#13 - Open or Closed
Why literary theory might help us to stop undermining musicals.
Yesterday I found myself reading The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco in which he describes the difference between what he calls Open and Closed texts. This writing is based around literary theory but quickly becomes a lens through which all art can be viewed.
Here’s a reductive summary:
A closed text is one with a linear, fixed idea of its own meaning which is largely defined and planned by the author to create a clear and fixed idea of meaning in those that read it.
An open text is one with no fixed sense of meaning that in fact creates space for multiple different readings and many different versions of meaning.
A closed text is one that chooses simplicity over ambiguity while an open text prizes the perspective of the reader and their unique idea of what the text means to them.
Eco doesn’t mark one as superior over the other but merely notes that art and artists often decide how open or closed a work of art is when making it. Similarly an audience get to decide how much fixed meaning they impose on a piece or how comfortable they are with ambiguity.
Die Hard is a largely closed text. The Shining is Open.
John Grisham is a closed text. Kafka is Open.
Warhorse is a closed text. The Caretaker is Open.
This of course got me thinking about musical theatre which seems to largely function as a closed form. A lot of major musicals have a very clear narrative, fixed meaning and a clear moral, and seem designed to make the audience feel a certain way. Musicals often seem to actively refute any complexity of meaning or intentional ambiguity. In fact complexity or ambiguity are often read as an example of an individual musical being a failure. People often don’t seem to want musicals to challenge them or unsettle them. They want linearity of meaning. They want a cosy sense of theme, meaning, philosophy, and structure.
I often talk about the work of Caryl Churchill which is structurally audacious, tonally equivocal and morally ambiguous. Her oeuvre is a clear example of open texts. Her plays are capable of being interpreted in a multitude of different ways and there is no single clear sense of meaning but rather a shapeshifting sense of relativistic and comparative meaning that moulds itself to the reader/viewer rather than the work itself.
I often wonder aloud why there aren’t more musicals that remind me of Caryl Churchill’s plays. After all, her work is multilayered, expressive and frankly most of her characters could break into song at any moment without it feeling unjustified. And yet musicals are rarely open texts. And I wonder if this is because the form has got stuck in a rut of closed text after closed text until ambiguity and openness is seen as a mistake rather than a choice.
But maybe the form itself isn’t closed. Perhaps it is audiences and critics who impose and flatten the meanings of musical theatre. Maybe simplistic productions spoon-feed and rationalise the messages and themes of a musical until it is saying only one thing very loudly.
The musical seems to have actively resisted postmodernism. There are of course examples of postmodern musicals but mostly in America; Company, Fun Home, A Strange Loop, In The Green, Soft Power, and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet to name a few seem to signify an occasional acceptance for open text musicals but their rarity is notable, as is works like this near absence in the UK.
Again I wonder if this is because when a musical actively intends to be an open text it is read as a failure. Words like unclear, messy or unfocused are used to describe musicals that I often read as ambiguous, audacious, or complex. Musicals seem to be more widely approved, applauded and accepted when they are morally and narratively straightforward. When they have a message and a meaning that is immediately digestable by audiences paying huge ticket prices.
I will clarify that I think there are two things going on here. More musicals are being made that are closed texts and also the more open a musical is, the more it leaves itself open to being criticised by audiences and critics who feel much more comfortable with musicals as closed texts. Indeed I often notice musicals that are somewhat open being forced to market themselves as closed or find themselves discussed as closed by those who wish them so.
Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation suggests that simplistic interpretation of open texts is something of which we should be suspicious. She was anxious at the thought that critics would close the open with simplistic sloganesque criticism that looked to solve all of a piece’s answers and discover simple answerable meanings in work that was far more complex. She said:
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art…Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world”
I would add that when we are nervous about something’s complexity we tend to wish it would simplify itself rather than immediately place the blame on ourselves. Years of musicals tending to be a certain way have perhaps led to critics and audiences assuming that musicals should be a certain way forever. Moreover these assumptions lead people to presume that some musicals are more closed than they are and make underserved fixed statements about them. As Sontag says later in ‘Against Interpretation’
“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous…By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
Musicals are rarely given the chance to make us nervous, or uncomfortable or balance multiple meanings. In fact even pieces that have multiple meanings and a sense of openness are often told to conform to what seems to be the one true meaning of musical theatre; to give audiences a good night out.
I would ask two things. Firstly that we respect and recognise that writers and makers of musical theatre should be allowed to make more open text musicals if the form is going to flourish, grow and expand. Secondly that criticism and discourse about musicals should wherever possible look to allow musicals as many meanings or complexities as the work itself desires. Or perhaps more.
Why is it that plays at our most prestigious theatres are so often embraced and encouraged to be open texts while musicals are not? As ever, changing our minds might be the best way to give musicals as an art form, the best chance of flourishing.
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