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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On "Meaning"

UPDATE: Good thoughts on the post below from Isaac and the mysterious, and astute, 99seats.

I'll note, as a sidebar, that the true intention of Isaac's a original post to was to ask how we can facilitate discussion about issues like this. How did I respond? Ironically, one might say.

___


Isaac posts a question about discussing the meaning of our work here. Good topic for a January day, I think. Here's a bit of the post.

Why are we so reluctant to discuss the meaning of our work?

Often, I'm asked not only what a play is about, but why I chose to write it, how the subject matter relates to my personal experiences, and what I was trying to achieve by writing a play with a particular subject matter, or with a particular shape.

I'm reluctant to answer those questions. I've made a joke of the "subject matter" of my work ("They're all about my parents getting divorced!") as a way to deflect this. Which is not to say I don't have plays that feature divorce, or the loss of a spouse, or marriage. I don't, though, actually write about divorce. If I did, I would write frustratingly dull memoirs, or self-help books, or entries in a diary.

I can't speak for all writers or artists (and I know directors approach work differently) but I've come to enjoy and embrace writing without an agenda. I've said in the past that I like work that asks questions as opposed to gives answers. I suppose that's not entirely true either. Asking a question is a sort of rhetorical approach, a lawyer-ly one, to meaning. Instead of appearing didactic, we shape a pointed question. The result is the same: A play about friendship, or marriage, or divorce, or communism, or Hamlet.

My favorite artwork, though, is not about a subject. It's evocative.

Here is my favorite poem by Charles Simic:

Country Fair
for Hayden Carruth

If you didn't see the six-legged dog,
It doesn't matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.
And that was the whole show.


What is the subject of this poem? I would argue that we lessen the entire experience by having that discussion. We miss the point. The poem is a painting.

Here is a piece of work that Pam recently posted on her blog, Phantasmaphile:

It's called "Heartland", and it's by Mike Cockrill.

I love this piece. What is it about? What is it's meaning?

Certainly, there is a long tradition of theater that is about argument, reason, presenting a subject (Brecht, Arthur Miller, Ibsen) but there's no hidden agenda with those artists. They express their meaning plainly. They don't leave their message up to chance.

There are other pleasures in theater, and in any medium, than the successful transmission of message or meaning. There are deeper pleasures to be found in almost all plays than those that come from a better understanding of the writer himself or herself. Meaning is, in many ways, a red herring. People who watch work and don't understand the meaning immediately feel they are being insulted; those who feel challenged by "hidden meaning" become obsessed with the detective work. What's missed is can be (and this is not true in all cases) the original intention of the artist himself or herself. If the goal was create something musical, chilling, grotesque, shimmering, or even green or blue or red; that goal is bulldozed, ignored or overlooked if "meaning" is the Alpha and Omega of the theatrical interpreter, or experiencer.

Recently, during the second reading of my piece In The Great Expanse of Space there is nothing to see but More, More, More, I was asked by one of the actresses a simple question: why did I choose to use cancer as a motif? I was instantly defensive, apologetic, and eventually gave the answer to the question. The answer was pedestrian.

The play, though, is about an hour and a half full of language. It's frustrating, maybe still unsuccessful, and it features loops and repetitions and themes and odd juxtapositions. Still, though, it's called "The Cancer Play" by plenty of my colleagues and peers. I am not trying to say anything about cancer. The play is "meaningless;" but that doesn't mean it's purposeless. I don't listen to jazz music and wonder what it means. I don't look at Jackson Pollock paintings and mine them for their subject (unless you call their subject 'other art').

I say this not to defend the piece (my problems with it are entirely my own fault) but to show that when we look beyond the work itself, in search of hidden and presumably precious meanings, we can easily miss the obvious pleasures the pieces offer. If we think about Endgame as a meditation of death; we miss how funny it is. If we think of Hamlet as an exploration of the human mind; we forget that it's a fantastic story. If we treat Arthur Miller like a man who was discussing the American Dream; we forget that he told stories about fathers and sons. The play itself is not a blanket wrapped around its core truth. The play, itself, is the thing.

