Elfin Vogel, Director
Directing a classical play – any classical play – and by this I mean plays that originated at a time when the prevailing cultural and historical context was quite different from ours – raises questions that may seem obvious to the theatre aficionado. Why revive such a play? How far to bring the play, with the help of all available means -- visual, auditory, performance-wise -- into the present? Should the text be left untouched (as some companies insist with Shakespearean texts), radically deconstructed, or more gently edited/amended for modern sensibilities and expectations? Is it possible to "honor" the original work and to do something "faithful" to an author's "intent"? Should the text be considered a stable text ready to reveal its meaning to all comers, and that this meaning can be carried over into a production performed by today's actors, and designed by today's designers?
A conscientious director of a classical play needs to ask all of these questions, and many others, because the realization of such a text on stage – whatever that stage may be – is a translation of sorts, a confrontation of the past with the present, and what I do as a director must, in some way, make that confrontation yield a composite understanding about the times that created the play and the times in which we have come to the theatre to experience it.
In the following, I want to take the reader through this process, using the example of my recent production of AndrĂ© by William Dunlap.
In the best case an artistic director or producer invites the director to look at a play and consider directing a production. In this case it was the Metropolitan Playhouse and its artistic director Alex Roe. The Metropolitan Playhouse is dedicated to the production of plays that are part of the process of American culture – for the most part, but by no means always, rarely produced plays from the middle to distant past. AndrĂ©, written by William Dunlap, whom some consider the founder of American theater, qualifies in many respects. Written in blank verse, it flaunts rather than hides its Shakespearean aspirations of being a tragedy, but one based on a recent historic event. Thus the play would resonate with his audience, still in the process of healing the deep rifts that the Revolutionary War had created between loyalists and those who favored separation from England. Resonate it did: the audiences booed and the play was not performed again for a long time after its initial two performances. This play was offered, I read it and thought it was a weak play, overburdened with narrative, important plot points hinging on absent characters, and while the verse (and the length of the speeches) seemed inspired by Shakespeare, the wit and poetic invention did not live up to the brilliance of its model. I felt, however, that the basic situation – the fate of a prisoner of war at a time when the laws of war were in their infancy, and many of the thoughts and ideas expressed (and sometimes driving the action)—seemed so resonant with what was being said about the current war. I began to formulate a radical deconstruction of the play, and a presentation that would intersperse Dunlap's text with contemporary texts from news-sources, government statements etc. This scheme was rejected with the argument that to deconstruct play that was so forgotten would deprive the audience of the pleasure of getting to know the text in its integral form, and that such deconstruction was not really the mission of the Metropolitan Playhouse. Rather, that a certain respect for the text, a commitment to letting it speak on its own terms, would be the more appropriate approach. I considered this approach and decided to take on the project, provided that a respectful-to-the-text approach would not have to mean to leave it completely untouched, or to attempt a recreation of performance and presentation conditions of the late 18th century.
AndrĂ© takes place on the day of John AndrĂ©'s execution by hanging. Convicted as a spy after having been caught in civilian clothes, with a false passport and with the fortification plans for West Point in his boot, he hopes to have his execution changed to death by firing squad, a less exhibitionist and shameful death than hanging. Efforts by several characters to either save him or to change the form of execution fail, and the play ends with his hanging.
The play became interesting to me on many levels. While perhaps not written as an anti-war play in its day, it speaks as one in our time. Questions of the treatment of prisoners of war and of the laws of war, then still in their infancy, occupy us intensely today. The core conflict of the characters pitches private, personal moral motivation against the principles of war, the demand that individual preference is subjugated to the larger need of society, and of one that is – as America was during the Revolutionary War, still in formation, in no way solidified or codified in laws and regulations. That these concerns are still alive today is perhaps the most hopeful sign that all is not lost in the present, low moment of this country's history.
Dramatically AndrĂ© is a difficult play. The title character appears entirely passive, his concern one that to us, in the twenty first century, is almost incomprehensibly abstract: he has accepted his judgment – condemnation to death – but is exceedingly concerned about the manner of his execution. Death by hanging is, by the code of his time, ignoble, shameful. And as a man who (as far as we can glean from the historic record) has invested much of his efforts to become accepted by a society he considered above his upbringing, he wanted to die an "honorable death," befitting an officer: by firing squad. Only when a woman, Honora, his former fiancĂ©e whom he had assumed long married to someone else appears on the scene does he waver for a moment and abandon his "manly (or, in the old sense, virtuous) stance for a moment. When, long after we began to work on this play, the video depictions of the hanging of Saddam Hussein appeared it became much more tangible to me how appalling a death a hanging is: the condemned is being exhibited, made subject to mockery and derision by those who witness his death. And if the executioner is inept or cruel, then the execution can be an extended, painful struggle, accompanied by brutal injuries.
