The following article was printed in “Everyday Ethics”, a nationally syndicated newspaper column written by Randy Cohen. In it, he sates that people are not ethically bound to adhere to the exact text of a script when producing a play. He mentions “Neil Simon’s “California Suite” as an example. I wrote to Mr. Cohen and expressed my opinion that all producers are ethically bound to adhere to the performance license that they signed with the publisher. You can read his article, followed by my response, below.
If you are also inclined to voice your opinion, you can reach the author at: email@example.com
The theater group at my mother's seniors' community typically does a lot of editing - removing expletives and cutting scenes so plays don't run too long. If they didn't, they could not do the plays at all. But what's worse, my mother recently changed a line in a play she is directing, Neil Simon's ''California Suite,'' to improve it. Isn't she wrong to do these things?
-- Lane Galloway, Seattle
Most playwrights license their work to be performed only as written - no cuts, no ''improvements.'' Fortunately for your mother, some authors offer condensed, cleaned-up editions of their plays for groups like hers. (I've been told that A.R. Gurney has such a version of his ''Sylvia'' in which the eponymous dog curses far less than in the original.) If no short-and-sweet Simon is available, your mother should seek his permission for her changes; many writers are accommodating, particularly with small, nonprofit productions.
But if this approach fails, and you're willing to take your chances with the cops, let the cutting begin: Copyright law might bar it, but ethics does not. People have done the same to ''Hamlet'' for centuries, why not to ''Mamma Mia''? Why restrict theatrical thought? It is a fine thing to loose more ideas, even foolish ones, upon the world. If your mother read Portnoy's Complaint aloud to her cronies, trimming it to her standards of length and luridness, who would be hurt?
What's fair for Philip Roth is fair for David Mamet.
One objection to these unauthorized versions is that they can damage an author's reputation with the unwitting. But if a play is well-known, no production, however nutty, can do its author much harm.
As a published playwright and theatre educator I read your latest “Everyday Ethics” column with great interest. I take exception to the advice you gave Lane Galloway in Seattle regarding the ethics of changing a line in her mother’s production of Neil Simon's “California Suite”.
You are correct in telling Ms. Galloway that her mother should seek permission to make such changes. As you correctly state, many authors, upon request, will either approve suggested changes, or provide an alternate version of a script.
However, you then state, “But if this approach fails, and you're willing to take your chances with the cops, let the cutting begin: Copyright law might bar it, but ethics does not.”
You are forgetting one important detail. In order to gain permission to perform the play, Ms. Galloway’s community theatre group signed a written, legally binding agreement with Samuel French, Inc., the publisher of Mr. Simon’s play, in which the theatre agreed to make no changes, cuts or alterations to the script without prior written permission from the publisher who acts on behalf of the playwright.
Copyright law, artistic freedom, community standards, and standard operating procedures among theatre directors have no bearing on this ethical argument. The ethics of this situation are simple: it is unethical to break a promise. If you sign a document promising to make no changes to the script, you are ethically bound to keep that promise.
Your article refers to copyright law, but does not mention the performance license agreement, so I assume that you were unaware of this important factor. Therefore, I think it would be appropriate for you to print a correction in your next column. I am especially concerned that that your column is reprinted in many daily newspapers across the country and that people may read your advice to Ms. Galloway, and take similar action. This would open them up to serious legal repercussions with various play publishers, and their authors.
I look forward to reading your correction in an upcoming “Everyday Ethics” column.
And this guy, Randy Cohen, calls himself a writer!!!!!!!!
Myself, as an ex-New Yorker, comments: "Everyday Ethics/Schmethics" should be the name of his column!
Shall we all start to re-write his columns and misquote him?!!!!
Keep us posted on this writer's reply. I wonder what his newspaper would say if we started to twist/misquote his words or other writers of his newspaper under copyright law?!!!
Or, maybe Mr. Neil Simon could weigh in!
"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug."
- Mark Twain
I would suggest you forward this "writer's" column link to the Dramatists Guild. Post if you do it.
