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Wrestling with dead playwrights

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Shakespeare haunts us still.

Shakespeare haunts us still.


Generations of producers, directors and actors have joked that "the only good playwright is a dead playwright," and sometimes they are half-serious . . . but only sometimes and only half. They damn well know that theater requires a steady diet of new works, and everyone one of 'em constantly is on the lookout for the next hot author and the next great script.

Shakespeare haunts us still. (Flickr/BayerNYC)

Still, a dead playwright can't argue about how the play is cast, about whether or not the design elements meet the author's intentions, about changes to the script or about radical directorial concepts, let alone gross misinterpretations by actors. Perhaps the old joke should be altered to read "the only safe playwright is a dead playwright."

Except that's not true, either. Even dead playwrights can rise from the grave to bite you in the butt if they have well-managed literary estates and surviving copyright holders. Case in point, some years ago Chicago's long-gone (but then high-flying) Remains Theatre staged the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Although it only was a local production, scheduled for a limited run in a small Off-Loop venue, the Weill and Brecht estates shut it down in less than three weeks when they got wind of it via newspaper reviews.

Remains made two errors. First, they used an English translation that wasn't authorized for stage performances but only for reading purposes, thereby avoiding paying royalties to the Brecht Estate. This is one of the sinkholes of producing works in translation. Remains could have made things right by paying the Estate royalties for the authorized translation and then not using it, but they also would have had to pay royalties for the translation they were using.

But Remains could not possibly square things with the Kurt Weill Foundation: with brass balls and incredible stupidity, the ensemble decided that Mahagonny primarily was a Brecht work, so they threw out all of Kurt Weill's music and wrote an original rock score! Hey, let's do The Ring Cycle but we'll write new music and only use Wagner's words. No amount of money could make that right as Remains had violated the fundamental artistic integrity of the work.

On the other hand, since the death of August Wilson in 2005, his estate has sanctioned several productions of his plays by white directors, something Wilson did not allow in his lifetime.

So, the real deal is that the only safe playwright is a dead playwright whose works no longer are under copyright, and who wrote them in English in the first place. Think Shakespeare, of course, or Oscar Wilde or Gilbert and Sullivan. Otherwise you're still stuck dealing with copyrighted translations into English of, say, Moliere or Sophocles or Chekhov or Ibsen.

The way to get around that, as many producers and directors have done, is to cobble together a "new" translation using bits and pieces of many, so that no single translator quite can claim that it is his/her work. In terms of literary quality, of course, you get what you pay for.

Another thing is simply to write your own work, freely stealing storylines and characters from an existing classical source. Hey, The Boys from Syracuse, the Rodgers and Hart musical, is based on The Comedy of Errors, which Shakespeare took from the antique Roman playwright, Plautus.

In Chicago two seasons back, Sean Graney of The Hypocrites assembled Seven Sicknesses by consolidating elements from the seven extant plays of Sophocles, setting the work in a modern hospital. Several years before that, he thoroughly dumbed down Sophocles Oedipus the King by creating a contemporary Classics Illustrated-type version, complete with original rock music. Both of Graney's riffs on Sophocles are far enough afield from the originals (in any translation) for Graney to be able to secure his own copyrights for them, although I don't know whether or not he has.

All of this leads me to the fact that a new theater troupe in town calls itself, with self-conscious cheekiness, the Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Its mission not only is to perform the works of dead authors, but also plays about dead authors, such as Edward Bond's Bingo, in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson engage in a drinking bout (although the company has not programmed Bingo). Some of the company's plays in the latter category will be new plays by living authors. The inaugural production (through Aug. 26) is The Vortex, the 1925 play by Noel Coward (1899-1973) which was his first great success. My Dueling Critics colleague, Kelly Kleiman, and I discuss the production on Eight Forty-Eight on Tuesday (Aug. 7).

Perusing the July theater calendar, I see that the first three productions of the month were a variation on Euripides' Electra (at Mary-Arrchie Theatre), Chekhov's Three Sisters (still running at Steppenwolf) and Luis Alfaro's take on Sophocles in the Barrio, Oedipus El Rey (at Victory Gardens Theater). The month also offered at least four Shakespeares (all out doors) and one each by Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill (who has been having a very big year in Chicago).

Obviously, dead playwrights are alive and well and still serving to inspire — sometimes wisely and sometimes not — theater artists of today.

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