On AndrĂ©'s side is Bland, a young American officer (likely modeled after Alexander Hamilton, who had attempted to convert the historic AndrĂ©'s sentence), who intercedes on AndrĂ©'s behalf with his superior officers. At the core of his behavior I found a profound love for AndrĂ©, fueled by gratitude, admiration, a deep sense of loyalty, and finally (even this is only hinted at in the play, though strongly enough to justify featuring this element) erotic love. In all his fervor and effort to save AndrĂ©, Bland fails. He is rebuked by the General, by McDonald, an officer close to the General, and ultimately and most painfully by AndrĂ© himself.
The main antagonist in the play is the General, the unnamed George Washington, who is conflicted about the decision to execute AndrĂ©, but feels that he is bound and justified both by the judgment of the officers who sat court martial, and by his need to set an example that the English foes would take seriously. One of the dramatically most effective scenes of the play is the confrontation of Bland with the General, where Bland asserts his right as a free person to protest and disagree with his commanding officer in the strongest terms.
In preparation for a production I work always in two directions: from the inside out, that is, from the text and the research related to it, and from the outside in. From the outside in refers to the all the production elements that are not text: the theatre, the selection of actors, costumes, props, lighting and stage, and particularly the way the audience relates to this stage. The Metropolitan Playhouse produces in a black box theatre with about 50 seats, arranged on three sides around the stage. The stage itself is perhaps 20 x 18 feet. There are four entry-exit points, but no crossover between the two off-stage areas. The inside-out work has three phases – getting to know the text and conducting any necessary research, working with the dramaturg and preparing the text (for example by cutting, rearranging scenes etc.) and finally, in the early part of rehearsals, discussing the text of each scene and each role with the actors. In this last part – which also involves the dramaturg – we begin to "make sense" of the text. This making sense is perhaps the most intimate part of the collaboration between actors and director. With a 18th century text, written in verse, many obstacles must be overcome. Conventions of word-use must be examined. A phrase such as "how all resistless is a unioned people" (Seward, Act I, 2) is not easily understood, we cannot assume that an audience understands this to mean "the will of a unified people cannot be resisted." A play that is filled with many such lines requires extensive work, where the actors have to penetrate the opaque text and illuminate it in their interpretation.
The "outside-in" work is more obviously collaborative: it involves the conversations with the designers, and the analysis of the mechanics of the script, of its story telling: entrances, exits, locations, and what happens in each individual scene. How can the given design of the theatre be best used, or be modified to accommodate this play? How detailed must the set be, the properties, are lighting and sound driven by the need to illustrate story points or to amplify internal states of the characters?
While AndrĂ©, in our rendition, used 10 actors, most of the scenes involve two or three characters with only the final scene having 7 actors on stage. This gives the play an intimacy very suitable to a small theatre. Since it is a play that presents many short scenes taking place in various locations, we decided that the set should be simply the empty stage, as an abstract and artificial space. Two standard 4x8 foot platforms, each four inches high, were later added, to allow for minimal difference in height and provide seating areas.
Creating a set in a small space is always challenging. The German architect and designer Tilman Schall created a set that made the space larger, and that suggested, in its dark-green/umbra background, with a convolution of bloody boot-marks on the floor and on some of the walls a cruel beauty. Thus the set revealed one of the themes of the play: eros and thanatos, love and death in close embrace. The image, together with the sounds of exploding bomb-drops and other explosive sounds was chosen to keep the war present in the minds of the audience. The play, while set in a camp of the Revolutionary forces in the war of independence, contains no war scenes, but rather is focused entirely on various negotiations between two to four characters, where the principal point of contention is whether John AndrĂ© should be spared the already decided execution, or whether the mode of execution should be changed from the ignoble one of hanging to one more befitting an office – by firing squad.