By, the way, Shakespeare is in the Public Domain, and not protected by International Copyright Law. More damage has been done to the theatre in the interpretation of William Shakespeare than any other playwright! Mr. Simon is, at last look, still alive. As is copyright law... except in Communist China.
If Mr. Simon would weigh in, then at least it would be an interesting "Op-Ed" piece.
Oh God - I just know I'm really going to regret this post...
Surely Cohen talks only of the traditional and habitual act of cutting - not rewriting? And as he points out, that's been going on for ages.
Last year I was in Humble Boy, playing an excruciatingly unpleasant character called George Pye, whose language was absolutely foul. Apart from the one word 99% of the civilised and intelligent world consider unacceptable in any circumstances (me too, but I've never really understood that!) he used just about every profanity in the book. Knowing our audiences, we cut a few out.
I stress; not enough to dilute the character as written by Charlotte Jones, but enough for audience toleration.
I'm currently rehearsing Rene for Allo Allo. In one scene two customers enter the bar and Rene says 'Hello Jacques, hello Giles, I'd have one quick drink and then scarper - all hell is going to break loose tonight.' They then leave having no effect on the plot, dialogue or action. As the play has a main cast of 18 (an almost unachievable target for most AmDram groups) we decided these two peasants were unnecessary, and so cut this line.
I stress; writer David Croft hadn't made it critical for Rene to explain that there was going to be trouble - the audience already knew.
You have to be careful with this. I agree that what your company are doing is ‘right’ and should not detract from the play… But…
You didn’t select the play lightly, or so rapidly that you couldn’t see the impact on cast or audience.
When selecting the play the readers should have seen these things. When applying for performing rights, you should have asked for permission to change these areas.
As an example I staged a version of Stags and Hens asking for permission to modify the drinks mentioned, the era, the location and colloquialisms – hence changing the play from 70s Liverpool to 90’s Portsmouth. And I gained permission.
We even fired of a quick letter to SF asking if we could cut a passage explaining that our company could not stage it with the cast we had available. Again, we gained permission.
What you are doing may well appear fair to your company – and a decent playwright will listen to what you have to say. The emphasis here is to ask. As most it’s going to cost you a stamp – at worse you’re going to land a hefty fine.
Surely it’s just decent manners to ask before fiddling with someone’s work?
In principle I do agree, of course; all I'm suggesting is that, practically, it happens all the time anyway. Major changes such as you indicate are, of course, right out without permission - but can you imagine the deluge of letters to Sam Frog if every Director needed to gain belt-and-braces permission for the smallest cuts?
As with everything else in life, surely there's a 'sensible' line? But yes, I know, rules is rules, and one can't be 'a little bit pregnant'.
Last edited on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 10:56 am by Poet
I did forward this to the Dramatists Guild. And this was the reply I received from the DG’s Director of Business Affairs, David Faux:
“Mr. Venhaus, We are aware of Mr. Cohen’s comments and are in the process of formulating an official statement.” -- David Faux
I am so glad that I am not the only one who alerted the DG to this situation, and even more glad that the DG is doing something about it. I feel like my dues are being put to good use.
If I hear anything else from the DG, or Mr. Cohen, I’ll post it. In the meantime, I urge anyone who disagrees with Mr. Cohen to send him an e-mail. The more of us who write to him, the more likely he will print a retraction. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Randy Cohen responded to my e-mail with the comments below. My response to him is below that.
Thanks for the interesting note. You're quite right: I side-stepped the ethical implications of the licensing agreement. While the sanctity of contracts is an interesting topic, I was eager to discuss a different question. Legal issues aside, is it an ethical transgression to change a writer's work without consent? To simply assert: you promised not to, would stifle that question.
Thanks for your response. I believe that a theatre company's promise not make unauthorized changed to a script without seeking permission does not "stifle" the ethical question at hand, it supersedes it. When a police officer pulls you over for speeding, you can argue with him about whether the speed limit is ethical, but he is going to write you a ticket anyway. Why? Because as a citizen, you agree to abide by certain rules regardless whether you agree with their underlying ethics. If you break those rules, you face the possibility of punishment.
