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Postcard from Perth: on theatrical adaptation and Julian Meyrick

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 have 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 revolutionised 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.

It was therefore with some interest that I read Julian Meyrick’s recent attack on adaptation in his Platform Paper The Retreat of Our National Drama. An edited extract appeared recently in The Australian 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 20 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.

In his introduction, Julian distinguishes between adaptations of non-theatrical material (which he calls ‘medium-to-medium adaptations’); adaptations of existing plays (currently the most contentious form, if the furore over Simon Stone’s 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 potentially 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 it seems 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’ (which includes 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 ‘says’) over its ‘expression’ or ‘form’ (‘how it says it’).

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’. Seeing and doing, then, are at least as fundamental as speaking and hearing when it comes to the origins of Western drama. This has important implications for the role of the script in the context of 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 an ‘original’ text (theatrical or otherwise) and its adaptation.

No text (dramatic or otherwise) can be said to be truly 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.

In the second chapter of Julian’s paper (ambitiously titled ‘How Drama Works’) the discussion becomes more nuanced as he 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: ‘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 his ground-breaking Thyestes or 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.

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 of course as an artist 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 chapter 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, control 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 organisation 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 polarising term Julian uses occasionally in 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’re 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 notions of content and identity, to invite irrelevance and even risk extinction.

If theatre is to survive as an art form, it must continue to adapt, or die.

Disclaimer: Humphrey’s adaptation of Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish is currently playing at the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre of WA. He has written or co-devised (and in many cases directed or performed in) numerous adaptations over the last 20 years.

5 responses to “Postcard from Perth: on theatrical adaptation and Julian Meyrick

  1. Dear Ingle

    I agree: innovation and tradition are interdependent; we need both.

    Perhaps we also need to rethink the whole form/content polarity. Hjelmslev for example prefers to speak of expression/content as distinct from form/substance: the former being properly semiological terms, the latter perhaps more ontological. More importantly, perhaps we need to remember that the terms are always interdependent: content doesn’t exist without being expressed, all matter is formed; and conversely, all expression has content, and form is a precipitate of substance (as Hegel wisely pointed out). So perhaps I for one have spoken too hastily of prioritising one over the other.

    Best, Humph

  2. Humphrey,
    Where does it come from, the theatres’ preoccupation with the “risky, edgy and innovative”? I don’t think we look for it so obsessively in film or TV.
    I wonder if it’s related to your earlier delineation between “theatre” and “drama”. The industry calls itself by the former rather than the latter and tends to assume that dramatic narrative is merely a branch of aesthetics rather than an equal partner in the enterprise. Consequently, aesthetic innovation (in spite of your claim that there is no hierarchy of values) is prioritised over dramaturgical innovation.
    More generally, doesn’t calling something an innovation suggest that something new is being established? But if everything artistic always has to be innovative when can anything get established? Doesn’t culture grow best out of a fair fight between the traditional and the new?
    I wonder if the reason the Australian Theatre brand is such a turnoff to so many of us stems from a desperation to be risky, edgy and innovative, which, when pursued for its own sake, leads to pretension and self-righteousness.
    Fond regards,

  3. Humphrey,
    First of all, taking Henry Miller’s quote literally and using it to flog poor old Julian Meyrick to a pulp, while it’s a nifty ploy, doesn’t seem fair to me. Yes, Shakespeare adapted other peoples’ stuff but you can’t seriously suggest that his plays weren’t original (in the common use of the word rather than your relativist, meta-textual deconstruction which virtually drains it of any meaning at all).

    You represent Dr Meyrick as objecting to any and all adaptations. As far as I can tell, he isn’t. He is simply calling for more balance. He suggests the imbalance is caused by risk aversion and Australian theatre consequently “forgetting about the world even as that world forgets about theatre.”

