Not always, but often enough to be noticed, theater programs blazon the name of a play's director more prominently than that of the author. I've even noted marquee billing in lights reading: "Joe Doakes' Production of 'Loot'" with nary a mention of the author.
The director in recent years has been assuming equal rank with the playwright.
How did this happen?
Stage directors, whom the English describe as "the producer," the French call the ametteur en scene and the Germans and Russians title the regisseur, are a product of the last century.
Before then, from the ancient Greeks through the Restoration, the theater must have been an astonishingly chaotic business.
It wasn't until the mid-18th century that David Garrick began introducing new details into the preparation of stage productions. In the mid-19th century, it was the actor-managers - now a vanished breed - who furthered the aim of production harmonies. It was said that actor George Mcready changed the rehearsal from a run-through to an artistic proving ground. Before that rehearsals had been a time when no one attempted to do more than mutter lines in positions decided upon by leading players.
The definitive step came in 1874 when the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. a minor German duchy, developed what is recognized as the first "director's theater." His Meiningen company, as essayist Helen Chinoy expressed it, "interpreted the text through all the theatrical arts." From this stemmed the work of Antoine in his Paris Theatre Libre, Otto Brahm in his Berlin Freie Beuhne, Stanislavski in his Moscow Art Theater, the unifying productions of Irving and Booth, the realism of David Belasco.
From such a background the American stage director achieved his present power, at its best creating consistency of design, style and form, which is something almost taken for granted.
It is when this vision of the director conflicts with that of the playwright that trouble rises. Chekhov never did approve of what Stanislavski imposed on his plays. Last year a playwright stomped from Lincoln Center and called a press conference to deplore what a director was doing to his play.
Through their Dramatists' Guild, the playwrights are properly fighting this imposed directorial tyranny but ecomomic odds are against the writers. If they don't like the way their manuscripts are being presented, they can withdraw the play. But then it won't get onto a stage.
Usually the writers accept what they may not intend. Dead playwrights, of course, have no recourse and careful as he was about contracts, Bernard Shaw now is at the mercy of the producers he scorned. On them - Shakespeare, Moliere and the rest - the directors impose what they choose, which can be interesting, insolent or irrelevant.
Now a new aspect of staging has entered the directors' province and I'm not certain they are fully aware of its subtle implications. I'm referring to the changing shapes and sizes of our theaters.
Arena Stage is a perfect example of this, a rectangle surrounded by the audience, a total reversion from the picture stage represented by the prosceniums of the Eisenhower and National theaters. Over recent years Arena, its directors and designers, have been learning that our eyes take in the stage floor instead of flats and picture-stage traditions. This has been one of Arena's creative contributions to central staging.
But even Arena can misjudge. A case in point is a response I've had from Marshall W. Mason about my criticism of certain aspects in his direction there of "A Streetcar Name Desire." Mason enclosed copies of Tennessee Williams' own stage directions and of Elia Kazan's mise-en-scene for the same moments in his authoritative staging of the Williams premiere 30 years ago.
My objection had centered on the subsidiary action to the scene where Stanley Kowalski is about to rape Blanche DuBois. There is violence in the street outside the bedroom, an exterior parallel to the interior violence.
Elaborating on Williams' stage direction, Kazan indeed did create the scene almost exactly as Mason has staged it. In Kazan's words, as Blanche dials the phone:
"The following occurs in the street: A woman laughs insanely and runs into the street from upper left with a purse. A man in a tuxedo follows, protesting. Woman strikes him. He falls. Babel offstage upper right increases. Another man rushes on from upper right, attacks first man from behind. Sounds of police whistles and a siren in the distance, groans from the felled man as his assailants vanish right and left."
Kazan returned to the concurrent Blanche-Stanley action, then continued: "A man runs in from upper right, followed by three thugs who attack him down right, where they are joined by another man. More police whistles. Men vanish out down right and there is an excited murmer of voices. Wounded man staggers off up right."
Mason accurately infers that he has followed the exact dictates of the creators. But there are two differences worth noting.
The original "Streetcar" production, was for the proscenium, or picture, stage. The actions in the street took place behind the Kowalski apartment, in the far distance. Our eyes were not diverted from the Blanche-Stanley sparring. The street action was at a remove from the major action.
In central staging, with the audience on all four sides, this subsidiary action occurs closer to us, putting Blanche and Stanley at a remove, out of our direct vision. Our attentions is deflected. The secondary action becomes, albeit briefly, primary. For me it got in the way of the scene building to its climax. What had been a visual obbligato became dominant.
And in the Williams-Kazan directions there is no mention of a shot being fired. It may have been, but my eyes and mind were on Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando.
But throughout his staging Mason has chosen to take us into Blanche's mind to several occasions with a gunshot. It is a recurring sound she has endured since her young husband shot himself. We hear the shot several times and it ends her recitation to Mitch of the most tragic event in her life. Mason, I suspect, did not fully consider the difference between "Streetcar's" original picture stage and Arena's more intimate demands when he followed Kazan's acting edition so precisely.
This seems a small matter but as our audiences now tend to hold the performers in an embrace, such details can be magnified with consequent loss of balance. When they work in the Kreeger, Arena's directors have another kind of adjustment, for though the Kreeger has a hint of the traditional proscenium, it virtually is removed and all action brought within arm's reach of the auditorium's 500 seats.
When the Kennedy Center's new terrace stage opens next year its form will challenge new ways for directors to create a play's unique atmosphere. All over the country, indeed around the world, new stages with novelty of shape and intimacy of seating are creating new problems for directors.
Within these new forms the new directors must bear responsibility for concealing their artful power.