But, to answer your question, "Is it an ethical transgression to change a writer's work without consent?" I'll ask you to consider this: How would you feel if someone copied your column, changed some words (or "made improvements") cuts and edits without your consent and then reprinted it with your name on it? I believe that printing an "Everyday Ethics by Randy Cohen" column with unauthorized changes, or producing "California Suite by Neil Simon" with words not written by Mr. Simon is deceptive, and that deception is unethical.
Since your column is called "Everyday Ethics", and not "Everyday Legal and Contractual Issues", I understand your focus on the broader ethical question. However, I still believe that since you gave advice to Ms. Galloway in your column, you owe it to her and your readers to inform her of the "real world" repercussions of changing the lines of a published play without seeking permission.
i'm slow in picking up on this thread, but thanks james for doing what you did. mr. cohen's reply to you is actually more disturbing to me than his initial advice to the questioner.
i do not understand why amature theatre folks (as well as professionals in the film industry) do not seem to comprehend that a writer's work is a writer's work and if you think you need something better/different, then become a writer yourself and do it! the inherent arrogance in "improving" someone else's work just out and out infuriates me. (poet, i'm not attacking you here, but i do disagree in both principle and practice with your most recent post on this subject)
one of my theories on this subject is that because a writer must inherently set free her work in the world, readers take it into themselves and, through mental adoption, it becomes their own as well somehow. the trick is to be cogent enough (as a reader) to realise that no matter how much i identify with Portia or Hamlet, they are characters in a story not of my own making. it is not for me to change them. if i think i can do better, then i need to step up and write my own damn story.
PS: just wrote to mr. cohen. will post if he replies.
Mac - (and no offence taken) - I'm not suggesting that I have the arrogance to 'improve' anyone else's work, nor that anyone else should be allowed to 'improve' mine, nor that I'd want to change anyone's characters; just that, in the smallest way, there are sometimes the odd word or phrase or line or direction which can be at a Directors' discretion.
I buy a new car. I buy it because I love 99.999% of it. But the driver's mirror is a tad too high, too small or too big. I change it. Any problem?
The difficulty, I accept, is where the line should be drawn - if nowhere. as Rene in Allo Allo I have a scene where it is indicated in stage directions that I have a sight-line with another character with whom I have a 'mime' exchange. Our stage doesn't allow it. So we're not doing it, but by not doing so - technically - we're probably breaching copyright. But it sure as heck doesn't affect the overall piece, nor change the characterisation, nor the plot!
poet, i'm glad you understood that i wasn't attacking ... wasn't calling you arrogant either. honest.
i still have difficulty with your analogy. a car mirror is meant to be adjusted to accomodate the height, etc of a driver. a play is not. if a playwright is willing to make such adjustments, that's fabulous and i think it should be encouraged. however, and this is a big however, oftentimes playwrights choose particular words (even curse words) for particular reasons. removing the "f-word" in certain cases will cause actual damage to the characterisation. the playwright is the only one who can possibly know that, and thus should be the only one who can make that call.
all of that pertains to words. stage directions are a fuzzier area to me. most of that comes from knowing that in published plays, most stage directions were inserted by a stage manager or editor for the sake of publication, and they may not have been part of the original script. (before anyone yells, yes i know there are exceptions to this, but i'm speaking more generally here)
if your physical space precludes your miming of information to another character on stage, i wonder how that lack of communication effects the progression of the story? it may or it may not, but it's an important question to ask. perhaps you really need to block the production in order to accomodate that nonverbal communication because it does matter.
i guess in the end i feel that those who want to change a playwright's words are lazy. instead of changing what a playwright has wrought, they instead should (choose):
1. write their own damn play
2. look longer and harder for a piece that is appropriate to their audience (this board is testimony to the wealth of plays available for performance)
there may be other options, but that's what comes to mind most readily.
