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September 23, 2006

Rewind: The History of The Director

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thumbing through our archives, I ran across an old posting of mine that I'd since forgotten. Since the information in it still strikes me as pretty interesting, I thought I'd give it a re-run. EZ blogging!

Here goes:

I found myself the other day wondering for the first time: when did the job of "the director" get created? I'm surprised the question never occurred to me before. After all, these days we take it for granted that behind any theatrical/film production there must be a director figure. But has this in fact always been the case? Was the initial presentation of Mozart's "Idomeneo" pulled together by a director, for instance? Were Shakespeare's plays put on the boards and given a style by a director? And if so, who were these people?

I spent a little time websurfing and thumbing through history and reference books, and came up with what appear to be the basics.

The date "the director" first appeared? Not until the mid-1800s. The Greek tragedies, Shakespeare's romances, Mozart's operas, etc -- all were put on without a director. Theater and opera were performer-, playwright-, and impresario-driven things for centuries. (A stage manager often helped pull the shows together, but always from a subservient position.) Then, in the mid-1800s, for reasons I don't fully understand yet, it began to be felt that things were getting out of hand. Actors were out there too much on their own -- some coordination was needed.

Within a few decades, the job of "director" as we know it today came into being. In opera, Wagner orchestrated his productions (theatrically as well as musically) in ways that had never been done before. In England, a playwright named T.W. Robertson started doing something that we might today think of as directing his own plays. One source credits him as the first director, and nails the date this way: "In 1864, at the Prince of Wales Theater." Another source argues that the director evolved in response to the entertainment demands of the new urban middle class, who didn't like aristocratic theater and yet who didn't want to rub shoulders with the burlesque-lovin' proletariat either.

In Germany, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen devoted himself to the idea of ensemble work, and sponsored a troupe that toured Europe during the 1870s and 1880s. The Russians were especially impressed -- hence Stanislavsky, and, via turn-of-the-century immigration, hence the American Method too.

The challenge was initially thought to be to get the showoffs and prima donnas, er, the actors and performers to work together instead of competing. Soon, though, directors began to coordinate the other production elements too (costumes, design, lighting, etc). Was this a Good Thing? A power-grab?

I find it interesting that these developments were taking place not too long after the role of the orchestra conductor took shape -- orchestral music of the 1600s and 1700s was generally presented conductor-free -- and that it overlaps the period during which Impressionism was finding its feet. I feel myself building towards some kind of posting about early Modernism, but I'd probably do well to restrain myself until I actually know what I'm talking about.

Comments, additions and corrections from those with more knowledge of the topic are encouraged. But it's a topic that, as far as I'm concerned, is a candidate for the "Why Wasn't I Told About This In College?" award.



posted by Michael at September 23, 2006


A couple of simple things come to mind here. Originally Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart would often conduct their own music for performance. After they died and became “classical composers,” someone had to decide how to interpret their work. Same with theater. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc., were on hand during the production of their works. But when their work became part of theater history, again, someone had to decide how the work would be performed.

Also, after the 18th century, the “text,” the official version of a play or musical work, became important, as well as the idea that the text had to be adhered to. I always chortle when I read people who praise Kenneth Branagh’s “full text” film production of Hamlet, which represented a restoration and combination of the primary versions of the play, but which was something that was never performed in Shakespeare’s or anybody else’s time.

People who know little of music or literary history always underestimate the amount of improvisation that informed classical music performance before texts became sacred. The same is true of theater as well. There is a lot of internal evidence that Shakespeare sometimes felt exasperated over the mugging and improvisation by some of the popular actors that he used in his plays. And of course, well into the 19th century, impresarios and actor-managers felt free to re-write Shakespeare and other authors. Charles Boyce, in “Shakespeare A to Z” notes that “in the 1670s an adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that preserved the lives of the lovers played in a London theater on every other night, alternating with another version in which they died.” Shakespeare’s text wasn’t re-established on the stage until the 1840s.

The director or conductor isn’t simply a modernist authority figure who exists to upset anti-authoritarian middle brows. Directors address a practical problem: how to interpret the work of authors often long dead, and how best to organize and present the work of a middle-sized to large ensemble of performers. Living playwrights, especially famous ones, often have a tremendous impact over how their works are performed, and chamber music is performed without the need of a conductor.

Movies, of course, are too big and too expensive to allow an ensemble of actors and craftspeople to decide how to make them. In television, writer-producers are actually more powerful than directors, who often work for hire, but who have to adhere to a template laid down by the show’s creators.

