Generally, I feel that once I have finished writing a play my responsibilities towards that play have ended; it is then time to put the work into other hands, so that they may make of it what they will. If I have written the play well, there will be certain things about it that cannot be ignored, but it will also be open to interpretation. Again, if I have written the play well, these interpretations should reveal rather than obscure the intentions and meanings of the play, which may be multiple. I may then be able to ‘rediscover’ my work when it appears on stage, embodied in the presence of the actors. Such is my hope.
I have been asked to say a few things about TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. In taking up this invitation, I do so partly to investigate my own intentions and to re-examine what I feel are my responsibilities towards my work.
The use of short scenes and shifting locations in TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN owes much more to plays such as Georg Büchner’s WOYZECK, Ödön Von Horváth’s KASIMIR AND KAROLINE, Xavier Kroetz’s FARMYARD and David Mamet’s EDMOND (to name a few) than to any supposed cinematic influence. To my mind, cinema is a composition of images out of which language emerges; theatre is a body of language out of which images may flower.
In the theatre, the use of short scenes and shifting locations presupposes, perhaps even insists, on a scenic design that is not encumbered with naturalistic detail; above all, it insists on flexibility. This necessary flexibility is a means of escaping the limitations of the quotidian and approaching the freedom of the metaphoric.
The theatre of Shakespeare works in the same way: a few square metres of stage can at any one moment be a battlefield, the next it can be a bedchamber or a forest. The ‘reality’ of what is being presented to the audience resides in the language of the characters and the evolution of the narrative, which is itself a product of language and not of image.
What response actors may have to this situation, which places enormous emphasis on the actor’s performance, is more difficult to determine. As well as wanting to rid my plays of unnecessary naturalism as far as their physical presentation is concerned, I try not to use stage directions that prescribe emotions. For me, to do so would be to suggest that I want to reproduce a perceived reality, a ‘correct’ emotional response. But apart from the presence of the actors, the language the actors speak is the only reality on stage, from which everything else must emerge. I want, above all, for the actors to engage with the language of the plays; for their emotional and intellectual responses to that language to brought to bear on the creation of their characters. A simple enough idea, but I think that in this way it’s possible to approach the truthfulness of what is uttered on stage and the truthfulness of the moment in which it is uttered. That is where the power of theatre ultimately lies: not in what it reproduces or imitates, but in what it can be in the actual moment of its creation, which is what the audience has come to witness.
(I should also add here, that any play I write may have meanings and intentions beyond those I imagined when I was writing it. If there is a certain complicity between myself and the director, the designer and actors who have chosen to present a play I have written, it is a complicity that assumes that I am not necessarily the best person to judge the worth of the play or how best it might be interpreted and presented; the production of the play should take it one step further than I was able to in writing it).
The words spoken by the characters in TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN emerge from a profound silence. The words we hear them speak are the only words they speak; there is no unheard conversation between them. We hear everything they say. The rest is silence.
This silence is an terribly important aspect of the play, and it is connected to the apparent ‘shortness’ of some of the scenes. When the father and his son are waiting in the bank manager’s office the father only speaks a few lines. But how long are they waiting before the father speaks? How long do they wait after he speaks? What’s important to understand is that their relationship is essentially a silent one. The son cannot speak to his father and, generally speaking, the father has no need to speak to his son. What could he have to tell him? What could he ask him? How long could he bear to speak to someone who cannot respond to him? Their life together is essentially a physical one; it is each other’s presence, their physical proximity to one another, that identifies and defines their relationship. The silence within which they live is something that insulates and isolates them. Within this silence they are able to manage their difficulties; in other words, they have learnt how to endure.
It is only because of the situation in which the father finds himself that he needs to speak. Something important, something terrible is happening and his son must be told what it is and what it means; his son’s silent, insulated, protected existence is about to change irrevocably. When the father arrives home from hospital in the opening scene of the play, he brings the outside world home with him; nothing in his son’s life or his own will ever be the same again.
It is the pressure of the situation that forces the father to speak, not only to his son, but to others as well. He is a man attempting to emerge from years of isolation to confront the realities of an unfamiliar world. He must deal with doctors, bank managers, his estranged family, his poverty, his growing fear for himself and for his son. He must find a way create a future for his son while at the same time preparing for his own death. What he discovers is that he is alone and that, for him, it seems there is no help to be found.
It is only when he is on the brink of despair and resignation, when he must admit his failure to provide a future for his son or to prepare for his death, that the father honestly faces the fact that he cannot escape: that his son is utterly dependent on him. In that final admission he also realises that his dependence on his son is just as great. He turns to him for the only consolation he can find; the silent comfort of touch, which is where the love between the father and his son is most deeply felt. It is that final gesture towards which I was working when I was writing the play; it was the gesture that I wanted the play to finally ‘achieve’.
At the close of the play there are two central questions left unanswered: what will the father do now and what will become of his son? The play’s resolution is not a practical but an emotional one: the father and his son love one another. This fact will not solve their dilemma; their situation remains the same as it was at the opening of the play. But something has been revealed. The father and his son’s mutual dependence is not a burden, a weakness nor a prison; it is the fragile manifestation of their humanity in the face of silence and death.
I believe that the text of a play must exist without qualification, without either the explanations or the interpretations of its author; it must stand alone, witnessed by an audience without that audience being told how they must witness it. In other words, the performance of a play must be an occasion of genuine experience.
My only genuine experience of a play is its original creation, which is a deeply personal act, even if it is undertaken in the knowledge that ultimately that act will be made public. A contradiction? Yes, but it is one that I feel I need to embrace. To write anything at all often feels like a compromise between experience and imagination, between desire and ability. Perhaps the only escape from compromise is contradiction.
We are free to meet in that mysterious space between the play as it was written and the play as it is experienced; that is where our difference might become our bond.
Introduction to AVIS AUX INTERESSES (TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN)
Directed by Didier Berzace,
Translation by Séverine Magois
Théâtre de la Commune, CDN d’Aubervilliers, Paris