Yes, it makes sense, and of course I agree with much of the sentiment - and I know I'm probably alone in this - but I think that, surely, there has to be some laxity NOT about CHANGING a script, but about minor CUTS; and I mean, really, really minor.
I could never condone cutting an entire character or scene, or losing pages of dialogue because it's a bit awkward to block, or changing the sexes of characters - much less rewriting dialogue! - but directors' freedom to make minor cuts has been a tradition for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
And, in any case, when did you last watch a play where every member of the cast was word-perfect? I strongly suspect that the instances of a work being performed in toto, letter-by-letter the way the author wrote it are probably very, very few, so I suspect that 99.99% of performances breach copyright and performance right anyway, if only accidentally!
as promised, i'm posting below Mr. Cohen's response to my query. below that, is my reply to his response.
Thanks for the interesting note. Because you frequent that bulletin
board, you probably know that others have raised most of the
questions you pose, and I've responded. But let me take up a couple
of your concerns.
Your Mona Lisa analogy is inapt because were someone to alter it, the
Mona Lisa would cease to exist, but were this pencil-happy mom to cut
lines from California Suite, the original would remain as written,
ready to go for anyone who cared to produce it.
I agree that she should first seek permission from the playwright. I
wrote as much.
As I've responded previously: if you are arguing on ethical, not
legal, grounds, would you extend this same stricture to Shakespeare's
plays? (In the public domain, of course -- a legal matter -- but the
integrity of the work itself is an ethical concern.) Each is to be
performed only as written? Out goes Kenneth Branagh's stirring Henry
V, Baz Luhrmann's witty Romeo and Juliet? Why Shakespeare but not
Neil Simon? If you're arguing the law, well sure, as I wrote, there
is no legal right to do what the mom did and I defended, but what's
legal and what's ethical are not always synonymous.
True, the Mona Lisa would be altered forever in my example, but so too will Simon's work be forever altered in the minds of your questioner's audience. A live stageplay is a temporal work of art that leaves as lasting an impact on an audience as does shuffling through Mona's home in Paris. The fact that other, unaltered, performances of Simon's play can happen does not alter the fact that, for the California mom's production it is as altered - defaced - as Mona would be were I to give her a mustache.
To your final paragraph: I am actually one of those who believes more harm has been done to Shakespeare in the name of "interpretation" or "modernization" than any other playwright; living or dead. Much as I might like aspects of the productions you mentioned, I still - from a purely ethical perspective - believe they are in error, because when taken as their whole, those shows are far superior in terms of story and character development.
One of the best examples of this is pretty much any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that has been performed or made in the past 100 (or so) years. It's a dark, dark tragedy - arguably Shakespeare's darkest. But when played in its totality, there are moments (moments that are the first to be cut, almost without exception) in which Shakespeare gives the audience breathing holes ... some light if you will in the midst of the darkness. Those bursts of light help to contrast against the darkness of the rest of the story all the more starkly, thus making it even more powerful. When those are gone, the story loses much of its power. Such is the power of cutting.
So yes, cutting/changing/adapting Shakespeare is just as wrong as doing the same to Simon. Granted, it's currently easier to ask Simon if the changes are permissible, but he still should have the right to say "no" and the party wishing to perform it should have the ethical obligation (if not the legal obligation) to respect that.
There are myriad plays available for performance. If small community theatres want to do a show but fear the language (or other potentially objectionable bits), I guarantee that there are other, less offensive options in the same genre out there, waiting to be performed...without alteration.
One of my questions to you, however, is this: Do you (as a public voice recognized as something of an "expert" on ethics) not have an ethical responsibility to publicly air the multiple concerns you have received from playwrights regarding your advice to the original questioner? I think there is a very valid argument that you do. But will you?
poet, wasn't ignoring you ... just multi-tasking. anyway, you wrote:
". . . but I think that, surely, there has to be some laxity NOT about CHANGING a script, but about minor CUTS; and I mean, really, really minor."
how about this: you define "minor" and i'll define "minor". then let's compare definitions. THAT'S the trouble.
