Tom Lewy


The term “authenticity” and its use in different languages bears usually various positive connotations. Google, the current so-called unimpeachable source, has thirteen synonyms for it, among which we find accuracy, credibility, validity, and veracity. The origin of the term is in Ancient Greek: “Etymologically, something that is authentic is something that has the authority of its original creator. Greek authentikós was a derivative of the noun authéntes ‘doer, master’.”1

In visual arts, it is easy to use this term. An authentic work is one that is created by the artist in person and acknowledged by him as such. An authentic work is different by one that is similar or identical but not originally created by the artist, the latter being a replica or a forgery. Not so in performing arts, where a performance is each time considered an authentic event. Consequently, we have to define the limits of authenticity or delineate the degree and nature of its variations when compared to the production’s premiere. We may find the borderline on the following continuum: the production on its premiere, its performance with the same cast and the same stage directions and space, its performance with a different cast or with a different acting technique, and its performance with a different cast and in a different language. Finding the borderline and determining the authenticity of a performance affects not only “the truth in advertising” but also its place among original works in contemporary performing arts. Moreover, we have to single out what exactly is the work that is under the scrutiny of authenticity, whether it is the script or the production.

During the Weimar Republic, Berlin was the capital of the German theatre. In Germany, in big cities as well as in provincial towns, local theatres flourished, most of them non-private. A play that was successful in Berlin was produced in various theatres all across the country, each time differently produced. A salient example of the authenticity of a script but not of its production was the opera Der Silbersee [The Silver Lake] by Georg Kaiser and Kurt Weill. It was simultaneously first performed on February 18, 1933 in Leipzig, Magdeburg, and Erfurt in three varying productions, each one with its own director and performers.2 The faithfulness to a playscript only has enabled and encouraged theatre artists, in the present as well as in the past, to produce a great variety of interpretations of the same play, both conventional and innovative, challenging the audience as well as theatre artists.

In the United States, the economic and social structure of the theatre was different and it still is in its greater part. New York was the theatre center in the second half of the twentieth-century, with Broadway and its surroundings in Manhattan grouping together privately owned theatres. Thus, Broadway has become the symbol and the quintessence of American theatre. In the twenty-first century as well, most of the Broadway productions are initiated and financed by private producers and each production is performed by a different cast. If successful, such a production may run for years in a row; if it fails, it closes within a week and leaves no trace in the long history of theatre. Since this is a business venture that must profit its producer and investors, the ultimate goal is to be lucrative. Thus, the question is how to sell such a production as “authentic” to a greater number of spectators and for as long as possible.

Unlike Europe, where the starting point of a theatrical work is the play and the playwright is the copyright owner, in the United States the production is traded as a product owned by the producer, who owns the copyright. Consequently, the question regarding the authenticity of a production is complicated and its possible answer is far from being unequivocal. Even if we assume that the running of a production during several months with the same cast will ensure each evening an authentic performance, changing the performer in the leading role will raise the question of its authenticity because of its impact on the spirit of the production and may attract or deter potential audiences. So, for example, in the musical Hello Dolly that was produced at St. James Theatre in New York in 1964 and ran till December 1970, the actress who initially played the matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi was Carol Channing. When she left the production, she was replaced by six cinema and theatre stars. In what measure were the ensuing performances authentic when compared to the original one? In fact, each new actress brought along some changes, and two of them brought in drastic ones. In 1967, when the Afro-American actress Pearl Bailey joined in as the leading role, the producer David Merrick decided to keep everything of the original production “as is,” but to replace all the cast with an “authentic” Afro-American one. In 1970, the musicals star Ethel Merman was asked to play the leading role. In fact, the original script was written with her in mind but the long negotiations failed and two songs written and composed especially for her musical range, volume, and style were taken out. Now, when she joined the production, they were reintroduced. For this production in New York, as well as for many other successful musicals, parallel casts – Road Companies -- were added in time, travelling all over the United States. Such casts were also sent abroad to Europe and the Far East, under the sales promoting slogan “straight from Broadway” and much publicity.

The next and extreme way of property and product safeguarding came under the guise of authenticity safeguarding, that is, the prohibition of producing the same musical in a different staging.3 This is how came into being the profession of the revivalist director, whose duty is to direct the production in a foreign language and country exactly as it was originally done.

Such arrangements, backed by contracts with the producers that are the copyrights owners, do not allow new interpretations that may vary according to time, place, and the personality of the performers, and may result in stagnation in performing arts. When the same script with the same music and same orchestration is running for years and years it may end in losing some of its signification and import. It is the new productions, that are not faithful to the original one and are blatantly non-authentic, that can add new meanings and enrich modern theatre.

N o t e s

  1. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (London: Columbia Marketing, 1994), 44.back
  2. David Drew, Kurt Weill – A Handbook (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 241.back
  3. This prohibition does not apply to productions by amateur groups in schools or private clubs.back

Professor Emeritus Tom Lewy is a theatre director (M.F.A. in directing, Yale University, 1967) and a theatre theoretician (Ph.D. in Theatre History, New York University, 1971). He was the head of the Department of Theatre Arts at Tel Aviv University, the first artistic director of “The Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre”, and directed original and translated plays in repertory and educational theatre. His book The Jeckes and the Hebrew Theatre [Hajekim Vehateatron Haivri] was published in Hebrew by Resling (Tel Aviv, 2016) and in German Zwischen allen Bühnen by Neofelis (Berlin, 2016).