Posted by: Alec on September 24, 2006 2:06 PM

Alec's comments are interesting---at first, I was wondering how an orchestra possibly played together without any conductor? As he said, they had one---the composer. But then after the composer died, someone had to do it, and some enterprising musician said why not me?

Are you saying theater performances in ancient Greece had no "director"? Did everybody just learn the text in school or something, and there was one rote way of performing it? How about choreographers? When did they start?

At a minimum, it seems that someone needs to decide which play they are putting on---say, drama or comedy? It wouldn't do that one person performs Hamlet as a tormented young man and Hamlet's mother is played in the style of Joan Rivers (well, actually, maybe Hamlet's mother was exactly like Joan Rivers. Maybe Hamlet's mother shouldn't be played like Lucy Riccardo, for example). Maybe one person decided--"we are going to do it this way" and once the de facto position developed, it got named "a director."

Posted by: annette on September 25, 2006 10:39 AM

Great comment Alec. But of course Shakespeare was already dead for a few centuries before anyone directed his plays. And there were many Baroque and early classical composers about whom one could say the same. There was something going on culturally.

I think this would be a really interesting topic for MB to pursue further. I've often thought that romantic/early modern culture is both individualist in the obvious ways and "anti-individualist" (for want of a better term, although it defines the increase in structure as a crude negative) in some much less obvious ways. I also think that since so much of our culture derives from romanticism, both of these tendencies are still being played out. This is a really interesting example.

Posted by: MQ on September 25, 2006 1:39 PM

Alec -- That's some interesting info, tks. I'll add a few bits. One is that such ideas as "the canon" and "musical history" have their own histories. For many centuries, orchestras and bands simply played what was current. The idea of playing old or dead music, or that there was a body of great work back there and it was the job of a band or orchestra to explore and present it, simply wasn't around. The advent of such phenomena as "art history," "the conductor," "the museum," etc, is interesting, important, etc. Understadning a bit about it can clarify (or so I find) a lot about western art and culture. I'll quibble a bit with your characterization of movie directors. I mean, there is someone in the movie director chair, always. But the creative force behind a movie often isn't the director. That's one of the diffs between a Shakespeare and a modern theater director too, as I understand it. Shakespeare wasn't shaping a performance or giving it "unity" of the kind that many modern theater directors do. The idea that there might be a person whose creative job it is to shape a theatrical performance -- someone more glam, more creative, etc than a mere stage manager -- seems to be a fairly recent one. So I'm not sure it's quite right to say that the development of "the director" is a mere meeting-practical-needs kind of thing. Theater had gotten along quite well without such people for centuries. Why were these people suddenly felt to be necessary?

Annette -- There were people pulling performances together, but they weren't directors in the modern sense. Often the two people behind a theater troupe were a star and an impresario. They might well employ someone who'd be in charge of costumes, traffic, etc. But this person wasn't "a director" int he modern boss/genius/creative sense. That didn't come along until the mid-late 1800s. Neat, huh? Weird, too.

MQ -- I"m with you on that: we're still using Romanticism as our prime cultural fuel. What's so addictive about it? I try to touch on that a bit when I post about Townes Van Zandt, some moviemakers who go to my head, arts geekery, etc. There's something really intoxicating about some kinds of work ... Many people come to the arts because of this kind of thing ... Would we have any "culture" at all if it weren't for this kind of foolishness (of course we would, but wouldn't it be different in very substantial ways?) ... Why do we keep going back to it? And is it good for us?

Hey, y'all might enjoy Wikipedia's entry on music conductors. In brief: "By the early 19th century, it became the norm to have one person entirely dedicated to conducting, not performing as well." The idea of, for instance, that an evening of music might consist of "Boulez conducts the Chicago!" -- that's out of the 19th century.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2006 4:03 PM

annette: Music, yep, the composer led the show. Haydn, Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler were all conductors who composed. (Or were they composers who conducted?) And Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt were all soloists who wrote their own stuff. Jean Batiste Lully famously managed to kill himself in a conducting accident while leading his own music. (Things got pretty rough and tumble in those days.) The first specialist conductor was Arthur Nikitsch, who thrived around 1900, plus or minus a few decades.

The Greek plays seem generally to have been set up by the author. Frex, we hear tell of Aeschylus and Sophocles training the choruses for their plays.

In more recent times the show went on under what's called an actor-manager. Colley Cibber was the first of these. (It's interesting that Colley Cibber was the first actor manager, wrote the first sentimental comedy, and was the author of the first modern autobiography, yet today no one knows his name; fame's a bitch!)

