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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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You can't take it with you, but you don't have to leave it behind
I hadn't realized that Eugene O'Neill had stipulated that Long Day's Journey Into Night "shouldn't be published until 25 years after his death - and that it should never be staged". Nevertheless, the BBC web site notes, "the play was first performed in 1956, three years after he died". This apparently warrants no comment, so standard has it become for authors' wishes in such matters to be betrayed. But I've got to say, I feel offended on O'Neill's behalf. He was let down by whomever he trusted with his literary estate, and everyone has just carried on as if that were perfectly normal. I'd take a lot of persuasion to see this play again - and not only because it bored me rigid the first time. It would feel almost as great a violation as putting money into the sticky hand of an absconding child rapist by going to see a Polanski film.

There are many similar cases, of course, and many are open to the "Why didn't you destroy the manuscript?" argument. "If you didn't want anyone to read your diaries, why didn't you burn them yourself, rather than leave that as a teasing injunction to your executors?" The implication is that the author really wanted them to be published, if only subconsciously, but that seems to me far from certain. Perhaps they wanted to be able to read them themselves, as long as they were still alive? That's a privilege people are usually accorded with respect to their own writing, without everyone else feeling they have carte blanche to peer over their shoulders. Or, if it's clear that the author really did want them destroyed, then some higher duty is invoked to justify the betrayal of their wishes - to Art, or to Posterity. But is this not bullshit of signal lucency?

In the case of O'Neill's play, he was quite clear that he did want the play preserved, and indeed published (in due course) - but not performed, so the "Why didn't you destroy it yourself?" argument doesn't apply. I don't know the details of how his wishes came to be ignored - not by future generations to whom he was nothing but a name, but by his widow, friends and colleagues, who might have been expected more than anyone to respect them. Perhaps they really didn't like him, and it was a form of revenge? That at least wouldn't be hypocritical. Perhaps it was to raise money for a life-saving operation? I could understand it, if so. But if it was just to satisfy the theatre world's curiosity, then phooey, say I.

I think it's tyrannical of an author to lay injunctions on posterity- and this one of O'Neill's strikes me as particularly manipulative and unrealistic. The play is to be published, eventually, but never performed; that's just unreasonable. It puts an unfair burden on the inheritors.

My line would be this: once you're dead your work ceases to be yours. It doesn't concern you any more. Dead folk don't have property rights.

I reckon O'Neill was on to something. At any rate, if only people had respected his wishes, I would have been spared one of the most tedious evenings I've ever spent in the theatre. It was like watching a two-hour episode of The Scousers, but without any jokes.

As to the wider point - well, legally of course it's true, you can't own something once you're dead, any more than you can be slandered. But just as that doesn't make it defensible to tell malicious lies about someone the moment their body reaches ambient temperature, so I don't hold with disregarding someone's sincere wishes, regarding something that they not only owned but also created. If my mother tells me she wants her ashes scattered off John o' Groats, I'll feel an obligation to do my best to comply, even if I've had a handsome offer for her cadaver from medical researchers in the interim. This isn't because I think the corpse is hers to dispose of (after all, she's dead), or because I think her wishes particularly reasonable (John O' Groats? Strewth - she's never even been to Scotland) but because I'll feel myself bound by respect for her wishes, and (if applicable) my promise to keep them.

I don't think I'm more than averagely sentimental in such matters. It's a common attitude - and it extends to property, too. The pearl necklace that she wanted me to hand down to my own daughter in due course - well, naturally I won't be round the pawnbrokers with that unless the alternative is starvation. But when it comes to writers and other artists the rules of the game suddenly change. I think it highly likely that O'Neill's executors were aware of his wishes while he was alive, and presumably didn't see fit to tell him that they would be ignoring them. I think that's dishonest, and shouldn't be treated as normal or reasonable behaviour.

There's a really interesting version of such a demand in the movie The Footnote, which is worth seeing.

In Kafka's case, he (Kafka) made Brod his literary executor even when Brod said that he would ignore Kafka's wishes to burn his work.

What about Vergil?

I mean I see your point, but I also see a fade-out of even moral ownership (personal or private moral rights to the future of your work, not the public right to be regarded as its author, and to have its integrity respected) down the generations. For example, if the whole population of the world has recycled, then the original author no longer (I think) has claims on a world none of whose members existed when she made those claims.

I'm foundering here a little, since I see both sides. Copyright law once tried to balance these interests before it became (in the US anyhow) a mode of perpetuating Disney's rights to a significant part of our culture.

O'Neill knew that eventually the play would be in the public domain Certainly once it was published the clock would be going, so he had twenty-five years plus copyright term after his death to control it (so he thought). That might be reasonable. Beckett must have known something similar, despite his very strong assertion of control over his plays when alive, even to the point of objecting to some impurities in a student production at Harvard. And I think he was right to do so.

What about letters and diaries?

What's your view of Stephen Joyce's handling of James Joyce's material?

I think that if I left a necklace to my grandchildren stipulating that they should leave it to their children or even grandchildren, that would be the end of my feeling a legitimate interest or desire to control its fate. I just can't take a serious interest in my great great grandchildren. My grandmother took an interest in her great-grandson (my nephew) but could not have imagined his child (I can say for certain), and therefore I think has no more rights in that line of descent.