"- but directors' freedom to make minor cuts has been a tradition for hundreds, if not thousands of years."
it's been a tradition in the UK for quite some time for a large group of partially insane individuals to chase a rolling cheese down a steep embankment...tradition doesn't make it any more intelligent an activity. "tradition" is just about the worst argument anyone can use in defense of most things. sorry.
"And, in any case, when did you last watch a play where every member of the cast was word-perfect? I strongly suspect that the instances of a work being performed in toto, letter-by-letter the way the author wrote it are probably very, very few, so I suspect that 99.99% of performances breach copyright and performance right anyway, if only accidentally!"
there is a distinct difference between the frailty of the human memory and an intentional alteration of words. the later requires forethought; the former a lack of thought (or at least distraction).
on the whole, i would like to recognise that we are at least partially talking about the theoretical ethical construct. i do not myself claim perfection in any of this. this discussion came about because someone who is considered "expert" on the subject of ethics gave an incredibly daft answer to a questioner. i recognize that reality differs and has for generations. that said, it does not excuse us from the responsibility to behave ethically ... which for me largely means that because i don't want someone changing my scripts to suit themselves without my permission, i will not do the same to someone else's work. the golden rule still applies for me anyway.
MAC - How can you make such dreadful slurs on the people who maintain the ancient Pagan tradition of Cheese Rolling in England. It is on a par with the festival in Boston where they re-enact throwing tea into the harbour.... shame on you!
Here is some information for the uninitiated.... it is a fantastic and very theatrical day out so do come over and see it for yourself.
When you think of cheese, do you visualize a stringy piece of mozzarella stretching from your lips to a freshly baked slice of pizza. Perhaps you picture a big fat block of Stilton, some water crackers and a bottle of your favourite red. Or maybe, just maybe you see yourself rolling headlong down 300 yards of Gloucestershire countryside in pursuit of a seven lb. chunk of Gloucester's finest. If you find yourself falling into the last category, read on.
Cheese rolling's origins are hazy to say the least. A common presumption is that the masochistic frolic began as a pagan festival hundreds of years ago - a celebration of the onset of summer. Other theories have it relating to age-old fertility rights, the hope of a successful harvest and even as a safeguard of the Commoner's rights for the people of Cooper's Hill.
Wherever it's origins it's hard to argue that cheese rolling is a sport for the outrageously courageous or at least the dangerously demented. Contestants in the Cooper's Hill event (between Gloucester, Stroud and Cheltenham in the Cotswolds) on the last Monday in May, stand precipitously at the top of a 300 yard hill, that maintains a gradient of two in one for the most part whilst a Master of Ceremonies counts them down.
'One to be ready
Two to be steady
Three to prepare', at which time an invited guest launches the chunk of cheese on its downward pilgrimage, then
'Four to be off.'
What follows can only be described as dairy based carnage. Broken bones are a given and sprains and bruises are numerous, as up to twenty contestants in any given race tumble and roll their way headlong down the slope in pursuit of the elusive chunk of Double Gloucester. Keeping your feet is rarely an option, contestants just seem to go with the flow, tumbling out of control like rag dolls with a death wish. Inevitably the cheese wins.
Four races are held on the day, including an event for the ladies. Of the 50 odd contestants - and I do mean odd - 18 injuries were reported from last years event. Not great odds in anyone's books. And casualties are not limited to contestants. At least one of the estimated 4,000 strong crowd was treated for head injuries after tumbling 30 yards down the course whilst attempting to evade a wayward clump of cheese.
Oh, and the prize for winning, you get to keep the cheese. Food for thought that.
