Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Someone once said, "to write a mystery, you can't be mysterious. You must be precise."
Sam Shepard's experiments with form and surreal atmospheres have always been ahead of their time. But in one sense he's an old school playwright. His stage directions are among the most detailed of any contemporary writer. The ones for Buried Child - currently at New Village Arts - are as lengthy as any by Eugene O'Neill.
One of Shepard's most famous: for The Tooth of Crime, his rock and roll, three-ring, science fiction circus, he wants a bare stage, save for an "evil-looking black chair with silver studs and a very high back, something like an Egyptian Pharaoh's throne, but simple."
When Charles Marowitz directed the London premiere of Tooth in 1972, he took so many liberties that Shepard publicly renounced the production.
Like Marowitz, Richard Schechner was among the experimental, auteurist directors of the early 70s who subordinated the playwright's vision to their own.
For the American premiere of Tooth in 1973, Schnechner turned the bare stage into an "environment." A two-story, sculpted unit required the audience literally to walk around it to follow the play. The evil-looking chair and bare stage be damned.
Shepard declared war. He wrote Schechner: "The reason a play is written is that a writer receives a vision which can't be translated into any other way except a play...It's a question you really should look into rather than sweep it aside as old-fashioned or even unimportant."
Schechner replied: "We accept your script as part of an artwork yet to be completed."
Shepard stuck to his guns. He wants things in certain places and seen in certain ways not just for his vision but because that's how they'll work best theatrically.
Schnecher shot back: "We accept your words as writtten, and the parts that they are orgainzed into. But the rest of the scenic activity is our responsibility; we must work long and hard to find our own places within the world of your script."
Shepard told an interviewer that his play "had nothing to do with what Schechner set up in the theater.
"When you write a play it sets up assumptions about [how it should be] performed." Experiment is fine, he added, but within the limits prescribed by the playwright. "It can be okay - the playwright isn't a holy man, you know. Except that I'd rather the experimentation took place with something that left itself open to that."
And thus began in the early 70s, a shift from the primacy of the playwright to the primacy of the director. The debate continues to this day.