Why be a playwright when the play is dead?

James Waites

(This text is from a speech given at this year's Sydney Writers Festival)

I like this title very much and–as the token critic on the panel–I sense a duty to acknowledge in my comments the hovering ghost of Roland Barthes. It was after all this eminent French cultural theorist who, in a 1968 essay, first coined the phrase: “The death of the author.”

It’s a phrase that, to this day, is largely misunderstood and often misrepresented. To come to grips with his extravagant claim, there are however 2 meanings of the word ‘dead’ we need to consider here.

There is dead as in ‘buried.' If you look up ‘death of the author’ on the net you end up downloading hundreds of novelists’ obituaries. That is not the kind of death Barthes was referring to. There is no question that writers are still needed to actually write, whether it’s novels or playscripts

What Barthes intended was a challenge to the habit among critics of his day (and still today) to look for the ‘meaning’ of a work of art in the writer’s so-called ‘intentions.' He claimed you could never know a writer’s intentions; even the writer cannot know what truly drives a book. The author’s history, education, sexuality, what he had for breakfast, is ultimately of little relevance.

All that exists, claims Barthes, at the end of the process of writing is the book, the text. At that point, the author and the work part company, a new union is formed between the text and the reader. Barthes rightly observed that in literary criticism from the Classical age up to the end of Modernism, the role of the reader had never been considered relevant in any discussion of the ‘meaning’ of a text.

“To give a text an author,” Barthes wrote, “is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”

Barthes observation was that in seeking out ‘the intentions of the author’ we were not only attempting the impossible, we were also denying the text an infinite number of other equally valid meanings. As many meanings, in fact, as there were readers. As many meanings in fact as their were readings. This is true of the experience of theatre too. Anyone who goes back to see a production a second or third time knows what I mean.

We might be going the long way round here, but this does take us back to today’s topic: ‘Why be a playwright when the play is dead?’

Strictly speaking the play is not dead, it will never be dead so long as there is theatre. But we must, in the service of good work, accept that the play is no more or less than the architecture holding the work of art together. Playwrights are architects. Directors are, in this analogy, the design consultants. And actors are the inhabitants–owners not renters.

The play is not dead, in my view. But what about the playwright? As an author–whose intentions we attempt to seek out–the playwright is as dead as any novelist, in the sense that Barthes originally observed.


As a critic not currently employed (though ‘retired’ or ‘resting’ sounds better) I could be seen as ‘dead’ — as in buried.

As a dead critic I feel I am uniquely honoured to be asked to participate in this panel. It makes a kind of bizarre sense: critics are, when in work, theatre’s ‘undead’–wrapped in our capes, fangs barely concealed, we only emerge after nightfall to frighten baby NIDA graduates and leading festival directors of indisputable good taste.

Only after we have been stabbed several times through the heart with a crucifix by the likes of an emboldened Schofield or a vengeful Macintosh– today’s ‘holy cross’ looking uncannily like a dollar sign–can society safely allow us out for an appearance such as this one. As the legend has it, quite correctly, only a truly dead critic, as in buried, is safe in good society before sundown.


So who dug me up? How did I get here?

It was a casual conversation with Deborah Franco who works with Katharine Brisbane at Currency Press. We were, like far too many people with time on our hands, discussing the fallout of a Richard Wherrett's speech at the National Performance Conference in Sydney in January, which has lead to a cascade of commentary including responses from playwright Louis Nowra, dramaturg May-Brit Akerholt and emerging director Benedict Andrews.

Running through the responses has been an argument, by no means a new one, between playwrights and directors as to who is more important in the process of creating a work of art for the stage.

As a critic I have been confronted with this many times. It’s a version of the old chicken and egg conundrum. Directors these days are ‘up themselves’ because they take liberties with the text. They do not adhere to the playwright’s intentions. Directors, on the other hand, see playwrights as prima donnas who don’t know what’s good for them or their wayward scribbles.

These arguments get more complicated when the playwright is ‘dead’, in the ‘buried’ sense.

