Writer or Director? The Case of Martin Crimp

Ever since Edward Gordon Craig instructed stage-directors to politely disregard playwright’s directions, a conflict has smouldered on between writer and director for authority in the theatre — playing itself out as director’s theatre v. writer’s theatre, ‘New Writing’ v. ‘New Work’, text v. performance, etc.1  Usually under the surface, it flares into life at least once a decade:  In the 1980s, the Wooster Group brought their performance of L.S.D…. Just the High Points to an early close to forestall a lawsuit from Arthur Miller, displeased by their appropriation of The Crucible.2  In the 1990s, the pages of TDR hosted a debate on the centrality of text or performance, which was also a debate about the relation of the then-emerging field of performance studies to disciplines of drama and theatre studies.3  In 2007, playwright Edward Albee likened directors and actors who wanted to re-interpret his plays to ‘the forces of darkness’, to whom he imagined saying, ‘Go fuck yourself; if you don’t want to do the play I wrote, do another play.4  And last year’s London production of Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, a collaboration with German director Sebastian Nübling and Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper, sparked another round of heated discussion; as Dan Rebellato commented, ‘To read some of the critics, you would think that what has happened here is that a play has been seized unwillingly by a director who has obscured its plot by piling all sorts of irrelevant and shocking imagery on top of it, including a meaningless series of animal heads.’5

What’s at stake is not just competing visions of the text as ‘work’ and the text as ‘textuality’, as W.B. Worthen put it in the TDR debate, but also a contest over the allocation of material resources, and often the gap between perception and reality – as Alison Croggon and Jane Howard demonstrate in their careful analysis of the underlying funding conditions behind a 2013 outburst of ‘playwright vs. director’ in Australia.6  Indeed, when Alex Chisholm, Associate Literary Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, called for ‘the end of new writing’, her target was not the production of individual plays but instead a false dichotomy between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’, ‘programmed and managed by different people, sold to different audiences.’7 As Aleks Sierz notes, the institution of ‘New Writing’ is ‘a very British idea’, bound to the history of particular institutions such as the Royal Court,8 and indeed there’s a nationalist inflection given to recent iterations of this debate played out as British v. European theatre.9  And yet, Martin Crimp is one of a number of leading British writers whose collaborative working defies this opposition – see, for example, the articles in this special issue on Crimp’s interactive and dialogical relationships with directors Katie Mitchell and Dominic Cooke.10  Along with the discussion in the print journal, we’re very pleased to have this online Intervention from Sierz, in which, extending the style of the epilogue to his book The Theatre of Martin Crimp (2006), he playfully challenges the opposition between director and writer.

– Theron Schmidt

Writer or Director? The Case of Martin Crimp

Aleks Sierz

1) The Writer

The Critic is thinking about the role of the playwright in the play-making process. He remembers how the Writer, when he was helping to publicise his 1996 show, a contemporary version of Molière’s The Misanthrope, wrote a spoof encounter for the Observer newspaper between himself (in the guise of Mart) and the play’s original author (Mol). This poem ends with a piece of advice: “Respect the text. Avoid workshops and play-doctors./ Stay away from shows with helicopters./ Love and support the theatre. And fight as/ hard as you can for living writers.” Reading this now, it strikes the Critic as a manifesto. Yes, that’s right: the writer is king; directors are merely editors.

2) The Interview

The Critic then recalls an interview that he had with the Writer, in which the Writer explained that the Opera Director played a vital role during the early drafts of his 1997 play, Attempts on her Life. Since the Critic thinks that this is the Writer’s masterpiece, he is forced to revise his view of playwriting. The penny drops. He now sees the director as a co-author.

3) The Open Text

Thinking about it a little bit more, the Critic realises that the play, Attempts on her Life — the one that impresses him so much — has two characteristics. When the Writer wrote it, he didn’t really know what he was doing. It was an experiment, an improvised way of writing, a trying out of an idea.  And, secondly, it is an open text, deliberately not specifying any settings, any characters or any plot. In other words, it is a gift to any director. This leads the Critic to two conclusions: one, if the writer is king then an open text is an abdication; and two, if the writer can get away with not knowing what he’s doing, the director certainly can’t.

4) The National

Empowered by her successes with other productions, a leading Director manages to persuade the Boss of the National Theatre to let her stage a tenth anniversary production of Attempts on her Life in 2007. The Boss reads the play, but doesn’t really get it. Still, he agrees to a large main-stage production, a longer-than-normal rehearsal period and the backing of enormous technical resources. The result is a big-budget show, with multi-media effects. That’s power for you. Whatever you think about this revival’s aesthetics, one thing is clear: only the director has the power to deliver a really big production.

5) The City

In 2008, the Critic falls in love at first sight with the Writer’s new play, The City. It gets a wonderful production by the same Director; especially memorable is the way in which its luminous actors manage to suggest emotional darkness. Six months later, the Critic chances on Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Wait a minute, aren’t these two works very similar? They both focus on the act of writing, on using a diary and on seeing the city as a character. In fact, the similarities between both these works suggest that neither Writer nor Director is in full control. Maybe all plays are just episodes in one huge unfolding literary canon: both writer and director are mere pawns.

