Archive for the 'Theater' Category

14
Dec
09

Seeing Author People (the intentional fallacy part II)

Editor’s note: the following was received in a repeating signal, broadcast by a digital beacon from the middle of the Bornean Jungle. As of now, Blanka Hsudler’s location is unknown.

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Previously in this space, I’ve discussed the so-called “fallacy of the author,” which states that an artistic work should be judged on its own merits without preconceptions about authorial intent. Although this has always been a touchstone of my attitude as a reader, it’s caused considerable problems in my approach to writing. Trying to write with a background in literary criticism is like trying to play the lottery while having a basic understanding of math.

The Fallacy, in particular, seems designed to undermine the creative act. After all, the very name of the thing declares that authorship is a lie. How am I supposed to put words on the page when I have no say in the meaning of the finished work?

The dilemma is encapsulated nicely in this scene (linked in part I) from the marginally-entertaining Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. For a practically-minded man like protagonist Thornton Melon, it makes perfect sense that the ultimate authority on a Kurt Vonnegut novel would be the writer himself. He learns a hard lesson about lit theory when his college professor gives Vonnegut’s paper an F, and moreover declares that its author “doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” Of course, poor Kurt learns a harder lesson, one that really tugs at a fellow writer’s heartstrings, when Melon cancels his paycheck. As far as I am concerned, the most important lesson in Back to School is always ask to be paid beforehand, in cash.

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That authors often don’t understand the “hidden meaning” in their own work is hardly news. But if I can’t tell you what my own book is about, what’s the point of writing at all? Worse, what if I’m writing one thing and it turns out to be just the opposite? Take The Merchant of Venice: critics still can’t decide if poor old William Shakespeare meant Shylock to be a greedy old caricature hilariously bitch-slapped by karma, or an sweet man soured by the bitter pill of society’s salty aspersions.

Two modern interpretations of the character:
Laurence Olivier

Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock, 1973

Al Pacino

Al Pacino as Shylock, 2004

This, of course, ignores the obvious answer that Shylock is supposed to be an ambiguous figure. For the sake of this analysis I’ll pretend that shades of gray weren’t invented till Impressionism.

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Another example from the Bard: I’m pretty sure “to thine own self be true,” the words said by Polonius to his son in Hamlet, wasn’t meant as sound advice. Until he’s accidentally stabbed while hiding behind some curtains (in a scene that I find hilarious — is that so wrong?), Polonius is presented as a senile, lecture-happy dotard, a sort of medieval Larry King who hails from Denmark instead of Mesopotamia. I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that his advice sounds like the title of a bad self-help book or an even worse memoir (an Amazon search turns up a painfully comprehensive list of both).

An astute reader might point out that Shakespeare isn’t the best source to use when discussing authorial intent, since we’re not actually sure the guy wrote his own plays. Or existed. But whether a non-entity can truly intend anything is a question I’ll leave to the philosophers (or Tom Huxter).

The point is, it can seem impossible to get a message across when all readers have to go on is the written word. Even when the message is right there in the text, someone is likely to come along who gets it completely backwards. Worst of all, everything being relative, perhaps it’s the author himself who’s misunderstood the whole thing. So, why write at all? It’s certainly enough of a dilemma to make one tear one’s hair out.

Shakespeare, BEFORE and AFTER

Shakespeare, too, was distressed to learn about the Fallacy of the Author.

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Next time: Some foolproof ideas about how to write, in spite of the Fallacy. Or at least, some foolish ideas.

12
Oct
09

Sequel Opportunity

Part 2 of my comments on the Fallacy of the Author are coming soon.  Meanwhile:

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In recent years, Broadway seems to have largely converted to a religion originally popularized by the Hollywood elite.  No, not the one you’re thinking of.

As you drive through the streets of Los Angeles every morning, you can hear its zen-like mantra being chanted, drone-like, by hundreds of executives over their morning meal of the blood of interns and screenwriting hopefuls.

ESTABLISHED FRANCHISE, EASY MONEY.  ESTABLISHED FRANCHISE, EASY MONEY.

The same force that impels nearly every summer blockbuster to be either a sequel, superhero movie, or adaptation of yet another young-adult book about vampires has slowly but surely crept into the brains of the (theoretically) more artistically-minded backers of musical theater.

There’s Spamalot and the Producers, each based on a popular decades-old film comedy, and Young Frankenstein, which builds upon the formula by adapting another movie from the already screen-to-stage success Mel Brooks.

There’s Hairspray, based on a movie and later adapted into one, reminiscent of the moment in 30 Rock where Jenna Maroney receives an award for her role in Mystic Pizza, the “best performance in a movie based on a musical based on a movie.”

Let’s not forget Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins… uh… The Rescuers Down Under?  Well, I’m sure that’s coming in the next year or two.  Might be a good time to invest in mouse suits.

And of course, there’s Shrek.  I heard a radio ad for this show recently, featuring a likeably generic theatrical version of Smashmouth’s “I’m a Believer.” “I’m a Believer” was originally made a hit by the Monkees  in 1966, who at that point neither played their instruments nor wrote their own music (the song is by Neil Diamond).  When the theme you choose to represent yourself is a rewrite of a cover of a song by a band who was created specifically for a TV show… well, enough said.

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So, yeah.  Half of Broadway (and my understanding is that we’re mostly talking about the successful half) is made up of recycled material.

But what compelled me to write about this trend is someone who took the mantra of “Established Franchise” a step further.

This Guy.

Andrew Lloyd Webber at work.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is the man behind The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Cats (as well as Starlight Express, which is, depressingly, not the only musical performed mostly on roller skates).  So far, so good.  But he is also the man behind the recently announced Love Never Dies, which is a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.  Ten years after the events of the first musical, the Phantom finds himself inhabiting that most mysterious of places: Cooooney Island.  OOoooOOoooOOO!

If Las Vegas is a well-groomed, smooth-talking Hollywood mobster, and Atlantic City is the squinting, spitting real deal, then Coney Island is like the old Russian guy who lives upstairs from both of them and runs a Pinochle game for quarters out of his bedroom.  Nestled at the south end of Brooklyn, New York, it’s a faded boardwalk, a grimy beach, many, many rides that go around in circles, and, on weekends, a crowd of locals too fat to know humility.

To be fair, Coney Island is actually a pretty scary place, something I’ll explain in a future article.  This will help give you an idea of what I mean, though.

Classic literature comes alive!

Which circle of Hell is the one where your head is attached to a demon's tongue? I'm going to guess... seventh?

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For some reason, the idea of a sequel to a musical rubs me the wrong way.  I’m no musical theater aficionado, and even when I am I much prefer the upbeat silliness of Singing in the Rain or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to the often too-serious tone of Webber’s work.  However, it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that Phantom’s lavish production values, its pop flair, and its operatic ambitions helped define a whole era of musical theater.  Trying to drag this icon of decades past into the new, Shrek-friendly Broadway environment seems akin to forcing Neil Armstrong to pilot the Star Tours ride at Disneyland.

What I think doesn’t matter, of course.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens, and these days there’s only one way to measure success.  At least Webber knows the game, commenting that “if it does a third as well as the old Phantom I’ll still be very happy.”  I’m sure he will, given that Phantom’s lifetime take is something on the order of $3 billion.

Hell, maybe in a few years I’ll come around and write Opera Phantom 3: Revenge of the Fallen.

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Next time on Uncomma: More literary theory.  Thrilling!