It’s not often that opening night audiences at even the scrappiest theater productions are greeted by locked doors and a large sign informing them that the show has been cancelled. Theaters routinely overcome illness, death, loss of money, power outages, riots — you name it — all that show-must-go-on sort of thing. Odder still is the sight of a tearful director giving a short speech to what remains of her audience outside the bolted space. As it turns out, the one thing even the most tenacious theater artist cannot overcome is a pack of lawyers. And that, in fact, was the reason for the rather abrupt shuttering of what was listed in the local papers and the press release as a “multi-media adaptation of the iconic 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film,” Last Tango in Paris.
One fact seems very clear in this case — the show’s director, Doris Mirescu, did not obtain permission to adapt the film from either Bertolucci (who both wrote and directed it) or the studio that produced it, MGM. It was MGM’s people who, within a week’s time of learning about the production, sent a representative to observe a rehearsal and the next day delivered a cease-and-desist order to Mirescu. According to a gentleman working with Mirescu, the MGM representative felt the piece was close enough to the original as to fall under their ownership, so they closed it.
In Mirescu’s short and emotional speech to the audience, she spoke of artistic freedoms and the right of an artist to address any subject, to take anything apart, that nobody can truly own an artwork. And she has quite a bit of 20th- and 21st-century art to back her up on this point — everything is fair game these days. But it’s very tempting to focus on the mire of intellectual property rights when they’re being defended by big fancy companies with big fancy profits. We all love to hate lawyers and rich corporations — it’s one of the oldest American, if not international, pastimes.
What’s really at issue here though, if you can set MGM aside for a minute, is that Mirescu is taking Bertolucci’s words, images and ideas, largely in tact, and putting them on stage. She is also according to the press release, giving herself credit for adapting, conceiving, designing and directing the piece.
Of course, there’s that old saying: good artists borrow, great artists steal. But, oddly enough, in many artistic arenas there seems to be some honor among thieves. When artists steal on such a large scale, they usually riff on the work, rather than adapt it, creating something new, something very different from, but noticeably a comment on, the original.
While it is a sad but inevitable fact that copyright law has allowed for the ownership of artistic output by second and third parties, the ownership of a work by the artist that created it is, to my mind, clear and defensible. You don’t need to speak to professional writers or artists very long to understand the unpleasant financial and career implications of someone else taking credit and receiving payment for their work. And that gets to the real point. Just because a famous name and a powerful corporation are involved in this particular situation doesn’t eliminate the fact that one artist’s argument for rights is actually impinging on those of another. If the argument held, whose to say it wouldn’t backfire on Mirescu when she wants credit and payment for the work of hers that is original. Despite the illogic of most artistic practice, that just doesn’t seem to add up.