One of the problems of the Guardian setting up its site with distinct online content is that it is forced continually to feed its blogs, and that leads to a staggering number of cut-and-paste think pieces. (Mind you, let’s not pull on that thread…) The latest is a piece about how often theatre writers do rewriting.
I’m not sure whether Alexis Soloski believes that no other writers rewrite. George Kaufman said that ‘great plays aren’t written, they’re rewritten’ and there is some truth in that. Mind you, some well-known playwrights were quite incapable of rewriting because their creativity was tied up with a moment of writing, or outpouring: John Osborne was one; August Strindberg was another. Their writing was tied up in the moment of inspiration. Osborne was asked to rewrite bits of Look Back in Anger and only made it worse. Strindberg used to throw the pages of his manuscript onto the floor as he filled them, because the onward rush of the writing was the only energy that fuelled his writing.
I suppose the difference is that playwrights who do rewrite have the opportunity/curse of rewriting in public – after first preview, there are inevitably required changes that become apparent. I did some rewriting of my play Static through the rehearsal period, and some changes were made two months into the tour. That play was bilingual: in sign language and English, and I had to adjust the material to be performed in Sign. There are other things which are more contingent and related to the performance: a certain set may mean that an actor needs a couple more lines to cover a certain move which they wouldn’t need in a different configuration. The result is that the published text is the play as it stood about a week into rehearsals (that was the publisher’s deadline to get it out for press night) and doesn’t represent the play as far as I got it. On the other hand, there were some small sequences that we decided to cut for this production, which I was fine about, especially because the lines would remain in the published version. J. B. Priestley (An Inspector Calls, etc.) used to deliberately over-write to give each production to chance to cut and create their own version of the play, with their own emphasis and interests.
Soloski’s list of rewriters is a little random though: yes, Brecht [look, a picture] wrote three different versions of Life of Galileo. The first version was unperformed, since in 1942, Germany was surprisingly uninterested in putting on Marxist plays about the heroism of science. Then he wrote a version while in America with Charles Laughton. This is a very different version, but that’s probably because Brecht spoke next to no English and Laughton no German. The third version was rewritten in response to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Brecht felt that his original ending – which celebrated Galileo’s submission to the Inquisition as a crafty ruse that allowed him to continue writing and to smuggle his work out into the world – was too optimistic and scientists needed to stand up to power whatever the consequences. Henrik Ibsen did write a new final scene to A Doll’s House in which Nora decided not to leave but only because the German actress who had agreed to play the part refused the play the ending: Ibsen preferred to have a mutilated version of the play than no production at all. Chekhov didn’t rewrite The Wood Demon as Uncle Vanya, he cannibalised the earlier play for the later one. His add-on remarks about Shakespeare – which have a distinct feel of ‘I need 150 more words before they’ll publish this’ about them – are completely anachronistic; I’m quite sure Shakespeare didn’t consider himself an author in the same way that O’Neill or Brecht did.
Managing the rewriting moment in rehearsal is one of those tricky things playwrights have to get good at. If you are too eager to rewrite, actors can lose faith in the text or feel that it’s all provisional and anything can be changed. This makes life very difficult. If you’re inflexible, you damage the production, your career, and ultimately your plays. For that reason, rewriting is often best not made visible. I never rewrite in the rehearsal room, always overnight. They say there are two things people should never see being made: laws and sausages. A third might be plays: it can be pragmatically helpful to keep the process of creativity a little mysterious.