Written By Jennifer Smith
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “Death on a Pale Horse.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Elvis lives, Jesus saves, and some of history’s most enduring tales refuse to die.
As for the creators of those tales, that’s a different story altogether. Ultimately, our favorite artists, writers, musicians, etc. will eventually meet their end. Still, part of the appeal of becoming a great artist is the potential to leave behind a legacy through the survival of your work. It’s a common desire, fulfilled more often through having and raising children than creating art.
But in terms of surviving ideas, it’s worth noting that even though the work remains, the way in which we interpret the work will be forever changed after the creator has passed, and not just because of the changing times. In some cases, the death itself casts a long shadow over how we interpret the work. In others, the work takes on even greater meaning.
Here’s a brief look at some of the legacies left behind in works of art only published after the creator’s death.
The Empire Strikes Back and Leigh Brackett
Though there are tons of posthumous works, ranging from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, to John Lennon’s hit singles “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels,” to the blockbuster Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, Leigh Brackett’s work might be the best place to start in the context of BTR’s current Sequel Week.
According to her obituary, Brackett succumbed to cancer in 1978. As a science fiction writer, she published over 200 stories, but also delved into screenwriting for Westerns, making her a perfect fit to write the Star Wars sequel.
Still, Brackett’s contribution to the final product, The Empire Strikes Back we all know and love, is still hotly debated to this day. Legend has it that Brackett delivered a first draft to George Lucas that “went in a completely different direction” than he intended. After she died, Lucas gave her credit despite the drastic changes that were made to the script because he “liked her a lot.”
Brackett’s draft, which was once only accessible at the Jack Williamson Special Collections library at Eastern Mexico University or at the archives at Lucasfilm, Ltd. In California, has since surfaced on the Internet.
How much influence did Brackett have over one of film’s most beloved sequels? You be the judge.
In any case, Brackett earned her place in film history long before Star Wars came her way with her work on classics like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo.
4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane
Kane’s obituary reads: “Sarah Kane was a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility who created a theatre of great moments of beauty and cruelty, a theatre to which it was only possible to respond with a sense of awe.”
When Kane exploded onto the scene with her first play, Blasted, critics didn’t know exactly what to make of her. The play dealt with both beauty and brutality, incorporating scenes depicting anal rape and cannibalism to convey the latter. In his now infamous review of the play, Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail called Blasted a “disgusting piece of filth.”
Still, by the time of her death in February of 1999, Kane became known as one of “the big three” of In-Yer-Face theatre, according to Aleks Sierz, who coined the term for this shocking, abrasive and decidedly vulgar brand of drama in his book, In-Yer-Face Theatre.
In the introduction of Kane’s collected plays, David Grieg writes of 4:48 Psychosis, “perhaps uniquely painful in that it appears to have been written in the almost certain knowledge that it would be performed posthumously.”
Indeed, Kane wrote her final play from the dregs of a deep depression, making the play’s references to depression, suicide, medication, and self-harm all the more biting.
4:48 Psychosis was only performed after Kane’s suicide. Although her whole body of work has since received much acclaim, the shadow of her death still hangs over 4:48 Psychosis, indelibly linked with this deeply personal play.
Michael Billington of The Guardian asks: “how do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?” before resolving that “what this play proves is that her death was every bit as uncompromising as her creative life.”
Every Thing on It by Shel Silverstein
To end on a somewhat cheerful note, Shel Silverstein’s illustrious career of writing strange but endearing children’s books didn’t end with his death in 1999. In September of 2011, twelve years after his death, the world got a new batch of quirky poems and drawings from Shel Silverstein titled Every Thing On It.
According to his obituary, Shel Silverstein enjoyed a diverse career as a cartoonist, playwright, singer and songwriter, but we might know him best as “Uncle Shelby,” a master of children’s literature right up there with the likes of Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne.
In October 2011, Silverstein was further immortalized by the likes of Andrew Bird, Dr. Dog, and other indie artists paying homage to his songwriting with the tribute album Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein.
If you remember the final pages of The Giving Tree, a classic tale of growing up by Shel Silverstein, the lesson is that even in absence, the things we love can continue to give us warmth, hope, and inspiration.
Such is the life of many cherished works of art.