The actor-manager would run the business end of an acting company, be take the starring role of the show, and direct the production. I wonder - could we say that Orson Welles was the last of the actor-managers, and also the first of the modern concept directors?

Posted by: Brian on September 25, 2006 4:09 PM

Annette – Brian nails it about the Greeks. I’m not too sure how the Romans handled things. It’s funny. I realize now that I skipped class or didn’t pay attention when my literature teachers speculated about ancient Greek performance practices. I picked up some info later, but am more comfortable with stuff from the Middle Ages forward. Interesting Wikipedia piece on Ancient Greek Theater:

Michael - To argue that Shakespeare wasn’t shaping a performance or trying to give it unity misses the point because you don’t seem to take into account the details of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater practice, or how the theater changed between the 1500s and the mid 1600s, let alone later developments. For example, Jacobean theater had a fondness for special effects and more elaborate staging (The Tempest vs the more purely rhetorical Richard II, for example), so I find any notion of a motley crew just jamming to be unconvincing.

Also it is important to note that Elizabethan audiences always craved new material. A popular play was rarely performed more than once a week, and had a lifespan of months, even though it might be revived later and even re-written to appeal to new tastes. So again, in the absence of a sacred text regularly performed, there was neither a need nor much point in spending time to shape a performance. But to say that theater got along without directors for centuries is about as meaningful as saying that 19th century frigates didn’t need captains, lieutenants and specialized personnel because ships didn’t have the same kind of defined officer staff in earlier centuries.

After Shakespeare’s death, the main person behind theatrical performances was the actor-manager or actor impresario. Maybe a useful analogy would be to think in terms of the Golden Age of Television and Sid Caesar’s comedy show. There was a staff of writers, but everybody knew that they were writing for the star who would also contribute and shape the material. David Garrick (1717-1779) was a famous actor-producer and manager of the Drury Lane Theater who performed many of Shakespeare’s plays. But he freely re-wrote plays, even turning a couple of them into operas, eliminated entire chunks of text, and turned some plays into displays of his own virtuosity. But he was clearly the guiding force behind the plays. William Davenant (1606-1668) was a poet, playwright and theater manager who operated in much the same way, for example combining “Measure for Measure” and “Much Ado About Nothing” into a single play, other times inserting Shakespeare’s words into his own plays.

Obviously, directors who were not themselves actors in a play put an end to huge alterations of a play to suit a star, but who knows whether Shakespeare or Jonson would have done the same thing in their own time.

Similarly, to say that orchestras just played what was current misses the point. Orchestras largely played newly composed music. Let’s categorize art music from 1500 to 1850 as church, court, and opera house music. Each venue would employ someone whose job was to find and train musicians, compose music and to play and to conduct what was performed. Whoever worked for Frederick the Great of Prussia had to write a lot of flute music since that ruler was an amateur flutist. Composers of opera had to keep popular singers supplied with new music, and conducted the works that they composed from the harpsichord.

Vivaldi composed much of his work for a Venetian orphanage for girls. When Bach was Cantor of a church in Leipzig, he also had to organize music for four other churches in the town, in addition to coming up with a new cantata every week, along with other composer duties. Of course, the composer also had to serve as an office manager and artistic director.

I’ll pass on movies this time around except to note that your quibble that the director “often is not the creative force” behind a movie is a wild overstatement, strong producers like Jerry Bruckheimer notwithstanding. I also noted that in TV, which currently is more creative than movies or the theater, the writer-producer rules (for example, Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, and even the late Aaron Spelling). But again, it is more the case that an individual is supplying a singular vision than it is that there is some kind of loosey-goosey informal consensus. And this is not just because of Romanticism or modernism, but because of the size and sophistication of film, TV and movie productions, as well as audience expectation, and – in their venues -- the existence of a musical and theatrical canon.

By the way, the Romans read the Ancient Greeks and re-wrote their plays (and possibly their music) to suit contemporary tastes, but still there is a notion of a canon here, so it is not just a modern or Romantic concept.

You might also compare the rise of a formal conductor to the expansion of the size of an orchestra. The primary orchestra of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century consisted of six violins, twelve violas, and six cellos, with a harpsichord added for secular music, or an organ for religious music. The modern symphony orchestra is around 100 instruments.

Posted by: Alec on September 26, 2006 8:04 AM

Brian -- Lully, huh? Who knew that foot injuries could be so lethal?

