The Faustian Bargain of Audience

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

In lieu of a term paper, let's take a little test. A quiz, really. Just nod your head if any of these ring a bell:

Post Modernism
Roland Barthes
Jacques Derrida
Tristram Shandy

How'd you do? I hope none of you cheated.

Okay, if that brought back fond memories of English seminars you're just the target audience for playwright Steven Drukman's Death of the Author.

For those of you who suffered through 500 level deconstructions, you'll get the reference to Roland Barthes reactionary and brilliant essay of the same title, The Death of the Author: which, in an over simplified nutshell, argues that to attribute 'an author' to a text is to risk limiting it to a single interpretation.

For folks who's eyes glazed over around Tristram Shandy, don't worry there's a simpler way into the play.

It's senior year spring, Bradley's a double major: Poly Sci and Math. He’s decided to branch out a bit and take an English class. The teacher, Professor Egan, seemed cool and after all Bradley's girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, is an English major. Everything's great until the final paper. Bradley's very literal minded - remember he's a math major - so the assignment is a bit tricky but he gives it a shot.

Trouble is Professor Egan's not too pleased with the paper. He's got problems of his own. He's trying to struggle by on the meager salary of an adjunct, find a tenure-track gig, and unlike some of his students he doesn't come from money. Fortunately, his mentor, who's the rock star professor of the department - J. Trumbull Sykes - is currently the chair. They've just got to deal with the sticky issue of Bradley's paper.

That's where the Death of the Author begins both literally and metaphorically.

Steven Drukman's a smart playwright and clearly knows this academic territory well. Over the course of the play's 90 minutes you get a sort of Cliff's Notes lecture on postmodern literary theory, the power dynamics of the classroom, and an ethics seminar on intention.

But let's return to the essay that inspires the play. Barthes' argument is that it's not about the author because it's all about the audience (a notion beautifully captured by Takeshi Kata's mirror box set). It's in the audience that meaning ultimately resides. That's also the source of the Faustian bargain Mr. Drukman makes.

After laying the postmodern framework the play feels ripe for a radical shift: some formal gesture to turn things on their head. With the characters debating the modernist notion that form follows function, shouldn't a play about post-modernism be... well postmodern?

No such luck. Death of the Author, for all it's theoretical chatter, is a straightforward, linear, plot driven narrative. Mr. Drukman understands the American regional theater audience as well as he understands literary theory.

So if you're up for 90 minutes of intriguing ideas, go for it. Just know it's more talk than action.

Death of the Author plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through June 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Austin Butler and David Clayton Rogers in Death of the Author. Photo by Michael Lamont.