora here—the costume she wore to the Christmas party wasn’t some peasant outfit so she could dance a tarantella; she went in complete punk get-up, blood smears and all, and did a techno dance (of which the Germans were fond, I believe)—could be so bereft of options that a) she had to forge her father’s signature for a loan and b) she couldn’t resolve the problem by some more rational means than either leaving or, even more drastically, shooting Torvald. The whole idea of the “doll-wife” (and that expression was still in the German text, by the way) was a throw-back, even in Europe today. In fact, moving the whole thing up to the 2000s seemed to make everything a little incredible—contrived, I guess. Instead of an indictment of a social problem that the playwright saw as universal, this version made the whole thing a play about a seriously dysfunctional couple and their dysfunctional friends. (I ought to add, too, that the very idea today that a sick man had to go to Italy to recover—and that this was his only remedy—was hard to buy also. Germans still believed in “taking the cure”—going to a health spa for mineral baths—at least when I was living there a half-century ago, but needing to go south for one’s health was still pretty much an anachronism—more like Death in Venice in 1912 than 21st century. It was another aspect that really had to remain in Ibsen’s own time to work.)
There was some problem with the acting—I presume Thomas Ostermeier’s direction, really—too. The actors were good, and I didn’t have any problem believing them in their roles/situations most of the time (outside of the problems of the script above), except that every so often they went off their rockers emotionally for no apparent reason or motivation. One character might all of a sudden shout (or bark) at another, or another character would behave as if he were in the grips of an epileptic fit or some other odd physical condition and throw himself about the stage violently. (The final shooting was sort of like this. Nora had the gun—she was contemplating suicide—but she’d put it away and had even gone off into her room off stage. Then she came out, pointed the gun at Torvald for a few seconds, and started pulling the trigger again and again.) Now, maybe I missed something in the German text or in the translation (titles), but I don’t think so. (I really wished my German were good enough not to have had to refer to the surtitles as much as I did—even though I knew the play fairly well, having taught it. I did want to see what the translator did with the text.) It didn’t help matters that the performance was two hours and ten minutes without an intermission—and the Harvey Theatre’s seats are not soft!
Anyway, it was disappointing, but not actually bad. I pretty much concluded that updating Doll House isn’t profitable—you lose too much that isn’t made up in the modernization—but it was interesting to see the attempt. It also made me reconsider the original—and how good Ibsen was at constructing plays to say what he wanted, such that trying to make them say something else in part destroys them. (I saw a 1997 production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Arena in which Liviu Ciulei turned the dramatist’s famously realistic play into a symbolistic staging. It simply didn’t work.) Ironically, I also concluded that though Ibsen must remain in his own period for the plot to work, the drama—the point, the message, the theme—still communicates to a modern audience. I mean, we may no longer believe in the nonsense of moral corruption = physical decay, but if we accept that they did, we can still see Ibsen’s point about trust and respect and honesty within a marriage.
We know that Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots from other writers. Copyright protection didn’t exist in the 16th century, so he and the many other writers who used someone else’s ideas for their own works were on safe legal ground, and because Shakespeare’s final products (leaving aside, please, any argument that he wasn’t the true playwright) were so magnificent most of the time, no one has much cared in the centuries since. But appropriation was nevertheless common even in the Renaissance (and long before as well: consider how may versions of Oedipus exist in Greek and Roman theater). Shakespeare composed The Taming of the Shrew between 1590 and 1592 and there were almost immediately adaptations and derivatives on the stages of England and western Europe. (Probably the best known stage adaptation is Cole Porter’s 1948 musical version, Kiss Me, Kate, which I’ll mention shortly. The most radical was probably 1973’s The Shew by Charles Marowitz whose Hamlet collage, a 1964 deconstruction, became an international theater phenomenon; his Shrew was composed in much the same way.)
Probably the oldest Shrew variation is The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, a sequel written by John Fletcher (1579-1625) in about 1611. (The script was first published in 1647, 22 years after Fletcher’s death.) Characterized by Matt Wolf, a London theater reviewer for Variety, as a play “that virtually no one knows,” The Tamer Tamed (as it’s commonly called) was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries after the Restoration, often more so than its source, but dropped off the stage for about 200 years until 2003 when the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it; I saw it when the RSC came to Washington’s Kennedy Center later that same year with a repertoire that comprised both the Fletcher and its Shakespearean basis. (I didn’t see the RSC production of Shrew, but I have seen it many times, including one at Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, in May 2003, staged in the troupe’s reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theater—see “Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia,” 18 November 2009 on ROT and “Shenandoah Shakespeare,” 21 November 2009—and then again at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre in November 2007.)
