Every so often a well-known playwright gets riled up about what some director has done to his play and threatens to have the show closed unless the improvements are taken out.
Edward Albee hit the roof when Bill Ball turned "Tiny Alice" into a high-camp opera at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in 1969.
Samuel Beckett fulminated when JoAnne Akalaitis set "Endgame" in a subway tunnel at Boston's American Repertory Theatre in 1984.
And this week Dale Wasserman saw red at Donovan Marley's agit-prop version of "Man of La Mancha" at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Wasserman wrote the libretto for the 1965 Broadway musical hit, and he remembers setting it in a dungeon in the time of its hero, Miguel de Cervantes. Not in a prison in present-day Nicaragua, with a puppet-show prologue about U.S. involvement in Central America. Whoa! said Wasserman. Stop the show!
What usually happens in these cases is that both sides exchange a few rounds of fire and sit down at the bargaining table. Beckett, for example, settled for a disclaimer in the "Endgame" program.
Truce negotiations are likewise under way in Denver. Director Marley said Wednesday that he has withdrawn the offending prologue (done to a song--"Yellow Bird"--that's supposed to come later in the show) and is taking another look at Wasserman's book for any tiny changes that might have crept in during rehearsals.
But the production's Central America concept stands. Marley points out that his contract with the show's licensing agent, Tams Witmark Inc., forbids him to duplicate the original Broadway choreography, blocking, settings, etc. Doesn't this leave him free to see the show from a new angle? Doesn't it, in fact, enjoin him to do so?
Wasserman could probably take the matter to court. But having protected his libretto, he'd be wise to leave the field. It might be interesting to see a judge deal with the question "Whose play is it, anyway--the writer's or the director's?" But it's a question for the theater to settle.
Actually, it's not a question we want settled, once and for all. Just as the U.S. government keeps adjusting the balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, so the theater keeps a healthy tension between the rights of the text and the rights of the interpreter.
There's agreement on this point: The words of a play aren't lightly to be messed with. In film, a script can be changed by the office boy--if he can get the producer's ear.
But in the theater, even the novice playwright can say, "The line stands." And, thanks to his Dramatists Guild contract, the line will stand. Of course, the producer can always say, "Fine. I'm closing the show tomorrow." But the playwright at least has a place to dig in his or her feet.
Respect for the text. In a world of increasingly shoddy entertainment, it's one of the classiest things the theater has to offer. But theater isn't a Xerox machine. The people interpreting the text--the director, the designer, the actors--also need an area of freedom.
Not just for their sakes, but for the future life of the play. Not even the staunchest traditionalist wants to see just another "Hamlet"--or just another "Man of La Mancha." That's the quickest way to kill a show for all time.
\o7 Why are we telling you this story on this stage tonight? \f7 That's the question that every conscientious revival of an old play has to deal with, even when the decision is to do it in a straightforward traditional production. Playwrights who live to see their plays become part of the repertory should appreciate the impulse to make them speak anew, although the result might make them bridle.
The results can be unfortunate. Need I bring up "Three Sisters" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center? But the State Youth Theatre of Lithuania's "Uncle Vanya," reviewed recently by The Times' Sylvie Drake, was equally full of invented directorial business. The difference was the director.
As always in art, you have to go case by case, avoiding general statements from the bench. "Whose play is this, anyway?" is a question that has been asked by every playwright at some point during rehearsals. But when the playwright comes to publish the play, he may well incorporate ideas from his director, designer and leading lady into the text, honestly forgetting that these weren't part of his original vision.
Whose play is it? Everybody's, finally. But let the words stand. That's half the challenge of making theater.