Thursday, 22 May 2014

Postcard from Perth 23

Adapt or Die

Julian Meyrick’s recent Platform Paper The Retreat of Our National Drama includes an extended attack on theatrical adaptations. An edited extract appeared last Saturday in The Weekend Australian Review section under the heading ‘Our History Repeating’. The article was announced by a front-page banner: ‘History Repeating – Theatre’s Divisive Adaptation Debate Rages On’. 

In fact Julian’s paper had already made online news earlier last week, reported on Arts Hub (‘Australian Product Missing from Our Theatres’ and ‘Why We Need A National Theatre in Canberra’) and in Daily Review (‘The Dramas of Australian Drama: How Much Is Enough?’). The sound of drums and fifes was unmistakable – reflected in terms like ‘retreat’, ‘our national drama’, ‘our history’, ‘divisive debates’, ‘Australian product’ and even ‘a national theatre’. 

To be fair, not all of this is attributable to Julian himself, so I decided to read his entire paper before formulating a response. The first thing that hit me was the opening Henry Miller quote: ‘Genius is that which will not adapt.’

Ok, so the gloves were off after all.

For the record, I regard Julian as a friend and colleague, a fine director/dramaturg and a thoughtful and conscientious historian and commentator who has made a singular contribution to contemporary theatre in Australia over the last twenty years. However, I feel he’s barking up the wrong tree when he singles out adaptation as the source or even the symptom of all our theatrical ills.

Under the general term ‘adaptation’ Julian includes adaptations of non-theatrical material (which he calls ‘medium-to-medium adaptations’); adaptations of existing plays (perhaps the most contentious current practice, if the furore over Simon Stone’s recent work is anything to go by); changes of historical setting (‘period-to-period adaptations’); and translations (‘language-to-language adaptations’). From my point of view, only the first two really invite the term ‘adaptation’ because they result in a new play; a change of historical setting is largely a matter of stage design, costumes, props and the odd textual emendation, while a translation is – just that.

I therefore found the first chapter of his paper (‘The Adaptive Mentality’) on the history of adaptation in the context of post-colonial Australia intriguing, if somewhat selective. In particular, the ‘adaptations’ by J.C. Williamson he cites were essentially remounts of international productions with local cultural references and supporting actors inserted, rather than what I would call original adaptations of existing texts, theatrical or otherwise.

More profoundly, however, I disagree with the fundamental ‘split’ he identifies between (on the one hand) ‘the adaptive mentality’, an emphasis on ‘directing skill’ and the effects of the cultural cringe, and (on the other hand) the nurturing of ‘playwriting talent’ in the service of ‘new plays’ and the development of ‘Australian drama’ (including film, TV and digital media as well as theatre).

Underlying this construct are historically determined notions of originality, authorship and a literary or text-based ‘drama’ (as opposed to a presumably more visual or stage-based ‘theatre’); methodological presuppositions about how drama or theatre actually get made (or should get made); political and ideological assumptions about what words like ‘national’ or ‘Australian’ might mean; and a philosophical aesthetics that defines a work of art as something that speaks, in order then to prioritize its ‘content’ or ‘substance’ (what the work ‘has to say’) over its ‘expression’ or ‘form’ (‘how it says it’).

It’s worth quoting Julian at some length to get the measure of his ontological and indeed moral commitment to the dominant role of language in drama. ‘For all the much-vaunted advances in mixed-media performance there is nothing like saying it. Words retain their dominant hold over our fund of knowledge and experience. Indeed, the core of the adaptation issue is a dispute about which words on our stages we should be hearing.’ The claim to verbal priority (in every sense) could not be clearer. And later: ‘Language says things, committing those who open their mouths to its specific propositions…We know things in drama with clarity and force because they are expressed in words…This makes drama a serious public art form, a shaper of manners and morals, a way a society talks to itself in the night, and beyond the night.’

Leaving aside the peculiarly self-enclosed circularity of the last image ('the way a society talks to itself'), one might question the narrowly prescriptive role here assigned not only to drama in society ('a shaper of manners and morals'), but also to speech and language in performance ('language says things, committing those who open their mouths to its specific propositions'). At the risk of stating the obvious: there’s a difference between what actors (or characters) say onstage, what a play might (or might not) ‘say’ to its audience, and what (if anything) either has to do with ‘knowledge’ or ‘morals’. Words spoken onstage can’t simply be reduced to their epistemic, moral or ideological content In short: they’re lines in a play. As in all art, language in theatre is always placed in quotation marks, framed or indeed ‘staged’ – i.e. performed and presented for contemplation rather than direct communication. This is after all what makes dramatic irony possible.

Perhaps it’s worth noting here that the Greek word drama comes from the verb dran meaning ‘to do or act’; while theatron is derived from theasthai, meaning ‘to behold’. Doing and seeing, then, are at least as fundamental as speaking when it comes to the origins of Western drama.  The German word for ‘play’, Schauspiel (literally ‘show-play’ or ‘game of showing’), reflects this complex ontology, which has important implications for the role of the script in performance, as well as for the alleged priority of dramatic text over theatrical interpretation. At the very least it suggests that there is no simple hierarchy or causal relationship between them.

