Death of the Author: Like it Or Not, It's a Real Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether you can truly separate art from the artist. I think it can be done – but only to an extent. My working understanding that I’ve come to is that the less you know about the artist, the more you are able to separate the art from the artist. For example, I really enjoyed The Passion of the Christ (as much as one can enjoy a graphic depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus). I think it’s an earnest depiction of what may have actually happened in the story of the resurrection, that a lot of Christians kind of gloss over when telling the story of Jesus. It’s a good and powerful film – until I think about the man who made it. If I knew nothing about Mel Gibson, I could keep enjoying Passion while remaining ignorant of some of the underlying thought behind it. Let me tell you: Mel Gibson is a tough person for me to endorse. Hearing his racist rant from 2010 and reading his anti-Semitic and homophobic comments from the past 30 years are enough to make me feel strange when I go to watch The Passion of the Christ or even Braveheart.

I obviously don’t know Gibson personally and I won’t try to claim I know exactly what he intended in each of his works. We are all complex people and it’s not fair to boil a person down to the worst things they have ever done – that includes people in the public eye. When I knew nothing about Gibson going into these films, I was able to take any conclusion I wanted for the meaning of those films. But now knowing the anti-Semitic comments Gibson has made, for example, I take pause when I think about how the Jewish characters in The Passion of the Christ are portrayed – and it’s not pretty. The film presents Jesus as somewhat of an outsider to Judaism (which is half-true), but really separates Jesus from his Jewish identity – allowing for Jewish people to be portrayed as antagonists – seemingly because of their Judaism. That’s how the film rings to me after knowing about Gibson’s allegations of anti-Semitism.

It's difficult for me to not see Mel Gibson when I watch the Passion of the Christ

But that’s just one example. In order to separate art from the artist, a person must invoke “death of the author” – a phrase popularized by a mid-20th century French literary essay. Death of the author essentially means that in a fictional work, the author’s point of view (their worldview, politics, religion, etc.) should be ignored completely when looking to make interpretations of the work. If the author wanted to unequivocally say what they mean exactly, the theory argues, they would not have written a work of fiction – fiction is meant for interpretation of the reader.

I agree with the death of the author literary criticism theory to an extent. If you know nothing about the author’s personhood behind the work in front of you, you can take any meaning away that you find in the text. But “death of the author” gets dicey when you know the person behind the work – or have incomplete information about the person behind the work. As I said before, it’s now pretty difficult to watch Passion of the Christ when one of the only things I know about Mel Gibson is that he’s made controversial comments about Jewish people.

What’s driven me to write about this came from an interaction I had with a potential client the other week. This person worked for an evangelical school and was potentially interested in staging a production either of my published plays. Of course, I was ecstatic to see someone was interested in my work as a published playwright – but my stomach dropped when I saw how wrong this person had gotten me.

"The Thousand-Year Rose premiered at Wheaton College (IL) in 2016" -Heuer Publishing Catalog, Summer 2018

Let me explain. In the Heuer Publishing catalog, with all the new releases, underneath the synopsis and cast breakdown, they list where and when the play premiered. The Thousand-Year Rose, of course, premiered at my evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College, in 2016. This detail caught the eye of this drama teacher. They wrote to me and said they were from a Christian school and they were interested in looking at my work. I wrote back and said I was happy to have them read my plays and that my faith informs my writing. The potential client wrote back and said they were happy to see a faithful Christian was writing family-friendly theatre that didn’t include swearing, substance use, “some sort of LGBTQ stuff”, or other things that are so against the word of God.

So let’s unpack that for a moment. This person saw that my play premiered at Wheaton College, saw my headshot, heard that my faith informs my writing, liked what they read so far, and then concluded that we agree on a lot of theological positions. I was so puzzled as to how they could’ve gotten me that wrong, but it’s actually not that hard. In the words on the pages themselves, I have not written profanity, overt substance use (Princess Jacqueline’s love potion is not-so-subtly analogous to date rape), or definitively LGBTQ characters (if the Snowman is male in See Amid, he’s definitely gay and is dating certified North Pole sex symbol Schyler Hines) across the first three plays. Certainly knowing that I was raised in Christian tradition helps make sense of the conclusions my protagonists come to, but I’ve come to realize “Christian” doesn’t quite always mean the same thing.

If I were to label my beliefs as they stand right now, I consider myself something of an ex-evangelical Christian trying to throw out the bathwater of my former belief system and keep the baby Jesus of what was good. I love the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and the narrative of an all-knowing, all-loving God whose image every single human bears in full. I believe the church is extremely well-intentioned but quite flawed – as humanity is extremely well-intentioned but quite flawed. If you know those things about me, the intended meanings behind each of my plays become clearer.

An Ex-Evangelical Christian throwing out the bathwater of his former belief system and keep the baby Jesus

However, as I saw in my interaction with this potential client, those things don’t always jump off the page if a person doesn’t know to look for them. We look for confirmations of our own worldviews in the fiction that we read. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Let’s get into the weeds a bit here. Knights of the Square Table, with Sir Galahad and Lady Heron choosing to leave the “backward kingdom” of Slekochovakia could easily be read by an evangelical as an endorsement of sheltering one’s self from “the secular world” – but how much does your reading of that ending change when you know that I consider myself an Exvangelical? The Thousand-Year Rose is a story of building bridges and subverting expectations with Vivian the Witch turning out to be a pure-hearted person. How much deeper is that tale of one person’s label not meaning they are evil when you know that I specifically hold LGBTQ-affirming theology? See Amid the Winter Snow specifically averts labeling the political parties Maureen Gaines Claus and Ebenezer Whitfield represent, but if you know about my displeasure with the current presidential administration, it casts that side of the story in a different light.

But the thing is, none of that really matters. As a playwright (specifically as a writer for stage), I have to accept that Death of the Author will happen every time a director who knows nothing about me personally has the script in their hands. Because as much as I wrote the specific words on the page that are being said by the actors, a play’s production and any meaning taken away from it is driven by the director’s interpretation of my words. So therefore, any thoughts I had behind the story are now locked behind a layer of interpretation – to the audience then, that makes me something of a twice-dead author (like a twice-baked potato, except I don’t taste nearly as good). And I have to realize that’s OK.

Not every drama teacher putting on a production of The Thousand-Year Rose at some high school in who cares, Minnesota will get to know the specifics of my worldview. They will take the words from the page and come to their own conclusions. And it’s really not worth getting my trunk briefs in a bunch over that because no matter what their interpretation is – ya boi will still get paid. ;)

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