I paid close attention to the lighting, in its multiple function as that element which creates visual space, gives it a specific atmosphere, and in its changes over time, sets rhythms (overcoming its own space-fixation) that are often experienced only subliminally. Here we chose a stark, expressionistic, decidedly antirealist approach, with strong color accents and high-contrast moments where actors moved in and out of lights as they moved through the space. The final effect approached the kind of shifts of focus that we associate more with film than with theatre.
Another aspect of the "outside-in" work concerned the costuming, where we chose to honor the historical situation of the play. By dressing the actors in the costume of the time of the play's action, we supported the "storytelling" aspect. In the juxtaposition with the contemporary element and the contemporary reading of the character's psychology, I see the intent of telling an old story but as a fable for now. The private cost of war, the fact that there are no winners, that both sides pay too high a price, that the most precious of human expressions, love, admiration, loyalty, friendship will perish, these were the messages I found in AndrĂ©, and that I felt made the resurrection of this flawed, forgotten play very worthwhile.
Michael Bettencourt, Dramaturg
In editing the AndrĂ© script for production, I kept the following "framings" in mind as a guide for what to keep and prune.
The most obvious was the differences in "ear" between an 18th-century and 21st-century audience. An 18th-century audience member would have heard AndrĂ© differently than a modern audience member, due in part to education and in part to stage mechanics, where lighting was dim and sound effects minimal, which necessitated a more stentorian acting style than is in fashion today.
An awareness of "acting style" also played a part in editing the script. Modern American audiences, long tutored in "the Method" as well as television and movies and psychology, are comfortable with letting silences as well as words "speak the speech" so that not everything needs to be spoken in order for it to be heard.
Acting style also shapes narrative flow. A modern American theatre audience member has different expectations of narrative than someone sitting in the stalls 300 hundred years ago. The narrative has to move along smoothly and quickly, with few if any digressions that feel "added on" or inorganic (no matter how organic or necessary the words may have felt to the original author).
Added to this mix were my own preferences as a playwright and theater-goer. I tried to keep to a minimum judgments grounded in what I would like to hear, but I cannot deny that my preferences for sound and sense guided some of what was kept and edited-out.
Last, but certainly not least, was the overall vision of the director -- what he wanted to get across with the play and the effect he wanted it to have upon the audience.
So my editing involved multiple approaches acting in parallel. I looked for passages that seemed over-explanatory or effusive, or that made literary/mythic references that would likely confuse the audience, and either pared them down or cut them out. I also smoothed out Dunlap's meanings where his syntax and poetic stretch made them especially tangled (while also trying to keep in as much of Dunlap's original meter as possible). I also rearranged passages, moving lines from one section to another, in order to help narrative flow and meaning, though I tried to do this as little as possible in order to honor Dunlap's original conception of his script's shape and purpose.
In short, as with any editing effort like this, I tried to keep as much of the original as "original" as possible while fashioning something that would appeal to and draw in a modern audience. I did this by deducing as best as I could, from biographical information about Dunlap and his script in my hand, what he wanted to accomplish on the stage but also using what 300 years of stage- and acting-craft have given us to use. Thus, the AndrĂ© we crafted for this production was shorter and swifter than the original, and its "shortness," created by excisions and elisions, gave the actors and director some room to use silence, gesture, and posture instead of poetic meter to convey the play's conflicts and ideas.
Inevitably in a process like this, where the director has made the decision not to use the script unabridged, the question arises about how "faithful" the edited text is to the original. However, the term "faithful" can be tricky because its use implies another question: faithful to what? If amending Dunlap's words makes what Dunlap wanted to say clearer to the audience, am I faithful or unfaithful to Dunlap's work? I would argue that while I am unfaithful to Dunlap's words because of my editing, I am faithful to his intentions by making his sense more sensible to the audience. After all, Dunlap wanted to communicate something to someone with AndrĂ©, and if devices and references he used in 1798 to do this do not work in the same way in 2007, then an editor is faithful to the work if he or she can find ways to make the author's original efforts succeed in changed historical circumstances.
Thus, "faithfulness" in this kind of adapting is really a "house blend," different minor flavors -- honoring the foundational text, knowing the theatre-craft of one's own time, one's own personal vision and practice -- kept in juggled balance so I can deliver to the director a script upon which he can ground his vision of the production.
Cover Photo of Nicholas Richberg as John AndrĂ© by Michelle DeBlasi