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"Dramaturgy" and "Dramaturgs"
What Is (Are) They?

For some time now attempts have been made to explain exactly what a dramaturg is and precisely what the art of dramturgy is likely to be. Some of these explanations have been quite persuasive, a few even ingenious, and yet I'm still not convinced that most people have caught up with these terms. I'll suggest a few reasons why this may be the case, but first let me start with the description of a dramaturg I provided around 1973, close to the time when I was most active in this profession. You'll also find this passage in the section from my 'Sixties book dealing with the theatre in England, but I'll save you the effort of clicking back and forth by reproducing it right here:

The term Dramaturg is still not too well understood in America, and I will talk about it briefly here, as I think it goes some way towards explaining why many English productions seem (as of 1973) so much more polished than home-grown efforts. The terms Dramaturg and Literary Manager were being used almost interchangeably in England as of 1965, Jeremy Brooks being the "Chefdramaturg" of the Shakespeare, Kenneth Tynan of the National. Though a dramaturg is also responsible for overseeing the reception and reading of manuscripts, as well as arranging for contracts with writers, his most important duties begin when a play goes into production.

If it is a foreign play, he must see that it receives an adequate stage translation. If none exists, he must take an existing translation and adapt it so that actors can speak the lines. This is an exacting skill and can become an art in certain hands, for a play can easily be better in the translation than it is in the original. Or it can be worse. It is rarely ever exactly the same.

When the dramaturg has this translation in hand, he sits in with the director through at least the first week of rehearsals, making such further changes as may be in keeping with the needs and idiosyncrasies of the actors. More important, where an actor—or less frequently a director—chooses to change the text in a direction which he believes the original text will not support, he interposes himself to protect the original, unless it can be demonstrated that the change is an undoubted improvement.

With a classical English play, the role of the Dramaturg might or might not be less vital. It would depend how much work was needed to make the play accessible to a modern audience, or what special point of relevance the director might want to stress in his production. Purists may be shocked to learn that all but the most famous plays of Shakespeare were invariably subjected by the RSC to a thorough editing process. This is particularly true of the historical plays, for which John Barton merged many lines and scenes, deleted others, and wrote whole new stretches of "Shakespearean" dialogue, all with the praiseworthy goal of making these works more accessible to a modern audience.

There is a romantic school of theatre buffs that holds that somehow if we listen to exactly the same lines as the people of Shakespeare's era heard, we will be able to understand them as purely and completely as they did, for the words of Shakespeare must surely be immortal. This view, which is close to being a religious one, does not jive with the practical experience of anyone working in the theatre and is probably just a more ornate way of saying "I wish things stayed the same and never got old and changed."

I think I'll take that point about people viewing theatre--or the "classics" in general for that matter--as they do a set of religious scriptures and add an emphasis factor of about one thousand percent. I don't think this is anywhere near too extreme an exaggeration, and I believe it may also account for some of the popular hesitation in accepting the dramaturg as a legitimate part of the theatre process, especially here in America.

One of the justifications most frequently advanced for producing the theatre classics is remarkably close to being a religious one. Ostensibly, all people in all ages have always been remarkably alike, sharing compellingly crucial needs and values, and we will invariably discover the truth of this by attending the plays of the ancient Greeks, the Elizabethans, or even oriental dramas from India and Japan.

An entire ideology of theatre has arisen around such suppositions and may have greatly assisted us in our quest to preserve the classic theatre. We should probably be grateful at least for this, and I certainly have no intention of aiding those who would destroy that theatre if they could. My point is that we may be sending people to the theatre for precisely the wrong reasons. The Greeks, the Elizabethans, and more exotic orientals are not truly of interest to us because they resemble us but because they differ from us in so many ways.

We are accustomed to believe that human beings exist--indeed have always existed--within the safe gamut of a limited number of values and principles, even though there is absolutely no evidence that this is true. Indeed, the fourteenth century Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldun saw through this fiction when he wrote the following passage:

A hidden pitfall in historiography is disregard for the fact that conditions within nations and races change with the change of periods and the passage of time. This is a sore affliction and is deeply hidden, becoming noticeable only after a long time, so that rarely do more than a few individuals become aware of it.

This is as follows: The condition of the world and of nations, their customs and sects, does not persist in the same form or in a constant manner. There are differences according to days and periods, and changes from one condition to another. Such is the case with individuals, times, and cities, and it likewise happens in connection with regions and districts, periods, and dynasties.

Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen/Princeton, 1967

But based on our comparison with religion, vast numbers of people would simply be unable to accept the preceding view, even though almost all who have made a close study of history find nothing remarkable in it. We have been taught to believe that on some deep level events are unaltering and probably unalterable, and we seek out all possible proof that this may be so, even against the burden of massive historical evidence to the contrary. "Things change, then they change back again," "plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose," "everything goes through cycles and comes around again to start a new cycle." So goes our thought process, if it can be called either thought or a genuine process.

As I have tried to show in my piece on satyr plays, [also available from the Theatre Menu] for almost a century it was customary to suppose that the ancient Greeks must have been the loftiest of beings, and hence their theatre could contain no low or frivolous moments. Even today divergent views are not readily entertained by many observers.

Human beings clearly feel a deep-seated urge to reassure themselves at every turn, to convince themselves that the totally unexpected simply cannot happen. And if indeed erupting volcanos, soul-wrenching holocausts, or even colliding asteroids can break into in our own real-life dramas, then they must always be dealt with by heroes, super-human demigods, or the combined forces of modern science and the military before the end of the last act. We seem to live in a culture that is constantly reinventing Santa Claus in one form or another.

But truly knowledgeable dramaturgs know instinctively--or have discovered along the way--that the plays of yesterday do not necessarily follow the rules and conventions of today. They have nonetheless often been placed in the unenviable position of having to act and work and write as if they do. This means that dramaturgs, directors, and even producers have become aware that one often cannot put on a classic play without tinkering with some of its most basic values. There are many terms for this: "making it relevant," "modernizing the theme," "adapting the work," or simply "dramaturging" it.

Analogous problems exist for those who are familiar with the process of editing other people's writing or even for those trying to help their friends take more effective photographs. Anyone who has ever edited the newsletters of small organizations has experienced the ire of letter-writers and even authors of articles whenever relatively mild cuts or changes are proposed. Nor do many people take kindly to criticisms and suggestions aimed at improving their photo technique. In each case, they often tend to believe that their words and deeds are intuitively correct and beyond reproach. Multiply this reaction many times over, and the reasons why people view dramaturgy with suspicion may become—if not defensible—at least more readily comprehensible.

And here lies the crux of why explaining the term "dramaturg" may continue to be a hard sell. The public does not really want to be told that the classics need changing. They want to believe that they are eternal. That they are the theatrical equivalent of God with a capital G. The idea of a dramaturg is simply counter-intuitive for many people (which does not even for a minute mean that their "intuitive" notions--about abortion, birth control, evolution, homosexuality, whatever--are remotely correct. One duty of dramaturgs may well be to combat incorrect but "intuitive" ideas wherever they may arise, including the public view of our profession. I have touched on a comparable problem in some of the material about linguistics also on this website. Until we find a way of dealing with this widespread preconception, it will not be easy to provide a perfectly acceptable explanation for the work of the dramaturg.

[I am grateful to Geoff Proehl and Winston Neutel for the pioneering work they have done in bringing Dramaturgy to the Web, and I hope that this section of my site constitutes a worthy continuation. I look forward to adding further material about this field in the future.]

This piece is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It
may not be used for any
commercial (i.e., money-making)
purpose without written permission
from the author.

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