How much do we owe to dead playwrights?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
We cannot seek to revive them. We cannot divine their intentions, their thoughts, their hopes and dreams. We cannot know if they wrote their plays to communicate a very definite and personal message, or whether it was knocked together in a fit of desperation to pay the bills.
By all means honour them but do not revere them. And do not, under any circumstances, try to do them justice. In attempting to do them justice you do the very opposite.
Shakespeare was an innovator, a wild card, an 'upstart crow', a populist who honoured his audience by challenging them. If we pickle his plays in some spurious half-preserved form, like a decaying limb festering in formaldehyde, we do nothing but desecrate the excitement, the danger and the unpredictability that they once represented.
'What matter who's speaking?' Someone once famously said. Ironic then that that person's estate should be the worst perpetrators when it comes to the necrophiliac pursuit of some ghostly, bastardized figure of the author haunting every ensuing production. Did Beckett become the writer he became by obeying convention? How would he feel about the innovators, the exciting young artists, being denied access to his work under the spurious grounds of maintaining some museum authenticity. These hangers on, these preservers, these authenticators - they come to bury Beckett, not to praise him.
Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.
So said Walter Benjamin. Any play by a dead writer does not belong to them. It belongs to us. It is a ruin, an image of the past existing in the present. You can preserve it as a ruin but that is what it will remain - useless, anachronistic, tired, empty. Or you can accept it as belong to a new time, as being remade - 'seized up at a moment of danger'.
That is what Katie Mitchell is doing. Seizing a dead text at at a moment of crisis. Remaking it for the present. This is the only way that dead texts can be anything other than museum pieces.
Michael Billington may wish theatre to be a dead art, pickling old ghosts for the gentile pleasure of the comfortable and the safe. But anyone who cares about theatre, or indeed the world, should applaud Mitchell's attempts to make it completely relevant and completely vital.