Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Musings: When meaning, in a work of art, is relative
The process of reviewing About… Productions’ original piece “Properties of Silence” became a specifically interesting bit of discernment when I began discussing the play with some of my high school seniors, who saw it a day or two before I did. As a part of their programmed educational outreach, people from About… had come to their English classroom to try to elicit from the students what they felt various elements of symbolism in the work (and there are many) meant. When I saw it, I developed my own sense of what its central message was. Then I heard two of the playwrights (one of the stars and the director) of the play discussing it on KUSC. All of us had different spins on what the play was trying to say.
So, one of the central questions becomes, is that okay? If an audience sees something different from the author’s intent, does that make the intent skewed, the audience dense, or does it simply mean it has a depth which can be uncovered in different ways? For the students – many of whom were very confused indeed – can we say all windows through which to see the piece are okay to open, even if they may lead down a path the authors did not intend?
I have encountered this discussion before, of course. Not only have I had people write to tell me my assessment of a play – not of the production but the play itself – is off base, meaning different from theirs, but I’ve been startled by interpretations of my original writings as well. In my life as a published poet I have heard and read people discussing my poems, finding a meaning in it I never meant myself. Still (when I back away from ownership) I can see these alternate views have a validity. In the end, I tend to find such an encounter fascinating.
Indeed, I keep hearing the line from a favorite classic film, “The Philadelphia Story”, when a struggling novelist discovers his novel on the shelf of a wealthy acquaintance and says, startled, “You are a man of unexpected depth!” There’s something both satisfying and scary in having your work disentangled by someone with a different sense of what it looks like.
I had a professor in college, Dr. Sy Kahn, who made everyone taking his reader’s theater course buy his poetry chapbook. His contention was that, when students read pieces from that book they would have someone who could advise them on what the poems actually meant. As someone raised around the words of Shakespeare, I found this deeply disturbing. When you consider all the ways in which any Shakespearean line can be read, and has been read and interpreted over the last 400 years or so, that would not be possible if everyone had instructions on what to think about what they were going to say from the Bard himself. Most certainly, that openness to interpretation is what keeps his work, Elizabethan as it is, fresh and alive.
So, this is my point. My students are looking for guidance – looking for someone to start them on the processing of an art form (particularly in this rather surreal play) they are not used to. If I give them one piece of the puzzle, and the creative team from the production gives them an alternate one, it may seem confusing but in essence it underscores the very root of art itself: that no two people will necessarily see or hear it the same way.
Which is why theater, or writing, is a living thing. Guidance can be useful, but it is not to be taken as handing down the great tablets – the single expected understanding – if a work is serious, poetic and aspiring to depth. Of course, the meanings in a French farce (for example) are far simpler, but true art can be absorbed many ways. That’s what makes it possible to attend many different productions of a classic and never see quite the same thing twice. Or why a playwright and a critic may encounter completely different elements which catch and inspire them at a particular time.
As for my students, they were frustrated at not being told a single answer, but they’ve been in my IB Theory of Knowledge class, so they’ve learned (annoying though it might be) that there’s always more than one way to view almost anything. They are gradually learning to find their own way, based on that theory, in the world of theater, and that is actually quite exciting.