There was a panel discussion a year or so ago in response to Barrie Kosky’s radical production for Bell Shakespeare of King Lear. A host of senior academics–including Leonie Kramer–argued that Kosky had done Shakespeare a disservice in his ‘interpretation.' As Barthes would rightly ask, how are we to ever know what Shakespeare intended? All a director can do today with a classic text, or any text for that matter, is help his actors find meaning in it for themselves and their nightly audiences.

In my view, the recent kerfuffle cascading down from Wherrett’s first assault has been akin to the two ugly sisters of fairytale arguing vehemently over the glass shoe. Who’s more important–the writer or the director? When forlorn in the ashes in the corner sits Cinderella, otherwise known as the ‘actor’ or the ‘troupe of actors.'

In my view the true work of art we call theatre exists in the empty space between actors and audience. It is born as it dies, leaving (if the work has any cogency) an imprint on our souls. The Tuesday night performance is, strictly speaking, a different work of art from the one presented on Wednesday night.

If Tuesday night was the opening night then, we might ask, where are the writer and director on Wednesday night when the work of art is being recreated entirely afresh? They’re probably not even in the theatre building. Where are they? Most likely down the pub drowning their sorrows over the ‘hot-off-the-press’ scathing reviews.

It’s something a good critic should remember: whatever you have to say, don’t forget the performers have to get up and do it again in front of more people. If you’re hard, that can be a very big call. Meanwhile all else involved can write themselves off in a sea of valium and cask wine.

Of course writers and directors can be very helpful in the construction of the work’s preparatory architecture and design. But on the night, they actually have less a role to play in the making of the work than–dare I say it–that frightening bank of critics in the stalls, fangs flashing occasionally in the light, who do form part of the evening’s audience.

Actors/Audience/Time and Space are the fundamental components of the art form we call performance (theatre, opera, ballet, mime, stand-up comedy, all being no more than genres).

Only the very best playwrights acknowledge the servility of their role.

To propound that not only directors but actors too serve the vision of playwrights can result in a playwright’s death. Their professional or artistic death. They will never write a very good play if they ponce around in a delusional state of misplaced self-importance–if they believe they the true ‘authors’ of the work of art.

Good playwrights–and I cite Shakespeare and Pirandello here among the best examples–know they are mere handmaidens in the service of the actor-audience relationship. And they acknowledge, as household staff, they have usually well and truly knocked off for the day before the art form ever comes to life. Unless, like Shakespeare, they don a bonnet and take on the challenges of a minor role.

If playwrights are to maximise their contribution to the art form–and a good deal more could be said about this if we had the time–they should reconsider what a playscript is–or can be.

This too is a whole other topic, but let’s just say most bad playwrights think their job is to create dialogue. That’s it—dialogue–whether serious or witty or both. When really there is much more to creating an over-arching architecture of potential meanings which the actors and audiences can take up and explore.

Barthes is largely out of fashion these days when it comes to post-postmodern critical theory. Much of what he had to say in terms of ‘writing designed for reading’ has been worked through. But he made some superb observations about the nature of theatre which have largely gone unheeded by participants in the form. Brecht’s so-called ‘alienation’ theory was, in fact, one of his biggest influences.

Bathes also saw ‘texts’ everywhere–in the shining lights of Tokyo, in wrestling matches, in the silence of a rose in a vase. And when it came to the art form we call theatre he observed that the text was composed of much more then just words.

To finish, let me here just offer a glimpse of this in this quotation from an essay by Barthes titled “Baudelaire’s Theater”, written way back in 1954, a good 15 years before he killed off the author.

I think his comments best embrace, whether dead or alive, the still extraordinary potential of the playwright’s role. The subject: those resources available to the playwright as architect, which he groups together under the banner of ‘theatricality.'

“What is theatricality? It is theatre-minus-text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage starting from the written argument; it is that ecumenical perception of sensuous artifice–gesture, tone, distance, substance, light–which submerges the text beneath the profusion of its external language. Of course theatricality must be present in the first written germ of the work, it is a datum of creation not of production. There is no great theatre without a devouring theatricality–in Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Brecht, the written text is from the first carried along by the externality of bodies, of objects, of situations; the utterance immediately explodes into substances.”

Therein, in my view too, lie the resources of a living play.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. web

© James Waites; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001