The Wall Street Journal recently had two articles dealing with copyright, arising out of an attempt by the estate of Samuel Beckett to stop an Italian production of Waiting for Godot performed with twin female actors in the lead roles. An Italian court issued an injunction against the estate, allowing the performance to go forward, to the consternation of Edward Beckett, the estate's executor. One article was about the controversy itself, the second was an interview with a smug Edward Albee who defended the estate's action and described with pride his own vigilant shepherding of his work (right to refuse a director's casting of a production, etc.).
The Beckett estate is notorious for its rigorous work in keeping Beckett's work "pure," that is, performed exactly as he put it down, every jot and tittle treated as holy writ, from which deviation will not be allowed. The most celebrated of these offenses was Jo Anne Akalaitis' production of Endgame in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1984, for the American Repertory Theater (which was settled out of court). Then Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw in 1994, in Footfalls, made the mistake of having the heroine wander over the stage rather than along a narrow path as defined in the script. The estate prevented the production touring to Paris. And now we can add the Italian job.
This put me in mind of Stephen Joyce, grandson of James Joyce, whose authoritarian behavior and belligerent dislike of academics was recently described in the New Yorker. And I am struggling with a literary executor of the papers of a poet who I want to study in preparation for a play I'm putting together. She rarely allows access, will not let one who gets access take notes, and requires that she be cited as the authorized source even for information gathered by other means.
What is with these people?
The Beckett affair and Albee's defense of it represents, I think, two "camps" about how and why theatre gets made (and this may be a generational split as well). One camp, which includes Beckett and Albee, are what I call the "amberists," from the notion of a once living form now forever trapped and suffocated in amber. The amberist mentality is preservationist, seeing the written word as The Word, single-meaninged and inerrant and unquestionable. And the effort to keep the words as The Word is a noble enterprise, maintaining the truth against entropy, against faddishness, against lesser intelligences. It has affinities with certain strains of religious fundamentalism.
The amberists are in direct opposition to the "rough draftists," who see theatre as a process of evolving understandings about a text, about how a text lives within actors, about how the actors and the text conjoin with the world outside (including audience), and so on. The text is an opportunity to make theatre, to re-mix the ingredients in order to re-mix our understandings.
But as interesting as this dichotomy may be (and I think its interest is pretty limited, as is true of most dichotomies), what really seems to drive these debates is copyright: the rights of the holders of, the money to be made from, the control afforded by. Albee revealed this in his interview. The interviewer asked him why, if it were wrong to reinterpret Beckett, it is okay to reinterpret Shakespeare, and Albee's cranky response: Because Shakespeare isn't under copyright.
And that is the rub. Copyright began under the Constitution as a way to balance the right of inventors to profit from their inventions with the benefits of knowledge spread throughout a democratic populace. Therefore, inventors were given a limited, protected time to get what they could for what they had created, and then their creations were supposed to become part of the public domain, the commonwealth of common knowledge. And if they wanted to get more money for inventing, then they would have to invent new stuff rather than live off the fat of their old stuff, thereby enriching themselves and everyone else in the process.
Nowadays, copyright is a protection racket, serving the exact opposite of its original purpose. Copyright law now is about figuring out how to keep knowledge out of the public domain and milking it for cash-back for as long as possible.
The most recent copyright insult happened in 1998. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was alternatively known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act or pejoratively as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, since Disney lobbied hard to keep Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse under copyright wraps (both were due to go into public domain -- imagine that!). Before the act (under the Copyright Act of 1976), copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship; the act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and 95 years respectively. The act also affected copyright terms for copyrighted works published prior to January 1, 1978, increasing their term of protection by 20 years as well. This effectively "froze" the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this act, no additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still copyrighted in 1998 will enter the public domain until 2019.
California congresswoman Mary Bono (Sonny Bono's widow and Congressional successor) and the estate of composer George Gershwin supported the act. Mary Bono, speaking on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, noted that "Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever," but that since she was "informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution", Congress might consider Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) then-president Jack Valenti's proposal of a copyright term of "forever less one day."
So there you have it. Copyright has been officially legislated as the means by which those who possess shall never have to give over to the public that has afforded them these protections one iota of what they possess. In other words, copyright has privatized invention, and as in all private ventures, profit flows to the shareholders only.
To really address the artistic issues raised by the actions of the Beckett estate, we need to address the abuses of copyright. Mr. Beckett has had a good run with this work; it is now time to pry the dead hand of the past off it so that the rest of us, who made whatever fame he achieved possible anyway, can have whatever go at it we want. Copyright, as it now exists, is a poison -- the only antidote is some equivalent to what the open-source people in the computer programming world have done to create such collectively annotated intellectual properties such as Linux.
And to Mr. Albee I would say, Good luck with your micromanaging, but I will always prefer the smell of a good collaboration to the must of the wax museum.