Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What Does Meaning Mean?

Isaac got the ball rolling with a long post about post-show talkbacks and why artists don’t like to talk about what their work means. Matthew Freeman picked it up, examining it from the perspective of a writer. I figure I’d take a whack at it. I think there’s a semantic issue here.

As an artist, I have a point of view, a story I’m trying to tell. I bring to the work my own issues, philosophies, politics. I write a play about a black student at a predominantly white school, I’m saying something about race relations. I write a play about a woman choosing between a lover who’s a self-centered artist and a lover who’s a generous banker, I’m saying something about what’s important in love. I know this. It’s why I write. Because I have some point of view on the world that I want to share. There are plays that I simply can’t write, or couldn’t write with any degree of honesty, because I don’t believe in their message. I know what I want a play to say, what message I’m trying to convey. I may not always be able to articulate it clearly, but I know.

I have a play that revolves around an act of plagiarism that one character benefits from and, in the end, wins a coveted award. In a conversation recently, an artistic director suggested that that character NOT win the prize, but that the actual author should win. I balked immediately. That’s not what the play is about. That’s not what it means. The action of a play, for me, is part of its meaning.

There’s a school of playwriting that I find alternately ridiculous and enlightening. Some playwrights are taught to put “artist statements” on the front of first drafts. Usually they’re verbose and totally on the nose. But it is helpful and enlightening for a writer to think, “What is my play about?” It helps in communicating clearly to collaborators and it helps in communicating clearly to audiences.

Sometimes there's an over-reliance on "authenticity" as the measure of a play. The whole "I'm the artist, my hand is guided from beyond the infinite, I'm merely the vessel" pose. We are in control. We make choices, a lot of choices, sometimes for conscious reasons, sometimes for unconscious ones. But we shy away from owning those choices as if that makes it less "authentic." It can be both. We don't have to act as though all we're doing is transcribing the voices in our head, but it also doesn't mean that the plays are simply constructs to convey some message. The two can work together. Brecht is a great example of this. His plays have meaning, they have messages, political messages and it's always clear what he's saying. Especially because he puts titles in and wants you to always remember that you're in a theatre. At the same time, though, his characters move authentically through their world. That's what separates the best of Brecht from pure agitprop or propaganda.

On the other hand, usually when someone is asking you, “What does your play mean?” it seems that they’re really asking, “How do you want me to feel about this?” And that’s a question we can’t and shouldn’t answer. Since Americans are very bottom line, we like to know what’s going on at every turn. That’s why movies soundtracks are usually so intrusive. That’s what some find frustrating about plays. Meaning = the lesson. And that’s something we should be resisting.

Hamlet has meaning. You can feel deeply in it how Shakespeare felt about family, obligation, revenge, the weight of living up to a father’s memory. This is all apparent not just in language, but in the action and plot of the play. There’s a reason that Hamlet is full of sons trying to avenge their fathers. And for most, it’s a futile effort. Tells you something about what Shakespeare thought, doesn't it? But it doesn’t tell you how you're supposed to feel about that. That’s the art part. And the part that a lot of people want to short circuit.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I'm very, very reticent to explain the meaning of my plays. First off, it can have more than one meaning, depending on the background of the person watching. If someone sees something different than I do, why is that wrong?

And artistic statements drive me batty. Absolutely, the playwright should have a clear, defined vision of the play. But I'd rather work on the play, rather than a paragraph defining the play.

99 said...

I'm with you, Lindsay, on artist's statements (outside of the preface to a book or something), simply because, too often, it gets into telling the audience how they're supposed to feel. I'm fine explaining what I meant, what I was trying to say with a play, but I don't want that to influence how an audience member feels about it. That's for them to decide. But I should know what I'm trying to say, as specifically as possible.