A writer may have a meaning. He or she may not. But meaning is not purpose, it's not validity, and it's not value. The wonderful thing about theater is that it is so many things; an argument, a poem, a happening, a tale, a joke. In my view, meaning is least of my worries as a writer. As an audience member, the less I concern myself with meaning, the more I experience of the better, richer pleasures of any novel, or poem, or painting, or play.

That's why I hesitate to discuss it. It's not because I think people should decide for themselves what the work is about. It's because there are much better things to talk about.

10 comments:

David D. said...

Connecting to what you are saying, I also think that understanding the meaning of a play or piece of theatre carries very little value into the performing of it. Put simply, you can't play the meaning. You can just perform what actually happens and what it means is up to anyone watching.

Jamespeak said...

Exactly. In a way, asking the author what he meant is kind of cheating: like going to the back of the puzzle book for the answer.

Alison Croggon said...

Which is the whole point, of course, of Sontag's Against Interpretation.

Parabasis said...

Matt,
Thanks for this... really great and interesting points. There's one thing in this that I don't quite understand and I'd love some elaboration on.

You said:

"that when we look beyond the work itself, in search of hidden and presumably precious meanings, we can easily miss the obvious pleasures the pieces offer. If we think about Endgame as a meditation of death; we miss how funny it is. If we think of Hamlet as an exploration of the human mind; we forget that it's a fantastic story. If we treat Arthur Miller like a man who was discussing the American Dream; we forget that he told stories about fathers and sons. The play itself is not a blanket wrapped around its core truth. The play, itself, is the thing."

I don't understand how focusing on how Endgame is a meditation on death makes us miss how funny it is etc. Why can't we focus on both? Similarly, how does paying attention to Miller's take on the American Dream lead to forgetting about his stories about fathers and sons? (I think, for example, McBurney's direction of ALL MY SONS managed to do both simultaneously).

I ask this question because I think my job as a director involves doing both of those things and helping others (The audience, my collaborators etc.) to view it in multiple ways simultaneously. You can't, it's true, play meaning (unless you're doing Brecht, but Brecht done this way frequently suxxxxx), but your understanding of the deeper meanings of a text can help your choice in how to play it.

Freeman said...

Hey Isaac -

I guess my response would be that, you can do two things at once, and there's not one way to do anything. No one will automatically forget that Hamlet is a good story by pondering the text. And the job of the director and the writer are different.

That being said, I think we're often taught to look at work as essentially thematic. That DEATH OF A SALESMAN is about the American Dream. That HAMLET is about indecision. It's that sort of reductive thinking that can hinder any true enjoyment of the plays themselves.

But more than that, deeper readings of these things can be intellectually fun, but they tend to spiral rather far away from the actual item. Endless books have been written about Shakespeare (The Invention of the Human springs to mind) which are very good books as books. They're not better books than the plays themselves. I'm not a big believer in letting these sorts of pursuits drive the process of actual invention. That's when plays start to look like, and become written like, blueprints.

And, of course, with Arthur Miller plays, he's a writer who is seeking to make a statement. So there are those dual purposes to be discovered. But we shouldn't apply that rule to all writers: we're not all Arthur Miller. Not all playwrights have a message, or meaning, oriented agenda.

Paul Rekk said...

I would question the limited definition of the word 'meaning' that is being used, Matt.

Does Cockrill's Heartland, in your mind and reaction have a subject? Is it about anything? Maybe not. Does it mean anything to you? If you enjoy it enough to bring it up here, of course it does. Maybe that meaning doesn't take the form of an intellectual discourse or a thematic structure, but any coursing of reaction through your veins is a meaning.

And, sure, that's another factor as to why 'meaning discussions' are so difficult -- people don't experience meaning in identical ways. Some audiences are able (and prefer) to break things down logically. Some prefer the ethereality of the gut reaction.

