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?I ask this because as a director, it's frequently part of my job to discuss the meaning of a work in the simplest way possible. I recently filled out an application for a production regionally; the first sentence of it was "Play X is a play about themes Y and Z". When Dan and I met to discuss the reading of People Like Us I said (half-jokingly) "okay, let me tell you what I think your play's about so you can correct me if I'm wrong". We have conversations about the meanings of art all the time while making it and yet... we get reluctant to share these conversations with our audiences.
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:
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.