Shelton Theater Dust-Up is Minor, But The Conflict it Reveals is Not

So here’s what seems to be the problem: The Shelton Theater, a small company in downtown San Francisco, produced Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and for a number of reasons -- financial, aesthetic, a sense of daring -- cut about a third of the play without the dramatist’s permission. That’s a violation of the company's licensing agreement as well as federal copyright law.

Guirgis demanded that the Shelton include an insert in the program that read: “The play you are seeing tonight has been improperly and extensively cut & edited. These edits were made without permission and against the wishes of the playwright, and in violation of federal copyright law.”

The theater company complied, but stamped the notice with a red warning sign that seemed to give the retraction a kind of rebel spin. This angered Guirgis even further. A few Facebook posts later, the theater apologized, the production shut down, and Guirgis declared the contretemps over: “We are all theater people here," the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright wrote. "Many freaks -- but one tribe.”

From a legal perspective, the issues couldn’t be clearer. But if you tug a bit on the aesthetic ones -- and I would argue that those are the ones that matter -- things get a lot messier. What this seemingly insignificant controversy reveals is a series of assumptions about how we view the theater and contemporary playwriting.

As a matter of course, many plays are chopped, diced, flipped, abused, and re-imagined for both good and ill. The counter argument to that is most of the works that enterprising theater artists adapt in these various ways are classics, and that Shakespeare, Marlowe, Calderón, Euripides, Molière, Racine, and all the rest of the dead dramatists of the world could only dream of the protections that living and recently deceased playwrights (through literary estates) possess. Okay, true, but that’s a legal technicality and not an aesthetic or cultural argument.

The productions that these rights-deprived dead geniuses receive are often more vibrant, innovative, alive, and attuned to the world than the paint-by-numbers approach authorial control demands under the law. In the last year, Bay Area audiences have had the pleasure of the Shotgun Players’ Hamlet roulette, Ubuntu Theater Project’s rug store Othello, and California Shakespeare Theater’s servants’ rights Much Ado About Nothing, a housing crises As You Like It, and a Black Lives Matter Othello.

Not all of them were successful, but I enjoyed thinking along with their sometimes loony premises. At no time did I question the directors or theaters’ right to bend these plays to their individual needs and interests.

In more recent playwriting history, authors have gained an inordinate amount of control over their work. Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee were notoriously hawkish about how their plays were produced. Thanks to the continued vigilance of these playwrights' estates, there's a musty edge to what we see of their work. From a cultural point of view, every playwright needs some idiotic productions to loosen things up. We should never underestimate the great potential of failure and foolishness.

Beneath the logic of Guirgis' complaint and copyright law is the notion that the play is a kind of sacred text under the control of the God-author -- that cutting, changing the blocking, casting against type, etc. constitute grievous violations of meaning. From a legal standpoint, there's not much that can be done, but from an aesthetic one I fear that we are losing out on great riches for a rather dubious ideal.

I’ve often wondered about the famous Wooster Group production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and why Miller retracted the rights to his play after seeing a performance by the famous avant-garde New York company. I have a theory and it’s not a kind one. Everything the Wooster Group does is a brutal interrogation, and any weakness in the material is obvious under the company's stringent methods. I think Miller felt that the Wooster Group had exposed his artistic limitations and got scared.

Guirgis is an excellent writer who in the past few years has received very good but staid productions of his work in the Bay Area -- The Motherfucker with the Hat at SF Playhouse and Between Riverside and Crazy at American Conservatory Theater. These were solid outings, but less reverential productions might have brought out the wilder, more ambitious aspects of his work. Fidelity is a rather wan virtue.

Though not a perfect analogy, the lifecycle of a song provides a dynamic counter-model. A composer writes a song and maybe even performs it, giving it a definitive reading. Then another singer comes along and sings it in a different way, maybe even changes the gender of the pronouns, cuts a verse, distorts the tempo or slips into a higher or lower key. I don’t think that song has been damaged as a result. That song continues to have an ongoing cultural life and the ability to attract new meanings and ideas.

Great plays should be able to handle the same types of changes. Some experiments work and others don't. But a freewheeling sense of giving it a go is crucial for a truly vibrant culture. We shouldn’t be satisfied with what the law allows for now -- the aesthetic equivalent of a Starbucks franchise. We should hope for and demand interpretations attuned to the producing artists’ abilities and vision, and not be content with variations on some false Platonic ideal to which the author clings.

The issue is not this particular production, but rather the beliefs behind the conflict. The Shelton Theater violated Guirgis’ legal rights, but those legal rights are artistically limiting. And when you compare the production of classical plays by dead writers without living estates with those of most contemporary plays, you can begin to see the cracks in a rather unpromising system.