Moral Rights or the Outraged Heir: Real-Life Drama at House of Molière
PARIS, May 28 — Since Bernard-Marie Koltès died in 1989 at 41, his reputation as a playwright has continued to grow. In February, for the first time, one of his plays, “Le Retour au Désert,” entered the repertory of the Comédie-Française, the historic Paris theater popularly known as the House of Molière.
Yet soon after Muriel Mayette’s production of the play opened there, Mr. Koltès’s brother, François, who owns the copyright to his works, ordered that it be taken off the stage on June 7 after just 30 performances. The reason? The Algerian character, Aziz, is not being played by an Algerian, as stipulated by the playwright.
The French theater world was stunned. Need a German actor play Faust, a Dane play Hamlet? In any event Michel Favory, the French actor cast as Aziz, was considered more than up to the role. So was this political correctness gone crazy? Or was Mr. Koltès justifiably protecting his brother’s legacy?
Some of these questions may now be decided in court. The Comédie-Française has sued François Koltès for defamation — he described the theater as cynical — and for damages to recover revenue lost by the cancellation of four performances this season and by the withdrawal of the play from next season’s program. A court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
But whatever the outcome, the tiff has served to highlight the power and privileges enjoyed by the heirs of creative artists. They may have no artistic talent of their own, but they bask in reflected glory, receive royalties and determine how works are interpreted or exploited.
In the European Union, as in most copyright protection in the United States, inherited “moral rights” last for 70 years after the death of the artist, so the greats of the more distant past are open to all sorts of license. A Shakespeare play can be updated to the American South, a Mozart opera can be set in Trump Tower, Marcel Duchamp can add a mustache to the image of Mona Lisa — and no one can object.
But when it comes to writers and artists who have died since 1937, legal heirs, not always direct descendants, have the last word.
In the visual arts disputes often arise when an image is used commercially without permission. Thus the Picasso estate spends a lot of time trying to chase down the illegal use of Picasso drawings or paintings on everything from coffee mugs and T-shirts to posters and prints, while simultaneously selling his name for use on the Citroën Xsara Picasso car. René Magritte poses a different problem. Although his Surrealist images are also reproduced without authorization, more often they inspire advertising images, like figures floating in the sky borrowed from the bowler-hatted men in “Golconda.” But when an idea, not an image, is lifted, it is not protected by copyright.
Salvador Dalí’s extraordinary imagination is no less plagiarized, but he got ahead of the game by commercializing his own images to the point that André Breton turned Dalí’s name into an anagram, Avida Dollars. And if fake Dalís abound, it is also because he is said to have signed hundreds of blank sheets of paper before he died in 1989.
More recently the question of ownership of an image has been taken up by some architects, who have claimed copyright over published photographs of buildings they have designed. If recognized, this right will also benefit their heirs.
On the other hand, in the performing arts, the creator’s intention is more relevant. In dance, choreographers or their trusted assistants usually oversee interpretation of their work. Yet, after their deaths, even when some estates, like the George Balanchine Foundation, insist on approving new productions, original visions are inevitably blurred by individual dancers.
But it is in the literary world where some of the most serious rights battles have erupted. Stephen James Joyce, who controls the moral rights to the works of James Joyce, his grandfather, has become famous for blocking the use of Joyce’s words in publications and even at public readings. (That power will end in 2011, 70 years after Joyce’s death.)
Similarly, in theater, the Koltès case is not unique. With Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, who both wrote stage directions for their plays, new productions must be approved by their estates. And not infrequently, when the interpretation or casting is considered inappropriate, changes are demanded or permission is refused.
But is it proper for the creative freedom of stage directors to be restricted by heirs or estates?
Ms. Mayette, the director of “Le Retour au Désert,” who is also the general administrator of the Comédie-Française, has argued that “it should be forbidden to forbid.” And she had good reason to feel vindicated last week when two actresses in her production won Molières, the French equivalent of Tony Awards.
Ms. Mayette’s casting “sin” was of course minor compared with what happens today to centuries-old operas, which may be variously set in modern times, infused with post-Freudian angst or turned into erotic romps. Long-dead composers can count only on vociferous audiences to guard their legacies.
But great stage works survive anyway. Shakespeare’s plays were ripped off during his lifetime, many were radically rewritten in the 17th and 18th centuries, and today they remain vulnerable to the whims of theater fashion. Yet, thanks to their poetry, psychology, humor and drama, ol’ Bill is doing just fine.
True, Bernard-Marie Koltès is no Shakespeare. But since many critics regard him as France’s most original playwright in decades, his brother does him no service by depriving theatergoers of the chance to discover him. After all, audiences and directors — not heirs or copyright laws — will eventually decide if his oeuvre is to live on.