I agree about the fading out of rights, which is why I say that it was more heinous in O'Neill's immediate heirs and assigns to flout his wishes than it would have been in some distant generation to whom he was just a name.

I agree too that writers need to take reasonable account of the way of the world, including the possibility of such flouting - and they have plenty of examples now to act as a warning - when disposing of their goods. If they want to make super sure that something never gets out, the only way is to destroy it. On the other hand, if someone wanders into a dodgy part of town and gets mugged, the mugger is still at fault...

Copyright law doesn't apply in this particular case, of course, since O'Neill's widow would have been the copyright holder herself, but the fade-out principle may lie partly behind the way that law is constructed. (I wonder by the way why people don't seem to feel the same way about other forms of inherited property - say that pearl necklace again? There, although the personal connection becomes attenuated over generations, in other respects it may become valued more than ever, as a family heirloom! If it could be done, maybe we should apply the three-generation rule to all inherited wealth - thus alleviating inequality while preserving the incentive to earn and have something to give to your children and grandchildren?)

As for the Aeneid, that horse has bolted, so I won't be hunting down every copy to throw into the public bonfire, but if Virgil was of sound mind when he made the request, then I'd say it probably ought to have been respected. Yes, we'd be poorer without that work - but consider, we probably are poorer without many works of genius that really did get destroyed at their authors' request (for surely not every executor disregards such requests as a matter of course), and which we just don't know about. Do we feel it? Do we care?

I don't know much about Stephen Joyce or his motives. Nor am I aware that Joyce expressed any view on the non-publication of his correspondence, etc. ("An essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized", as Tom Stoppard put it - he's hard to read in more ways than one.) I've no problem in principle with the publication of letters or diaries, certainly after the people mentioned in them are dead, except where the author asked for them to be destroyed.

Even then, I should say, I don't want to be absolute about it. There may be overwhelming reasons for publishing whether the authors wanted it or not. What I do object to strongly is the assumption (as in the article I linked to) that authors' wishes are of so little account that their flouting doesn't even warrant an explanation.

I agree. If "dead folk don't have property rights" it is rather illogical that we allow them to make wills that stipulate who is to have their property - presumably once they're cold we should divvy it up as we see fit. I think Brod should have burned what Kafka asked him to, rather than trying to second-guess what he may subconsciously have wanted.

As for writing, what makes the difference there is not death but publication. Once it is in the public domain I don't think you can or should try to control how people use or react to it except insofar as copyright allows you to stop them misrepresenting it or using it without paying you. Once it was published, it's unreasonable and probably unenforceable for him to stipulate that it not be performed. But something unpublished is his to do as he wants with and his wishes in that should be respected.

I'll make one exception. Wagner, I believe, wanted his operas to be performed without intervals, and I'd favour ignoring that for the sake of the audience's arses. If, that is, you must perform the verbose tosh in the first place....

*raises hand* Wagnerian pedant here.

The only interval-less Wagner opera I can think of is Rheingold, which is a one-act to begin with. Wagner wanted his four Ring Cycle operas to be performed sequentially over four consecutive days, which is rarely feasible, but he was fine with intermissions (except for Rheingold, obviously). He did request that the Festspielhaus be burned to the ground after the first complete Ring performance, which obviously didn't happen.

Wagner also wanted Parsifal to be performed only at Bayreuth, which led to an international feud when the Metropolitan Opera went ahead and put it on anyway.

When I saw the Dutchman, I'm sure I read in the programme that he wanted it staged without intervals. I did eventually drift off and more or less go to sleep, but not quite that early!

Yes, you're right, I forgot about that one. It's performed in either one or three acts, depending on the production, and Wagner did indeed want only one act (and was overruled).

I haven't read or seen it (one of those plays whose title tells you the whole story, and I am not interested in that story) but I wonder if he thought that real people he knew were exposed, and he wanted to give them plenty of time to be safely dead as well. That's the only reason why I can imagine the 25 years stipulation.

I believe that was indeed part of his thinking. At least, the play seems to have strong autobiographical elements.

That would indeed be a valid reason for stipulating conditions on what happens to one's writing. Otherwise I'm afraid I agree with poliphilo. Though you can make one's wishes known, if the only person it will hurt if they are ignored is you, then once you are dead, then it doesn't matter any more.

Okay, but do you feel the same way about not respecting the wishes of the dead in other matters (see my answer to poliphilo)?

Edited at 2012-04-14 02:47 pm (UTC)

That is a tricky question. I felt that my mother-in-law left us in a very awkward position when she died. According to her will, the china tea-sets and one of her rings were supposed to go to her younger sister. Unfortunately, her younger sister lived in America. I shudder to think what it would have cost us to ship these things to the States. And would the china even have arrived there in one piece? We had no idea how to do it and no time to cope with that on top of everything else her death had entailed. As a result, nearly 30 years later the tea-sets are still packed in a box in the garage and I still have the rings, which I have never worn. :(

So while I feel that the living should try to honour the wishes of the dead, I also feel that people shouldn't lay unreasonable expectations on the people who will have to sort out their affairs.

I think that's a fair point. If my mother (who's actually quite well, by the way) had asked me to have her ashes scattered in space rather than off John o' Groats then I too would feel that was a practically unfeasible request.

On the other hand, refraining from publishing something for 25 years takes relatively little effort.

Oh, I agree. I'm just postulating about the guy's possible reasons.