How do playwrights think about play structure and meaning?
February 10, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday I saw a community theater production of Sam Shepherd's Buried Child. Later at home, I looked up some commentary/analysis on it. So many different meanings were attributed to various aspects of the play, such as the corn that Tilden kept bringing in from outside. It was tied to fertility, infertility, Sukkot, the Corn King, death, and on and on. At one point, Vince reentered the house from the screened-in porch by cutting the screen vertically top to bottom and stepping through. This was said to be a symbolic rebirth for his character.

As I was reading all of this commentary, I couldn't help but wonder if Shepherd intended all or or just some of these meanings. I am curious as to how focused playwrights are in creating the many layers and possibilities for meaning that analysts find.

Thank you!
posted by michellenoel to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The topic you're looking for is called author intent and it's a big topic. What I learned as an English major is that you can't get hung up on what the author intended, because sometimes with humans stuff comes out of us that was not intended but is still interesting and fits in with over-arching patterns and themes. So whether or not Shepherd was intending to create patterns, it doesn't matter if you can make a good case for it.

I know this doesn't answer your question directly but maybe it will give you a starting place if you're interested in reading about it as it's a big, thorny problem in the world of cultural criticism.
posted by bleep at 3:25 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a playwright ... it varies.

For me, often the process is more intuitive than intentional ... I have a level of awareness that (for example) corn is representing seasonal growth in a play I might write, and the associations of death/rebirth that come with it, certainly, but I might not explicitly be thinking of Sukkot and the Corn King.

On the other hand, I recently wrote a piece that was heavily derived from Greek Mythology, and I did a lot of research about what the particular myths I was using meant and gave a great deal of thought to what they represented.

However, different playwrights work differently. There are as many processes as there are writers, honestly.
posted by kyrademon at 4:18 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been thinking about this issue in relation to film and poetry. Films are collective works, so there's often no one author. But I think it often makes sense to divide our reception of a film in two abstract parts: one is of the story that is being told, and the second is of the message, or meaning of the story, which is something like an answer to a question like: Why is this story being told? What is this film trying to say? Plot mechanics, for instance, are on the level of the story itself. But often a film seems to exist in order to show us something, about human nature, or morality, or whatever, that the story seems a means to display. And sometimes this thing that's being displayed is something that is seems would be hard to communicate in any more direct way, so the film might be called symbolist. As if the film has given us the best representation we have so far of what it shows.

(An example of a film that seemed plainly to exist to convey a conceptual moral lesson is The Counterfeiters. Films like Tarkofsky's Stalker or Solaris would be more 'symbolist'.

It seems that movies have a variable interest or worth as vehicles of story and as vehicles of meaning (of that story.) Some work great as pure plot, some have plots that make no sense if you're thinking at all critically, but work nonetheless on other levels, like emotionally, because of what the actions show, what the film is communicating to us with its story.

But a first step in taking the measure of a film would be to try to trace what is the mere story it tells, partially to discover the extent that this can be made sense of as plot alone. And perhaps there will be differences of interpretation amongst viewers on even that level, with certain films. (Like disagreement about what series of events were being depicted.) But my working assumption is that the plurality of interpretation and interpretive response comes in the reception of the why? of the film, of its message. When can hold the structure of the film open to see how it solicits and fans out into all of these possible responses, you might begin asking about which one was meant -- what was the 'intended' message. But that would be to go beyond and lose the full crystalline substance of the film itself.
posted by bertran at 1:18 AM on February 11, 2014

There's a fantastic set of videos here where playwright Simon Stephens and actor Andrew Scott interview each other. They talk, among other things, about a piece Stephens wrote for Scott called Sea Wall (originally a stage play, later filmed). Somewhere in these interviews*, Scott asks Stephens about the deep sea wall that his character, Alex, comes across while scuba diving - was it meant to be a metaphor for the depth of his later grief?

Stephens says it wasn't written deliberately like that at all, but it must have been in his unconscious mind because it's such a clear, profound link - but it was only after he finished writing that he looked back and thought "Ah, yeah..."

*I've been rewatching the videos in the hope of posting you a link to the right one but I've not found it yet and have run out of time to search. They're such great interviews though, that if you're interested in theatre you could do worse than watching them all.
posted by penguin pie at 4:54 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for the interesting replies! And thank you for your time, penguin pie.

I look forward to reading/watching more about it.
posted by michellenoel at 8:05 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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