This also applies to the relationship between a so-called ‘original’ text (theatrical or otherwise) and its adaptation. In brief: no text (dramatic or otherwise) can be said to be purely original; every text (and certainly every production) is always an adaptation of something that pre-exists it (text or pre-text, as the case may be). The Greeks adapted their myths to the medium of the stage; Shakespeare adapted his plays from previous works or chronicles written by others; Moliere adapted his from the stereotypical plots, characters and routines of the Italian commedia. The ‘adaptive mentality’ is nothing new, or uniquely Australian.

To be sure, in the nineteenth century – with the advent of Romanticism, the rise of the bourgeois individual, the cult of the artist as genius, and the fusion of their work and life into a single, indissoluble substance – the image of the playwright was infused with interrelated notions of originality, authorship and property, becoming fons et origo of ‘the play’ – the latter now conceived first and foremost as a work of ‘literature’ (a conception reinforced by the rise of textual scholarship and literary history during the same era). Is it not however safe to say that this ‘age of the author’ is now at an end – or at least to suggest that the author-function is now one that is shared by all those involved in the making and ongoing life of a work, from its initial and possibly unconscious inspiration through the various stages of its realization to its unknowable and perhaps even infinite future? A play is not a Platonic idea in the mind of some authorial God, but exists only as realized in space and time, according to the Aristotelian principle of instantiation. And where would this be more clearly in evidence than in the intrinsically collaborative and interpretative world of the stage?


The first great theatrical adaptation I saw was Peter Brook’s Mahabharata; while certainly the work of a great director, it was also the work of a great company of actors (not to mention writer Jean-Claude Carrière and a masterful creative team). Around the same time I saw Théatre de Complicité’s spectacular adaptation of John Berger’s story The Three Lives of Lucie Chabrol. Similarly epic in scope if more conventional in theatrical language were the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby and Shared Experience’s War and Peace. More recent companies from overseas whose adaptations toured to Australia and had a profound impact on me include Elevator Repair Service (Gatz, The Sun Also Rises) and Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Opening Night, The Roman Tragedies).

Put simply, some of these works redefined the boundaries of what I thought was possible in theatre. I’m not saying that ‘new plays’ can’t do this too: in the history of modern drama, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett stand out as playwrights who revolutionized the art of the stage. But in the context of contemporary performance, there’s something about the adaptation of non-theatrical material that stretches and breaks with traditional theatrical forms. In this sense, at least, adaptation is not about returning to the past but about finding a future.

My own early efforts at adaptation were more modest, at least to begin with. With my fellow collaborators in Whistling in the Theatre, we launched ourselves in the mid-1980s in Melbourne with a version of the H.G. Wells short story The Country of the Blind; later productions included The Secret Garden, Frankenstein, The Woman in the Attic (based on Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea) and (more ambitiously) The 1001 Nights. As dramaturg-in-residence at Theatreworks in the early 90s, I co-wrote and performed in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and co-devised a chamber version (or ‘perversion’ as we called it) of Verdi’s Rigoletto (partially inspired by Peter Brook’s adaptation of Carmen).

After I moved to Perth in 2000 and co-founded Last Seen Imagining with Sophia Hall, together we adapted Will Self’s novella Cock and Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader at The Blue Room. And since forming my current company Night Train, I’ve written and performed adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ and ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’, Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and (most recently) Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish. As a jobbing writer for other companies, I’ve also written adaptations of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (Spare Parts Puppet Theatre), Andersen’s The Red Shoes (Matt Lutton’s Thin Ice) and Robert Drewe’s Grace (Deckchair Theatre), among others. So it’s fair to say that for me adaptation has become something of a stock-in-trade.

In the second section of Julian’s paper (ambitiously titled ‘How Drama Works’) the discussion becomes more nuanced as Julian discusses the principles of dramaturgy in general and acknowledges that ‘talking in this way narrows the distance between new play scripts and classic adaptations’. However the gap soon widens again: ‘At every point along the development curve, adapted play scripts offer easier choices than new ones…having their essential nature fixed beforehand…straightens the path of their development…new scripts mount a challenge to the parameters of the art form…adaptations do this rarely…where classic adaptations dominate, capacity for risk diminishes…

One wonders what examples Julian has in mind here. Surely not the work of Peter Brook or Théatre de Complicité – or, moving closer to home, the classical adaptations of Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright, Daniel Schlusser or Simon Stone (especially Thyestes and The Wild Duck). All these works and artists in my view ‘mount a challenge to the parameters of the art form’ – and indeed to the notion of their source materials having any ‘essential nature fixed beforehand’. In any case, they could hardly be described as risk-averse. Moreover, their originality asserts itself regardless of whether they are adaptations of existing theatrical or non-theatrical texts.