Bearing in mind it takes place no more than 800 yards from my home, I can see it from a bedroom window every year and many of the contestants are locals from the bar I frequent down the road, I'm not going to comment. But if you ever do get to Brockworth, Gloucester, it might be an idea to bring Burt Reynolds, a crossbow and a canoe with you...
de da dum dum dum dum dum dum duuuuuuum
de da dum dum dum dum dum dum duuuuuuum
da dum dum de de dum dum dum
By the way - exactly halfway through the video linked previously by Anubian, there's a guy in a white shirt and blue jeans in the lead who falls. His name is Steve 'Curly' Beard, and he broke both collar bones.
The hill is steeper than the vid gives visual credit for...
Last edited on Fri Jan 19th, 2007 06:56 am by Poet
actually, i've always wanted to participate in the cheese roll. broken bones or not, it seems like fun. yes, i'm rather odd.
got a response from Mr. Cohen to my email. Other than the fact that he's a reasonably decent writer, i now have no idea how he got the column he now has. he clearly hasn't had much in the way of formal training in ethics. his logic (in terms of classical ethics training) is rather lacking...
here's his response:
"Your concerns about the various productions of work by authors living or dead seem to me reasonable (if unconvincing), but they are arguments about aesthetics, not ethics. There's nothing immoral about mounting a crummy production of Ibsen. Some entirely sophisticated folks may quite like the productions of R&J that you disdain, but they are not unethical for doing so. If everyone adhered to your idea of ethics, the result would be fewer productions of Shakespeare, and then only officially countenanced productions. (Would you establish Theatre Police to make sure no illicit productions were mounted? Would they carry guns?)
"The Times Magazine regularly runs letters from those who take issue with my column, and I've no doubt that they will do so with this one, but I have no say in what letters are published nor am I permitted to reply in print (not a bad policy). Indeed, I'm never told what letters will run and only find out when I read the magazine.
I wrote Mr. Cohen and received a lengthy tongue in cheek response.
Since his article was confined to the legality of changing a play with almost total disregard for the ethics involved, I attempted to respond from a legal perspective.
He asserted that the theater in question had purchased a license to 'perform' the play and thus had the right to change it. Of course they had not purchased the play itself nor had they purchased the right to 'change' or 'edit' it. Therefore changing it would be theft of that right.
Worse, changing a play without authorization, like changing any other work of art, is vandalism. If a museum rents a painting and changes it, they would be charged with vandalism, fined, and possibly imprisoned. Those who change a play are commiting a similar act of vandalism. As to Poet's car mirror, if he changes it without permission from the owner before he actually owns the car, he would surely be expected to pay for the damage and might also be fined and/or imprisoned for vandalism.
As to Shakespeare, after the copyright expires, ownership of a work of art reverts to the public (public domain). And as owners, the public has the right to make changes.
As playwrights we generally license (rent) our plays and because we retain ownership, we retain the right to edit. Screenwriters sell their screenplays thus forfeit their right to edit.
I googled Randy Cohen and found the following bio. Interesting that he received an Emmy as a result of a clerical error and he Kept it. Wonder how that happened. It would certainly be a temptation to keep it, but definitely not ethical.
His experience with writing for performance appears to be with television where the copyright is owned as 'work by hire' by the network or purchased outright. Different than for a play which is licensed/rented rather than purchased.
Randy Cohen was born in Charleston, S.C., and raised in Reading, Pa. He attended graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts as a music major studying composition.
His first professional work was writing humor pieces, essays, and stories for newspapers and magazine such as the New Yorker, Harper's, the Atlantic, and Young Love Comics. A collection of these pieces, Diary of a Flying Man, was published by Knopf. For several years, he wrote "The News Quiz," a regular column of topical comedy, for on-line magazine Slate.
His first television work was writing for Late Night With David Letterman, for which he won three Emmy awards. He fourth Emmy was for his work on TV Nation. He received a fifth Emmy as a result of a clerical error, and he kept it. He was the original head writer on the for which he also co-wrote the theme music.
Currently, he writes "The Ethicist," a weekly syndicated column for The New York Times Magazine, and answers listeners' ethics questions on Weekend All Things Considered. The Good, the Bad and the Difference, a book based upon the column, is published in paperback by Broadway Books.