6) The Performance

The Writer creates a word collage, titled Blue, Glimmer, as part of an installation by a contemporary Artist at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. At a special event, in the summer of 2009, it is performed by a Star Actress and the Writer himself. So now the Writer is a performer as well! And both performers seem to have directed themselves. Have they no shame? What’s happening to boundaries? We’ve all heard of the death of the author; this must be a case of the death of the director.

7) The Pains

After seeing the Writer’s latest translation, in 2009, of Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth at the National, the Critic chats with the Writer and finds out that he’s not happy with the title, which has been used for previous versions of this play. The original is Krankheit der Jugend, which means “the sickness of being young” so Pains of Youth has the wrong connotations: it sounds like adolescent growing pains. The Writer prefers his own title, The Discontented, especially as it echoes Freud’s Culture and Its Discontents. But the Boss vetoes this because he thinks a new title will confuse audiences. Then, when the Critic talks to the Director he discovers that the Boss isn’t content with the show either: why are some of the actors facing away from the audience? Why is the stage so dark? Although the show sells well at the box office, he is not pleased. In the end, however great the writer and director, the boss is still, well, the boss.

8) The Play

It is announced that the Writer will direct his own play in 2012. It is called Play House, a quick-moving piece for two actors. The Writer finds directing an exhausting business, but his most important decision is to persuade the Artistic Director of his venue, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, to allow him to hire a movement director. When the show opens, all the reviewers, including the Critic, are impressed by the movement of the two Actors. Sometimes the movement director is more important than either the writer or the director.

9) The Music

For his latest play, also in 2012, the Writer asks a Composer to write the music for some satirical songs. He tells him that he has discovered his work for a Dutch production of Attempts on Her Life on YouTube, and that he likes it very much. So the Composer writes the music for the songs sung during In the Republic of Happiness. A CD of these is produced by the theatre, the Royal Court, so they can be enjoyed long after memories of the show itself have faded. Sometimes, the composer is just as important as the writer.

10) The Concert

In June 2014, the Critic attends a concert at Asia House in London. He greets the Artist from Blue, Glimmer and the Writer, who are also there. They all enjoy the performance of traditional Korean music and Korean dance. To the Critic, it feels much more exciting than any theatre show. For him, it’s an Antonin Artaud moment. After it is over, the Critic whispers to the Writer: “For your next play, you should include the stage direction ‘Traditional Korean dancers cross the stage’ — that will challenge your director.” The Writer is silent. He remains inscrutable.

Aleks Sierz is author of The Theatre of Martin Crimp.  The second edition was published by Methuen in 2013.

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  1. Edward Gordon Craig, ‘The Art of the Theatre (1st Dialogue)’, in On the Art of the Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1911).
  2. Discussed in Gerald Rabkin, ‘Is There a Text on This Stage? Theatre/Authorship/Interpretation’, Performing Arts Journal, 9.2/3 (1985), 142-59.
  3. W.B. Worthen and others, ‘Disciplines of the Text/Sites of Performance’, TDR, 39.1 (Spring 1995), 13-44.
  4. Steven Leigh Morris, ‘Is Edward Albee Softening with Success?’, LA Weekly (21 February 2007),  <http://www.laweekly.com/2007-02-15/stage/is-edward-albee-softening-with-success/>.  See also Chris Goode’s exhilarating reply, ‘What’s it all about, Albee?’, Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire (4 March 2007), <http://beescope.blogspot.co.uk/2007/03/whats-it-all-about-albee.html>.
  5. Dan Rebellato, ‘Three Kingdoms’, Spilled Ink (12 March 2013) <http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/spilledink/2013/3/12/three-kingdoms>.
  6. Alison Croggon, ‘The perfect storm: playwright vs. director’, ABC Arts Blog (31 July 2013), <http://www.abc.net.au/arts/blog/Alison-Croggon/playwright-versus-director-130731/>.
  7. Alex Chisholm, ‘The End of “New Writing”?’, Exeunt (11 May 2012), <http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/the-end-of-new-writing/>
  8. Aleks Sierz, Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today (London: Methuen, 2011), p. 16.
  9. See, for example, Philip Oltermann, ‘Katie Mitchell, British theatre’s true auteur, on being embraced by Europe’, Guardian (9 July 2014), <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jul/09/katie-mitchell-british-theatre-true-auteur>
  10. Liz Tomlin, ‘Citational Theory in Practice: A Performance Analysis of Characterisation and Identity in Katie Mitchell’s Staging of Martin Crimp’s Texts’Contemporary Theatre Review, 24 (2014), 373-77; Dominic Cooke, ‘Bringing In the Republic of Happiness to the Royal Court Stage’Contemporary Theatre Review, 24 (2014), 410-11.

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