From cinema comes the idea of the auteur: the dominant directorial figure whose individual stamp is on every frame of a piece of film. But although the religious cult of the auteur has been widely attacked – not least by Gore Vidal in a brilliant essay called Who Wrote the Movies? – it is now in danger of spreading to theatre. Certain creative figures, whose endeavours I frequently admire, are in danger of acquiring auteur status. What that means, in effect, is that their individual style and idiosyncratic signature becomes more important than the work itself.
In Britain, the key examples would be Katie Mitchell, Emma Rice of Kneehigh and Simon McBurney of Complicite. Internationally, Robert Wilson also fits the title. And let me say at once that I have often been astounded and impressed by their work. Mitchell did the best production of Ibsen's Ghosts I've ever seen. Rice's famous version of Coward's Brief Encounter shifted the interest away from the tight-lipped lovers to the working-class subplot. And McBurney is a brilliant innovator as proved by Complicite's Mnemonic that explored the nature of memory.
What worries me is the awed reverence of their followers and the tendency of a highly personal style to harden into a rigid mannerism. Katie Mitchell, as anyone who saw Waves, Attempts On Her Life or her recent Dostoyevsky adaptation, ...Some Trace of Her, at the National will know, is fascinated by the interaction between film and live performance: an avenue she'll be exploring again this week in After Dido at the Young Vic. It is right that theatre should acknowledge the existence of cinema. What few people seem to be asking is whether Mitchell's curiosity is turning into an obsession and whether it illuminates the work in question. Rice has also forged a distinct identity by taking musical or movie classics – everything from Tristan and Isolde and Don Juan to A Matter of Life and Death – and jovially deconstructing them. Sometimes it works: sometimes it doesn't. But how much longer, I wonder, can Rice go on feeding off the classical canon?
The danger of the auteur theory is twofold. It creates idols who, to their acolytes, can do no wrong. In cinema this reached the point of absurdity when, as Kenneth Tynan once pointed out, a trivial escapade like Man's Favourite Sport? was treated as a masterpiece simply because it was directed by Howard Hawks. I see the same trend developing in theatre. The other danger is that the interpreter becomes bigger than the thing interpreted. Or, to put it more bluntly, that the director takes precedence over the writer. And, if you want an example of where that can lead, you only have to look at the sterility of post-war German theatre which is dominated by star directors and starved of great dramatists.
All I suggest is that we proceed with caution. In cinema the elevation of the director to cult-status, and the consequent downgrading of the writer, has led, most obviously in Hollywood, to a growing sense of artistic bankruptcy. Theatre, in Britain at least, is more level-headed and still places the dramatist at the heart of the creative process. I just hope that continues and that the director is seen as a necessary interpreter rather than as an icon to be devoutly worshipped.