Intentionalism and the Arts

                              Interview with Mark Fisher

  1. Your degree was in Drama and Theatre studies. Have you participated in much acting yourself, and if so, has this informed your writing as a critic?
I acted in a few shows at university and directed a couple of things as part of the course. Apart from acting in a Christmas show not long after graduating, I haven't done anything since then. My degree course was a mixture of theory and practice. It wasn't designed to train you to be one thing or another, but in retrospect, it turned out to be pretty useful for my role as a critic, because it meant I had a broad understanding of theatre's component parts. I'm not a specialist in any one of them, but I have an awareness that someone is responsible for the set, someone for the script, someone for the lighting, etc. 

One of the first courses I did was called "drama in performance" and there's an important lesson in the idea that theatre exists only in performance, not simply a thing to be studied on the page. Many critics are graduates of English literature courses and this can lead to them considering theatre entirely from the point of view of the script and underrating the performative elements.
  1. In a stage production of a play, do you think they are co-authored by the playwright and the director? If so, is there a governing author? For example, is there a hierarchy of authorship between the playwright and the Director? Furthermore, are plays actually co-authored by all the cast, back stage crew and anyone with a creative input?
It's a useful shorthand to attribute everything to the director even if, as your question implies, real life is much more complicated than that. In most cases it's the director who chooses the play and chooses the actors and getting those things right (the best play, the best actors) can contribute hugely to the success of the final production.

As an audience member, you frequently don't know. Is the actor acting well because of or in spite of the director? Was the script transformed from scraps of paper into a masterpiece only during rehearsals? Was the set designer responsible for the idea that gave the show coherence?

The most reliable guide is to consider a body of work: if you keep seeing an actor acting badly, then maybe that says something about their abilities as a performer.

As for authorship, the way I talk about it is likely to change according to the nature of the show. If it's a new play, I'm most likely to concentrate on the the playwright's ideas and to talk about the playwright as author. If it's a classic, I'm more likely to talk about "Peter Hall's Hamlet" because the distinguishing characteristics of this production are likely to be attributable to the director (even though I'm fully aware that it is still Shakespeare's Hamlet).

But, yes, theatre is a collaborative act, so authorship is rarely as clear-cut as it is with novels and paintings.

  1. When a film or play is described as being 'based' on a literary work, how loose can this be before the performance is a new work with a new author? For example 'Kiss Me Kate' in the Pitlochry Festival, is is about a theatre company staging a version of The Taming of the Shrew, yet is still considered a new work.
Well, you could go back to the Taming of the Shrew and discover that Shakespeare took the idea from a comedy by Aristo, so you could ask the same question of Shakespeare himself. And where did Aristo get the idea from? I believe it's relatively recently that we've become concerned with originality. In previous times it was perfectly acceptable to be an artist who told old stories in new ways.

In the world of visual art, Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho is Hitchcock's movie slowed down to fill 24 hours. Gordon had a simple idea, but one that had a huge effect on the way the film was seen. In effect, it is a new work, even though it is one that couldn't exist without the old work.

The Wooster Group routinely creates cultural clashes (in pop music they'd be called mash-ups) in which a 1950s B-movie, for example, will appear alongside an early opera or some similarly unexpected work. The juxtaposition of the old things produces something new.

So it seems to me that it doesn't have to be very loose at all before one work gets transformed into a new work with a new author.
           4.When producing Shakespeare, is it relevant to understand the historical context of 1. when it was    was written 2. When the play is set, or is all we need in the text?                                                                                                                                                               
There are lot of jokes, in particular, that make no sense unless you understand the historical context. And in 400 years the meaning of a lot of words has changed, so some knowledge is helpful there. Understanding the politics of Shakespeare's day can also shed some light on why he told the stories he did.

The evidence so far, however, is that he touched on such "universal" (I use the word advisedly) human themes that audiences respond to the plays even though their experience is very far removed from the specific circumstances of 16th century England. In that sense, a hell of a lot if it is in the text.

That's not the same as saying there is a "correct" way of interpreting Shakespeare or that we can know what his intentions were (or even that he knew what his own intentions were). One reason for the durability of his plays is that they have the capacity to illuminate very different situations, whether it was Henry V capturing a mood of British patriotism in the Second World War or Macbeth speaking to Polish audiences about the oppression of the communist regime. Shakespeare clearly knew nothing of these things, yet somehow his plays became especially relevant at those particular crisis points.
  1. Can plays or films mean different things to different people, or should we be seeking to understand the playwright's/director's intention?
I don't like the postmodernist idea that anything can mean anything. I don't think the reception of art is entirely subjective. Equally, however, one of the reasons being a theatre critic remains exciting is that theatre is a moving target. It can mean different things on different nights (maybe just shades of meaning, but sometimes more substantial differences), according to the place it is performed, the mood of the audience, the weather outside, the politics of the day, the show you saw previously, the book you've been reading, etc, etc.

To take two examples by the playwright Gregory Burke.

When his play Gagarin Way opened on the Edinburgh Fringe, I had the feeling that the middle-class festival audience had a voyeuristic us-and-them attitude to the working-class Fife characters (I have no way of proving this, it was just my hunch). When I saw the play for a second time in Kirkcaldy, closer to where it is set, it seemed to me a more balanced actor-audience relationship. The play was the same, the author's intentions were the same, but there was something different about the experience.

More recently, his play Black Watch has been an international success, so much so that it is being revived again by the National Theatre of Scotland for dates in the UK and America this autumn. I can't predict how it will go down this time, but given that it tells the story of a Scottish regiment's involvement in Iraq, it is very likely to be seen differently in 2010 than on its debut in 2006. Governments have changed, the fighting has gone on for longer, the political debate has shifted. This could be to the play's benefit or detriment, but it will have an effect.

Now, if you say that Burke's intention was to portray the life of the ordinary soldier as honestly as he could, then I'm confident that intention will continue to be realised. But in any theatre production there are so many other factors at play - many of them outside the author's control, some of them hidden in the author's subconscious - that much of the production's "meaning" is liable to change.