I have trouble with Shrew to start with. Okay, I know we’re not supposed to judge a work from the past by current standards, but I’ve never really been able to get around Petruchio’s treatment of Kate in order to “tame” her. (The STC production piled on because director Rebecca Bayla Taichman posited the idea that Shrew is all about marriage as commerce. Baptista auctioned off his daughters.) I’m not sure this analogy will go over real well, but I’ll float it anyway: I once had a dog who got uncontrollably violent when he met another dog. I spoke to a trainer and her analysis was that I had two choices. She could break him entirely of his hostility, but he’d be spiritually crushed. Or she could make him manageable; he wouldn’t be out of control but he could never be let alone with another dog off his leash. We decided that the second option would be best for the dog (and for me)—but Petruchio seems to have gone for option one. And for far less cause. (Now, I’m not really comparing a woman to a dog—please don’t start that—though Petruchio does use animal-training techniques to tame Kate.) I also understand that Shrew is a comedy—but if you play it entirely for laughs, then you make fun of what amounts to domestic violence. If you make Kate so shrewish that she seems to need taming, in order to try to justify Petruchio’s behavior, then she ends up not just a strong-willed and independent woman but a truly insane one. If you play her as a sort of protofeminist (which I maintain is what Shakespeare wrote, though she, of course, is way out of her time in the Renaissance), then Petruchio’s actions are all unwarranted (and even, by our standards, criminal). Those aren’t really funny situations. So, maybe I’m just a stick-in-the-mud, but I’ve never been able to reconcile this dilemma. I don’t have the same problem with the racism of Othello or the anti-Semitism of Merchant, but the sexism of Shrew defeats me.
As for Tamer Tamed, think Lysistrata meets Shrew—20 years on. Katherine has died—RSC director Gregory Doran suggested that she’d died “from exhaustion”—and Petruchio has fallen in love again. His new bride, Maria, refuses to consummate their marriage unless Petruchio changes his ways. That’s enough to relate . . . because it’s awful. (I’ve never seen a Jacobean play that was remotely enjoyable: The Duchess of Malfi, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Venice Preserv’d—they’re all grim. Yech!) There’s a word often used to describe bad theater, and it’s very apt for Tamer: leaden. It just lay there lifeless. The RSC tried so hard to animate it—the reviews all focused on the performances—that they ended up just looking manic, as if they were trying desperately to bring a dead body back to life. There’s not a single line of poetry or even memorable prose; not one attractive, or even sympathetic, character; and a one-joke plot (all the women are denying all the men sex) that reduces everyone to a cipher. I couldn’t even keep most of the characters straight—but that was mostly because I didn’t really care. Not only wasn’t it funny, it wasn’t even clever. I repeat a caveat I’ve used numerous times: often an unknown or neglected play is unknown and neglected because it’s bad!!! This adaptation didn’t improve on the original; why RSC decided to dredge it up is a mystery to me.
In 1999, a Broadway production of Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (with book by Samuel and Bella Spewack) opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld), directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Marin Mazzie as Lilli Vanessi/Kate and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham/Petruchio. The revival, the first since the 1948 début, went on tour after it closed in New York and I saw it with Rachel York and Rex Smith at the Kennedy Center in Washington in July 2001. Kate is a backstage story about a touring troupe putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Shrew; it’s supposed to have been based on the off-stage lives of the husband-and-wife acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were said to have had a tempestuous relationship when they weren’t on stage.
Unfortunately, I never wrote up any notes on this show and the only comment I remember making was that Rex Smith was just not a powerful stage persona, leaving a rather large hole in the center of the production where he’s called upon to portray two notoriously chauvinistic males: Petruchio from Shrew and Fred Graham, the director and lead actor of the touring company. (To soften Fred’s benighted sexism, director Blakemore and uncredited play doctor John Guare made Harrison Howell, Lilli’s new beau since she and Fred separated, into a true MCP of an army general, with a nod to Douglas MacArthur—sunglasses and all—instead of the mere stuffed-shirt politico of the original script.)
Unlike the Petruchio of Shrew, however, Fred’s far less a problem for me since, first of all, Kate is a musical comedy of the old school and no one is seriously endangered—the comic mobsters notwithstanding—and second, he’s hardly as hard-core as Petruchio and all he’s really up to is winning Lilli back—in his (ahem) fashion. (Kate is, after all, not just a musical comedy, it’s a romantic comedy. People don’t get hurt in a romcom!) Of course, irrespective of production styles and individual performances, Kate is still the very first winner of the Tony for Best Musical and contains Porter’s most beloved stage score, with such perennial faves as “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “So In Love,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and “Wunderbar.” (There are even several wonderful tunes from Shakespeare’s text, like “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” and “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.”)
