Putting Classic Literature on StageCliffsNotes or Cliffhanger?
By Thomas Hischak
Thomas Hischak Thomas Hischak is a professor of Theatre at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He has adapted many classics for the stage, several of which are published by Pioneer Drama Service. He is also the author of 17 books on theatre, film and popular music, including the textbook “Theatre as Human Action” and “The Oxford Companion to American Theatre,” now in its third edition. His works can be found at amazon.com. His latest play with Pioneer Drama, Awakening: The Story of Kip Van Winkle, just came out this month and is a modern adaptation of the Rip Van Winkle story.
“I never read the book, but I saw the movie.”
How many times have you heard that? Sometimes it seems people know the great literary classics from the stage, film or television versions rather than from reading the original. Everyone knows “Les Miserables,” “Oliver Twist,” “Pride and Prejudice” and other classics, but is their knowledge from the novel? More likely not. Since the theatre is so much older than movies and television, stage versions of classics have been around for a long time. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a bestselling novel but it was also the most produced play in America in the 19th century. There were dozens of stage versions of “Christmas Carol” within weeks of the publication of Dickens’ original novella. And it seems both Hollywood and Broadway are returning to the classics more than ever, making Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain and even Homer more visible than ever. Is this a good thing? Can a stage version of a classic do it justice? Are we enlightening our audiences or short-changing them?
Most would agree that a theatre production allows characters and dialogue to come alive in ways not possible on the page. While your imagination might soar reading a great literary work, there is a different kind of thrill that comes with seeing the story enacted on stage. Novels and short stories are usually written in the past tense; books tells us what happened. But a play is in the present tense; it is happening now right before our eyes. To read about the ghost of Jacob Marley and how he haunted Scrooge is very different from seeing the ghost on stage and watching the events as they unfold. Better? Not necessarily. But very different.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why literary classics can be so effective on stage.
1. Once upon a time: Story
While many modern classics may not emphasize plot as much as character, the great literary works of the past were story-driven. From the epic poems of Homer to the intricate and complex novels of Charles Dickens, what happened in the plot was essential. These works had great stories to tell and, regardless of all new trends over the centuries, story is still one of the theatre’s most appealing aspects. The plot of “The Odyssey” or “Great Expectations” might have to be simplified and edited for the stage, but each still has a rousing good story to tell that is riveting to audiences. There is usually a “What’s going to happen next?” reaction to great literary works and this attitude is only increased when the tales are performed on stage. Even when the story is not epic in length, there is usually plenty of story to make an engrossing play. The short stories of O. Henry are brief but still plot-driven. In a short time, O. Henry creates suspense and tops each tale with a famous twist. Adaptations of The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi work on stage because O. Henry still knows how to grab an audience.
Sometimes the story is so familiar to the audience that one wonders how it can sustain the interest of the spectators. But Mr. Scrooge’s Christmas (my version of “A Christmas Carol”) is all the more fun because the audience already knows and loves the story. It is the same reason young and young-at-heart audiences continue to view stage adaptations of famous fairy tales. Familiarity of plot can be as potent as not knowing what is going to happen next.
2. Speak the speech: Dialogue
The way people have conversed over the centuries has changed radically, yet good dialogue is still good dialogue. In some literary works, the adaptor must alter, simplify or even recreate dialogue for the stage because the original piece is written in an archaic format that is sometimes strange to our ears. Other times the conversations just jump off the page and sound as vital and alluring as they did in the past. Dialogue in Homer tends to be formal, wordy and (depending on the translation) unconversationally poetic. Yet Dickens’ dialogue is still funny, heartbreaking and very conversational. When I adapted such beloved classics as “Jane Eyre” and “Little Women,” there were scenes that sounded theatrical and alive, while other sections of dialogue were too stiff and unnatural for modern audiences. O. Henry’s dialogue sparkles, but often there are references to people or things that are not known to spectators today. Many stage adaptations use narrators or have one of the characters serve as a spokesman because the original author’s commentary is too delightful to miss. Other times such narrators are used to keep a complex plot moving or to summarize events and emotions that are difficult to stage. But in a good stage version of a classic, the original’s author’s tone and persona should be very much alive.
3. Unforgettable people: Character
Ebeneezer Scrooge, Jo March, David Copperfield, Cinderella, Odysseus and their like are among the most fascinating characters ever created by writers. That fascination is not limited to the page, and people who intrigue us in books can often thrill us even more when portrayed by actors on the stage. Theatre adaptations must strive to bring such literary figures to life, being accurate to the original and yet taking a definite approach to characterization. Just as there are many ways to play Hamlet, Oedipus or Henry Higgins, there must be as many choices when putting a non-theatrical original character in a play. Literary classics abound with memorable characters, and it is the job of the adaptor and the actors to be true to that memory yet create new memories. Reading about people who lived and died long ago can be enthralling; but seeing characters from a distant time come alive on stage can be even more vivid. Larger than life characters can seem even larger when portrayed on the stage.
4. Familiarity breeds content: Name recognition
Finally, it cannot be denied that audiences often recognize the titles and/or authors of great literary pieces, even if they are not very familiar with them. A classic title or a famous author still has marquee value and spectators instinctively know that this is a famous and worthwhile work. One may not remember much about Huckleberry Finn, but the presence of Mark Twain’s name promises adventure and humor. Great Expectations may only be a title to some, yet most will recognize the title and Dickens’ name and suspect there must be something to it.
Seeing a classic on stage is less daunting than picking up the thick novel, and the result is usually a pleasant surprise when one encounters it in a theatre. So is a stage adaptation merely a CliffsNotes version of a classic, or a new and revealing work of its own? It depends on the production. Did it thrill? Did it intrigue? Did it bring you places that you had not been before? Great books are supposed to do that. Sometimes theatre can too.
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