Dear Matthew Jocelyn (Or, The Soulful Text and The De-Souled Actor)


harper3Dear Matthew,

I like your taste in plays. I was thrilled to hear that you’d programmed Simon Stephens’s 2008 play Harper Regan, a longtime favourite of mine, at Canadian Stage, the large Toronto theatre company of which you’re the artistic and general director. You’ve also programmed a play by the excellent German Philipp Lรถhle next season, alongside plays by the excellent Canadian Jordan Tannahill. As this patchy survey of your programming suggests, your curation at Canadian Stage is cosmopolitan and, in my opinion, oriented towards excellence.

In a manner more or less unparalleled by any other local company in the years I’ve been attending theatre in Toronto, you’ve opened a space in this city for a conversation about the substance and form of theatre as it exists beyond the limits of North America and particularly in Europe. You’ve programmed a lot of European work, for one thing, and you’ve enfranchised local directors to approach texts of whatever provenance with a characteristically “continental” attitude.

That attitude may be epitomized in a few maxims that are inevitably reductive but capture the gist. The writer is not the author, in the strict sense, of a stage production. The writer is necessarily radically dispossessed when interpreters take hold of her play and stage it. There is a dramaturgy of all stage elements — scenery, sound design, actors’ performances, etc. — not just a dramaturgy of the text. The spirit of the text may sometimes be best honoured by taking liberties with the letter of the text; if the director has any obligation to the text, that obligation is only to the spirit of the text as he perceives it and not to the author’s intentions. The author’s intentions are radically unknowable. Realism is acceptable as a self-conscious formal strategy but never as a hegemonic default position. Language is unreliable at best and possibly just noise; the most authentic stratum of reality, from which we as bourgeois moderns are liable to be alienated, is sub- or supra-lingustic: gestural, imagistic, physical.

It’s not my interest here to unpack the salty compound of truth and nonsense that those claims amount to. Let it suffice to point out, for these modest Internet purposes, that they rest on doctrinaire postmodern and post-structuralist thinking, developed in Europe after the Second World War, and are vulnerable to all the same challenges as are postmodernism and post-structuralism.

What I mean to do here, instead, is to look at how your production of Harper Regan is served by your interpretive approach.

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