    You suggest that this retreat from the world is a global problem, the universal consequence of “global capital and information technology”. However, I think you will find that Europe and America have, per capita, more theatres, theatre companies and theatrical activity than we do on this continent. A friend of mine recently had his new script workshopped in Washington DC (no one here would touch it) where, he assured me, within the precincts of that one city, there are more than 20 healthy theatre companies in constant activity, many of them working with brand new scripts.

    True, adaptations can look risky. Simon Stone has received a bit of flak for his, but only within the cosy confines of the theatre establishment. Let’s face it, radical theatrical innovation might be fascinating for theatre luvvies like us but to the majority of punters it just looks like more theatre with its head up its arse. In the last four days the only response to your article has been from one of Crikey’s own critics. That’s not your fault. Your argument, as always, is salient, engaging and elegantly made. The reason is because Dr Meyrick is right, audiences are losing interest because the theatre doesn’t seem interested in them. And I think that’s because your attitude that content (story) is irrelevant is the dominant orthodoxy in contemporary Australian theatre.

    A bit more locally written substantive content in our main auditoriums, produced with dazzling theatricality, might remind audiences that theatre does speak to them, as well as having fascinating ways of saying it. Surely, theatre/drama is at its best when form and content struggle together to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. That’s when things really get risky.

    1. Dear Ingle

      In friendly response:

      1. Julian set himself up with that quote. If he didn’t mean it literally, what exactly did he expect us to understand by placing it at the head of his paper? I didn’t mean to flog him to a pulp – just to provide what I saw as a much-needed corrective to the recent ‘flogging’ of adaptations that’s been going on, especially in the pages of The Australian.

      2. My point about Shakespeare is precisely that he WAS both original AND wrote adaptations. I certainly didn’t intend to water down the meaning of originality by being relativist, meta-textual or deconstructive (although admittedly perhaps I’m a bit more of a poststructuralist than you are!). It’s true however that I do see originality as a relative rather than an absolute thing. In particular I see Shakespeare’s originality primarily (but not exclusively) in terms of form rather than content (at least in terms of subject-matter if not in meaning or significance). In this regard, see my recent post on Black Swan’s AS YOU LIKE IT.

      3. I agree that Europe and the US have more theatres (and more audiences) than we do. However I don’t think this has anything to do with the adaptation issue. Rather I think the primary cause is that as a culture we simply don’t invest in the arts on a comparable level to Europe or the US (the former in terms of public funding, the latter in terms of private and corporate patronage and sponsorship). I do also think our indifference to theatre is exacerbated by globalisation and information technology, which makes overseas product (principally from the US) that can increasingly be consumed at home and on personal devices the preferred mode of entertainment. This needless to say is a challenge not just to theatre but to the live experience of art and indeed social life generally.

      4. I also agree that much contemporary theatre (in Australia and elsewhere) is disengaged from the concerns of audiences. However, I don’t think this is about the prevalence of adaptations or a preoccupation with form over content. Most people I know (including my kids) are not interested in ‘Australian content’; in fact the label ‘Australian’ in any context (film, music, TV) turns them off (as it does me too). What turns them on is risky, edgy, innovative work (in terms of form AND content) – regardless of where it originates from.

      5. As theatre-makers of course you and I both want to see more of that work made here. And I think we’re in agreement that we want it to deliver the goods in terms of form AND content (at least in the sense of ‘content’ as ’substance’, ‘meaning’ or ’significance’). I just don’t think that content (in the sense of ‘subject-matter’) needs to be defined or restricted in terms of its provenance.

      Best wishes


  4. Absolutely agree that it’s a shame that much of Meyrick’s paper is directed at adaptations, when he has far stronger points to make about the way theatre companies, and the broader community, supports (or fails to support) playwrights and local voices. I thought it was clear, by now, that they’re quite separate issues.

    I’m mostly concerned with the fact that the paper focuses entirely on the AMPAG companies, rather than looking at independent and small to medium companies and artists, which are a major source of dramatic innovation and new voices.


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