Where Does Meaning Lie: A Look at Two Authors’ Work

Clayton Lord, who writes an Arts Journal blog entitled New Beans, recently published a post asking “in whose hands does meaning live?”  In the article, he asks:


Where does the meaning of a piece of work live?  When does its particular resonance take shape?


When a playwright puts words down on paper and submits them to be produced, is there something already inherent in those words that form the shape of the meaning?  Or is the true shape of that meaning created by a director, whose particular eye and concept elevate the words from the page to the proscenium?


Lord goes on to discuss how this is not just an esoteric question, but one that takes its root deep in the concept of ownership. This in turn, leads to a dialogue about copyright and how it essentially differs across artistic forms.


We won’t summarize the entire article here, as Lord’s intelligent, succinct argument should really be read in its entirety. The subject of writers’ control over meaning did resonate with us deeply as we’ve recently worked on two campaigns involving writers who possess polar opposite approaches with regards to ‘how Directors may interpret their work’:


Yann Martel, Man Booker-winning Author

As mentioned in a previous article, our public relations company recently had the opportunity to work with Yann Martel as a part of the Indian Summer Festival. The first time we met Yann, we took him to Global Morning News in Burnaby (a clip of his appearance can be found here online). As he was in town to discuss Director Ang Lee’s big screen adaptation of his novel, Life of Pi, the subject naturally got us all talking. Almost immediately, we were struck by how unpossessive Yann was of the film adaptation of his novel. Yann said: “Once Hollywood has purchased rights to the novel, it’s theirs. They would have been totally within their rights to make the tiger into a panther and decide that Pi was from South America instead of India. I’m glad they didn’t- but they could have.”


Later on that morning, Yann spoke about numerous theatrical interpretations of his past work (which he would fly out to see) and his hope that an opera company might one day take it upon themselves to adapt Life of Pi – as he always felt it would work extremely well developed in this form.


Yann encouraged and was open to adaptation of his work, while not setting any guidelines for interpreting his work.


Quite a noticeable difference from…


Samuel Beckett, Nobel Prize-winning Playwright

We are currently in the process of working with the award-winning Blackbird Theatre, who will be bringing a production of Waiting for Godot to the Cultch this coming December and January (which we are indescribably excited for).


Within the theatre community it is understood that should you wish to mount one of Beckett’s great works, you must do so while abiding by the guidelines set by the Beckett Estate. The goal of these guidelines is to ensure that the playwright’s original vision is maintained whenever his works are staged. The rules are relatively stringent: one must maintain settings, stage action, and costumes exactly as outlined within the script (for an understanding of how Edward Beckett, estate executor and nephew to the playwright, makes such decisions – please read this fascinating article).


We are certainly not making a statement that either approach is “better” or “right”- merely highlighting a rather remarkable and intriguing difference in perspective.


In the Lord article, the author ultimately concludes that it is perhaps more difficult for playwrights to allow such free interpretation. He notes that with a painting or musical recording (and we may also say, a novel) the original creation always exists in some form, so that while subsequent artists may re-interpret the work, a “master copy” is always in existence. Yann Martel said as much to us, noting that in the unlikely event that the film be poorly received, any criticism will be directed toward the movie itself and not the novel.


The same can not be said of a play, where the director’s work so heavily influences the audience’s interpretation and understanding of the playwright’s intent and message. In this context, it is quite understandable why a playwright, such as Beckett, would place such requirements to ensure that the integrity of his work is not twisted nor misrepresented in staging.

This is where copyright must come in. Here in Canada, copyright generally extends until 50 years after the creator’s death (though entrusting to estates can extend this in perpetuity) after which the work enters the public domain, where it can be freely interpreted and edited. While a compromise, and while Canadian copyright remains an ever changing, imperfect concept, this arrangement feels right to us. It strikes a balance between maintaining a work’s integrity and ensuring it does not remain frozen in a museological state.


The majority of plays will not continue to be staged 50 years after the writer’s demise. We would put forward that those that do, do so because they are able to hold a special place in our hearts and minds.  In this collective mindset, we create an understanding of Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire, or Oedipus Rex, that allow Directors to experiment with the most outrageous re-interpretations and stagings, without affecting our fundamental appreciation for the original script. In this way, the passage of time can create the same concrete, untouchable artistic existence for a play that paintings, novels, and recordings enjoy from their inception.



Categories: Musings