Perhaps from a marketing perspective there’s less risk in adapting a ‘known’ text or author than an unknown one – though this is debatable even in the case of Shakespeare or Ibsen (both names that can easily frighten audiences away), let alone Seneca or Ovid. In any case, the same considerations apply to the marketing of any ‘known’ quantity, including directors and actors – whose names have always been at least as important as playwrights in terms of attracting audiences. This is less an argument against adaptation than against marketing per se, which by its very nature always trades the ‘known’ against the unknown.

In my own case, I go and see work on the basis of the artists or company involved, either because I know their work or because someone has recommended it. Whether it’s an adaptation or not is largely irrelevant to me as an audience member. In fact the ‘content’ as such is largely irrelevant – or at least, ‘knowing’ about it in advance. For me the ‘content’ of a work is the meaning or force of what happens onstage (and in my mind) rather than something that pre-exists my experience of it in performance.

In the same vein, the mode of production of a work – whether it’s text-based, director-led, ensemble-driven, devised or collaborative – is also largely irrelevant to me as an audience-member (though as an artist of course I have my own preferred way of working). Here again I see Julian’s dichotomy between a drama based on ‘playwriting talent’ and a theatre based on ‘directorial skill’ as false and reductive. Of course these are two different forms of talent and skill among others in the theatre-making process. But in my view, there’s no hierarchy of values.


The third section of Julian’s paper (‘Adapting Ourselves to Death: My Story’) deals with his own experience as a dramaturg, director and advocate for the development of plays and playwrights. Here I’m in broad agreement about the importance of writers and the failure by companies and funding bodies to adequately support them or their work (although a similar story could be told about actors and other artists in general, including directors – notwithstanding the individual success, marketing and celebrity of certain ‘name’ artists, which owes as much to the cult of youth, personality, fortune and circumstance as it does to indubitable talent).

As Julian also acknowledges, this general failure to support and develop artists, plays and productions occurs in a broader cultural context. ‘In a society drowning in information, Australian theatre reinvents itself in a register of reassurance…its repertoire known and predictable…an exhausted art form for an exhausted age, glorifying in flourish, strut, tribute, spectacle, spin, self-reference, imitation; a theatre forgetting about the world even as that world forgets about theatre’. For me this grim picture portrays the state of culture and politics around the world in an age dominated by global capital and permeated by information technology. In theatre it applies to form just as much as content, and attempting to prioritize or police the latter by insisting on ‘Australian plays’ or ‘Australian stories’ is ultimately as reactionary as any other form of identity politics. To resist the homogenizing effects of the culture industry, we need to encourage diversity and experimentation rather than battening down the hatches or drawing lines in the sand.


The final chapter of Julian’s paper (‘A New Cultural Conversation’) advocates for a ‘national theatre’ – specifically a National Theatre of Australia, based in Canberra. Interestingly this finds a parallel in recent calls for a National Indigenous Theatre, and for me raises many of the same problems.  Leaving aside the details of how such an organization would operate, where it might be most effectively located, or what precisely would be its mission, I simply want to question the use of terms like ‘national’ or ‘Australian’.

Personally I prefer to talk about ‘local’ rather than ‘national’ artists or work, and leave questions of nationality to customs officers and border controls. For me the term ‘local’ refers to the idea of place – where artists live and work, or where work gets made – whereas ‘national’ has connotations about the body-politic (a ‘nation’ being more of a binding idea than a geographical location) and historically always implies definitions and delimitations about content.

The use of the term ‘Australian’ in this context makes me particularly uneasy – as it does when used by politicians in order to divide or discriminate between who or what qualifies as ‘Australian’. Again, I’m comfortable with the idea of ‘Australia’ as the name of a place where people who live, work or make work can call themselves or that work ‘Australian’, if they so choose. I’m less comfortable with the content of that work or the identity of those people being defined as ‘Australian’ or ‘foreign’ (an unfortunate and polarizing term Julian uses occasionally his paper) on the basis of genealogy or heritage. At the risk of sounding trite: we all come from somewhere, and bring our stories with us. Theatre is a place where we can share those stories – and hopefully share our common humanity in the process.

To return to the example of Shakespeare: his plays are surely no less ‘English’ because they are mostly adaptations, or are mostly set in exotic locations. What gives them local and universal significance –both ‘currency’ and ‘cachet’ to use another of Julian’s distinctions – is their attunement to a specific time and place (cosmopolitan London in the Elizabethan age) in terms of language, characterization and theatrical form. We can’t artificially recreate those qualities or conditions today, and nor should we try. What we can do is to continue making work that is true to ourselves and our world.

To blame adaptations for the shortcomings in our theatre is to bury our heads in the sand, to become fixated on parochial notions of content and identity, to invite irrelevance and even risk extinction. On the contrary: if it is to survive as an art form, theatre must continue to adapt, or die.

No comments:

Post a Comment