Alec -- That's a lot of interesting info (and I've done Eliz and Jacobean drama as well as music history, so it isn't completely unfamiliar to me). But I'm confused by what your larger point is. Someone (or some bunch of people) was obviously pulling productions together over the centuries - how else did productions comes together. But I've never run across anyone saying that "the director" as the figure we currently think of him/her as being was anything other than a fairly recent invention. "Oh, that John Guare play shouldn't have been directed by Jerry Zaks, it should have been directed by Michael Grieff instead" -- that kind of thing. I'm not aware of people saying, back in Jacobean times, that certain productions would have been better had they been directed by someone else, are you? "The director" in the modern sense isn't usually felt to be just the guy who puts the show on. He's felt to be an expressive artist in his own right, with a very specific job to do and a big creative contribution to make. Have you run across info indicating that directors in this sense were around prior to T.W. Robertson?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 26, 2006 11:45 AM

Michael – I don’t think that your implication of a long, simple, collaborative theater and music tradition that was overthrown by the authority of a single elitist director and conductor works since all the available evidence contradicts such a simple view. An actor-manager like David Garrick obviously had a vision in mind which he executed when he put on his versions of Shakespeare’s plays. There ain’t no evidence that he collaborated with other actors. When Davenant, a working playwright, re-worked Shakespeare to suit his own ends, who else was he working with? Did he have an idea in mind of what he expected the resulting play to look like in performance? I would say yes.

I obviously agree that there were not directors in the modern sense in earlier times. But there weren’t plays in the modern sense either since “texts” were freely reworked, revised or outright ignored. Would anyone today attend a performance of “Hamlet” in which the Prince of Denmark kills Laertes and marries Ophelia? However, I would bet real money that there is an actor out there who might say, “Why can’t Macbeth be a good guy and win in the end?” So yeah, you cannot avoid the pragmatic point that directors become necessary when there was an “official text” that had to be defended against the natural egos of actors, and that the idea of a canon and a primary interpreter go together.

You didn’t hire a director to do Shakespeare in Elizabethan times. But you didn’t hire the King’s Men to perform “Antigone” either. Different times, different expectations. Hell, you didn’t have copyright as we know it, and the vast majority of plays were never published.

There is a consistency in the themes and ideas that appear in the work of Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, and others, so I don’t see how you could possibly believe that some bunch of people pulled his productions together. Jonson also wrote literary theory, and we can see a clear connection between his ideas about art and his plays. We know for an absolute fact that he hired the architect Inigo Jones to do the production design for the masques he wrote after 1605. We don’t know of any other bunch of people who pulled the production together.

In classical music, Bach, Haydn and others wrote and conducted their own music. No one, except maybe a prince who could fire a court composer, had much influence over the resulting work.

I used the example of Sid Caesar earlier because even though there was an exceptionally talented stable of creative and independent-minded writers, they have all acknowledged in interviews that Caesar provided the controlling voice for their efforts. I think that theater largely followed a similar path.

Let me throw in this aside. The discussions of “who wrote Shakespeare” get goofy because many people cannot throw off their contemporary ideas of what a play is and how it is performed. So Oxford (or Queen Elizabeth) supporters have this notion of Oxford secretly writing intact plays (“I will add ‘Othello’ to my canon of plays today”) and having them delivered to the acting companies. But the evidence of the plays clearly indicates that roles were tailored to specific actors, many of whom were famous performers whom audiences expected to see “do their thing.” So Shakespeare wrote dense, witty verbal parts, often with songs, for Robert Armin, who probably played the Fool in “King Lear.” Will Kempe, on the other hand, was a big man who often spoke in earthy language and did physical bits and slapstick, and was mainly featured in Shakespeare’s early plays. Also, since actors doubled parts, the playwright had to adjust roles to take into account costume changes, entrances and exits, etc.

So whoever Shakespeare was, he was a working playwright dealing with the practical details of a play’s production and who had to have a firm understanding audience demands and of the capabilities of the actors available to him.

Think of Shakespeare and his acting companies as the Elizabethan equivalent of Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Also, there are obviously collaborative theater companies in existence today (The Wooster Group and others). But who else besides Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton were responsible for their films? Even in early cinema, it is sometimes easy to identify the controlling intelligence behind the work. But it is also easy to point to producers who imposed their vision on a film, but damned difficult to sort out a bunch of people who consistently produced a unified work without someone directing their efforts.

Posted by: Alec on September 26, 2006 5:44 PM

Alec -- I'm enjoying all the info and thinking you're volunteering, but to the extent that you're debating the point, you're doing battle with a phantom -- "I don't think that your implication of a long, simple, collaborative theater and music tradition that was overthrown by the authority of a single elitist director and conductor works since all the available evidence contradicts such a simple view." I'm not sure where you find me making such an implication!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 26, 2006 10:43 PM

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