Stage directions matter to those who write them, otherwise why bother with them, and they can be a help to those staging plays. Shaw’s stage directions read like novels in their own right. They even detail the pictures that should be hanging on the walls. What would Pinter’s plays be like if the pauses were simply ignored? Great Aunt Cecily thinks very much like an episode of EastEnders.
A great stage direction can push the story on. In your question you quote quite possibly the most famous stage direction in all drama, certainly in Shakespeare. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” from the Winter’s Tale is a corker. It supplies a brilliant end of act cliff-hanger and moves the action forward. It’s the same with Peter Shaffer’s famed “they cross the Andes” from Royal Hunt of the Sun. Interestingly, what was considered tricky in 1964 would present little problem to today’s directors and designers skilled in theatre’s visual and physical possibilities. It’s a sign that theatre culture does move on, however glacially.
I have lots of favourite stage directions, from the immortal “Madonna on a swing. Her breast cancer shines like the sun,” in Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine, to Terry Johnson’s Hysteria which includes the gem: “Freud picks up the telephone. It turns into a lobster.”
The best stage directions aren’t orders, instead they offer the possibility for creative invention. I’ve seen “exit, pursued by a bear” done in dozens of different ways, including puppetry and projection and in one case merely by sound effects. The same is true for Caryl Churchill’s Far Away which includes the stage direction: “A procession of ragged, beaten, chained prisoners, each wearing a hat, on the way to execution.” So much of the play is distilled in that stage direction and no matter how many times I’ve seen Far Away, the moment always chills.
But should stage directions really be treated as if they are set in stone? Some argue that if you ignore the stage directions you are ignoring the playwright’s vision. Indeed, the estates of some late playwrights including Samuel Beckett have sometimes acted like fully paid-up members of the stage direction Stasi. Fortunately, that is showing signs of shifting, and there is a much greater understanding that a script is but one part of a collaborative process. Many contemporary playwrights have largely dispensed with stage directions all together.
As Simon Stephens once told me when we were discussing his script for A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, “A play script is not a prescription. It’s a starting gesture that may lead to a night in the theatre that forces everyone involved, including the audience, to be at their most imaginative.”
Sarah Kane’s stage directions demand plagues of rats and fields of daffodils. Like Shaffer in Royal Hunt of the Sun, she didn’t think it was up to her how her stage directions were realised. “I’m glad it’s not my problem,” she said in an interview about the rats running off with dismembered limbs in Cleansed.
Which seems to me the point of stage directions: at their best they don’t limit but rather offer an open and expansive invitation to creative teams and audiences to bring their imagination to bear. On the bear, or indeed the rats.