One of the most peculiar theatrical derivatives I’ve seen in my theatergoing life was Richard Schechner’s The Prometheus Project in December 1985. Of course, anything Schechner, one of the founders of the 1960s avant-garde theater scene in New York and around the country, does is decidedly . . . well, unconventional. Prometheus was a work performed in four movements plus a coda, conceived and directed by Schechner and presented by the Wooster Group Visiting Artist Series at the Performing Garage (previously the workspace of Schechner’s Performance Group, Wooster Group’s predecessor).
Schechner, whose work hadn’t been seen in New York for five years, returned with his version of the Greek classic tragedy Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus (c. 525/524-c. 456/455 BCE). The Prometheus Project expounded Schechner’s belief that nuclear firepower is Prometheus’ gift gone awry, and that nuclear destruction is the epitome of man’s violence, which also includes torture and sexual abuse. The performance attempted to tie all this together and make us recognize our victims.
To create visions of destruction and brutality, Schechner (who was one of my professors at NYU) and his performers combined movement, gesture, light, speech, and music. These images were woven into the stories of Prometheus, chained to a mountain for stealing fire, and Io, turned into a cow and forced to wander the earth for rejecting Zeus. The movement and gesture images were more affecting than the language images, which were unexciting and unconvincing.
Most striking was “Tomoko,” the opening movement, starting with slides from Renzo Kinoshita’s Pica Don depicting Hiroshima before, during, and after the bombing. When the lights came up, the actors performed every-day tasks in slow motion while cellist Mollie Glazer played Bach’s Kol Nidre. This segued into Becke Wilenski singing Bach’s oratorio, “Hear Ye, Israel. O, how hast thou heeded my commandments.” The scene was compelling, and drew attention to each action, each gesture.
The succeeding segments were less focused and depended heavily on language and speech. “Annie” gave us a very excisable porn show by veteran sex educator, former prostitute, stripper, and porno actor Annie Sprinkle, whom we were supposed to see as a victim. It was during this scene that Schechner’s manipulative inclinations showed themselves. Two actors dressed in trench coats, slouch hats, and dark glasses—the kind that stereotypical viewers of porn movies or strip shows are supposed to wear—took positions facing the audience, seated on bleacher-like risers at one end of the performance space. The idea seemed to be that these “men” were there to witness our attendance at a porn show. But, of course, we didn’t know the scene would take place and there was no way any of us could actually have left if we’d wanted to without disturbing all the rest of the audience and walking across the performance area. So Schechner was trying to have it both ways—make us captive and unwitting spectators at a sex show and at the same time essentially point at us accusingly for being there. The conceit actually pissed me off—it seemed dishonest.
In “Io,” while female performers ran back and forth imitating Io’s flight, two women told apparently true stories of abuse by men. The last movement was “Prometheus” in which a nude Mahmood Karimi-Hakak was ritualistically bound and then recounted the story of his own torture. Following a moment borrowed from Endgame during which Prometheus was released, the coda presented the entire company looking at us as two readers described a post-holocaustal world.
Somehow, none of this came together. Whenever the language began, the performance dragged and paled. Schechner’s not partial to words, and his mostly novice performers were incapable of making them sound genuine. After the stirring first movement, The Prometheus Project slackened disappointingly. (I don’t know if Schechner took this show on a tour—it began in a workshop of college students, who made up most of the cast, and the director-creator may have presented it to other student audiences around the country—but I’m unaware of any revivals of The Prometheus Project in New York City since 1985.)
[Many of my remarks above were taken from past performance reports that predate ROT and even some of the e-mail reports that inspired the blog. My comments on the Arena Stage revival of She Loves Me were drawn from a report I wrote on 17 January 2007 covering a visit to Washington over the year-end holidays that year, and the section on Nora was based on a 15 November 2004 report. My brief remarks on The Taming of the Shrew at STC were taken from my 29 November 2007 report, and the comments on The Tamer Tamed were from a report written on 13 January 2004. (You remember that I had no archived remarks on the Kennedy Center revival of Kiss Me, Kate.) The discussion of Schechner’s Prometheus Project was actually a short review I wrote for Stages after seeing the performance but which was never published; Stages reduced my remarks to a brief mention in a general survey article in the March 1986 issue.]