And regardless of whether the artist has a distinct purpose for this distinct blue blob or if the distinct blue blob is for the distinct blue blob's sake, if a viewer finds a deeply affecting sense of sorrow/envy/hysteria/glee/whatever communicated through that blue blob, only an artist with a complete lack of respect for the abilities of the form is going to deny them that connection.

I understand that what you are primarily talking about is the overscholarization of art, but I don't think that goes hand in hand with meaning or the issues Isaac is talking about. Art isn't defined by a particular meaning, but I loathe a world where it can be termed 'meaningless', because it all means something to me, whether good or bad or unable to be put into words.

Freeman said...

Paul -

Perhaps I should make a more firm distinction between what something means to the audience or observer, and the belief that something we created with an intent to mean something specific. What I'm saying isn't a defense of meaninglessness (i.e. that if you find meaning is something you shouldn't bother) but instead that we shouldn't assume that artists are speaking in code, or that the search of a certain kind of meaning, or message, is the best way to experience a piece of artwork.

Obviously, this sort of thing can become a discussion about vocabulary pretty quickly.

I'd say that any reaction that goes through one's veins isn't, by my definition, a "meaning." But I do take your point. I don't think artists should deny the audience their own connection to a piece of work presented. Maybe the difference is what we call that connection.

RVCBard said...

If the goal was create something musical, chilling, grotesque, shimmering, or even green or blue or red; that goal is bulldozed, ignored or overlooked if "meaning" is the Alpha and Omega of the theatrical interpreter, or experiencer.

Exactly. What sort of makes me scratch my head about your "Language Play" is that people sort of didn't latch on to that. Then again, I came in expecting it to be playing with language and silence the way it did, so I didn't immediately think of it as "The Cancer Play."

I have the same problem with my own work, but I'll post about it on my own blog.

See you there.

Parabasis said...

"That being said, I think we're often taught to look at work as essentially thematic. That DEATH OF A SALESMAN is about the American Dream. That HAMLET is about indecision. It's that sort of reductive thinking that can hinder any true enjoyment of the plays themselves.

But more than that, deeper readings of these things can be intellectually fun, but they tend to spiral rather far away from the actual item. Endless books have been written about Shakespeare (The Invention of the Human springs to mind) which are very good books as books. They're not better books than the plays themselves. I'm not a big believer in letting these sorts of pursuits drive the process of actual invention. That's when plays start to look like, and become written like, blueprints."

Dude, not to make a comment that's largely your own words but I can say that in these two paragraphs you and I are basically in complete agreement. Mystery, openness to multiple interpretations etc. is totally key to my enjoyment of most art. Particularly Shakespeare (is Hamlet the villain of Hamlet? Is their free will in macbeth? and how do our answers to these questions inform production choices... oh the joy!)

Anyway, yeah. I totally feel like I get what you're talking about on a deeper level now, is all I wanted to say. And these two paragraphs I've quoted above also explain my own resistance to doing tons of "Table Work".... which is a subject for a different post i guess.

splattworks said...

A thoughtful post on a difficult subject. Unless I have a nice, shorthand description prepared, I always have to take a breath before answering, "What's your play about?" And I think that's partly because, like T.S. Eliot's fog, plays come writers on cat's feet. Sometimes they begin as ideas that can be easily summed up, but more often them come as images, snippets of dialogue, music. Even when a play is thoroughly plotted, the writer tends to experience it in real time, along with the characters--to live it. It's no easier to say what that experience is about than it is to say what the meaning of this moment is right now. And some plays can be kind of shy--you have to kind of look away from them to give them room to appear. It's a mind game, of course, but it establishes a peculiar conspiracy between playwright and play. What's it about? Uh...that would telling, wouldn't it? To do so feels indiscreet.

That doesn't help directors, actors, or critics slip inside the play and its people, but it is similar to the way the audience will experience it, moment by moment, not knowing what's coming next.