Opinion: Time for Mockingbird to Fly Away

MokingBirdCrossHairIf you follow theater news, you’ve probably been made aware of several cancelled productions of To Kill a Mockingbird, including one in Massachusetts, due to super-producer Scott Rudin claiming that these productions were in violation of an agreement that Rudin made with the Harper Lee estate in regard to Rudin’s Broadway version, which is written by Aaron Sorkin.

It’s a little thorny, and no matter how many times I read Rudin’s argument, the word “bullshit” keeps popping up in my head, but I’ll do my best to explain it while also acknowledging that I find this whole thing pretty dubious.

There’s a version of Mockingbird that’s widely done, written by Christopher Sergel, and that is the version all these smaller theaters were producing. Rudin is essentially saying that, “Yes, you may have made an agreement with Dramatic Publishing Company to produce that version, but you have to produce it under guidelines that we created with the Harper Lee estate, even though you probably weren’t made aware of these guidelines by DPC because who the hell reads the fine print on stuff like this?” Rudin has made the brilliant PR decision to shut down all these amateur productions, presumably because he feels like these smaller companies and their work pose a threat to his big, giant, Broadway show that you can’t even get a ticket to, and his recent solution to allow these groups to put on his version of the show has been reported by some media outlets as, you know, cool and generous, when really, it’s mostly hollow and self-serving, because most of these groups have torn down their sets and the ones that haven’t would still have to re-rehearse what is, essentially, a brand new show.

One has to wonder what the logic was in doing all this, and because I can’t get inside the mind of Scott Rudin, that’s not really what this piece is going to be about. Instead, I’d like to ask the following question, which has already been asked and discussed by much smarter people than me, but nevertheless:

Why did Broadway need a new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and why did Aaron Sorkin have to be the one to write it when he made it pretty clear that his only way into a story like that would be to pivot it away from being the young female protagonist and focus instead of her father, Atticus, even more so than the original work did?

And not to kick these theaters when they’re down, but:

Why are so many theaters doing To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place?

It’s one of my favorite books and a damn good movie, but the Sergel version is clumsy at best, and usually when a theater does it, it’s not so much in an effort to have a conversation about race, but because it’s a money grab that will invariably sell out, because people want to watch their niece play Mayella.

Rudin is, unquestionably, a bully, and I hope the theaters who got their productions shut down by him tell him to take his offer and shove it, but I also hope they use this as an opportunity to dig deeper when it comes to choosing shows for their season and explore more contemporary work that looks at some of the same issues, or even — gasp — a new play. This entire mini-scandal seems so lurid, mostly because Lee was reported to be very unwell toward the end of her life, with people in her estate making questionable decisions on her behalf, including the publication of a Mockingbird sequel that is bad even as far as sequels go.

I should mention that I have a pretty extreme view when it comes to things like copyright and feel that once the creator of a work dies, everything they’ve done should go into the public domain immediately, but that’s made me the target of many a comments section. This isn’t one of those situations that’s going to have a happy ending, and Rudin’s intent seems to be, at least partly, that the Sorkin version permanently replace the Sergel version from here on in.  It’s reasonable to ask why DPS isn’t stepping up to defend these smaller companies instead of allowing Rudin to push them around.

Either way, I think it is time we retire Mockingbird from the theater for a while.  As a novel, it has few equals, but as a play, it never really matched the magnitude of its source material.

I guess in some cases, there really are no substitutions.

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