Avra Sidiropoulou*

A classic is a work which persists as background noise, even when a present
that is totally incompatible with it holds sway. (Calvino 8)

(Known) Writings and (New) Readings

No literary work should ever really fear adaptation. New versions of canonical plays serve to perpetuate their established value. Not only do they guarantee their longevity; they provide a continuous—if posthumous—acknowledgment of merit and relevance. At their best, directors’ reinterpretations of the dramatic canon illuminate old texts anew, offering fresh insights and stimulating strong reactions in the spectators. But, even at their weakest, they supply additional perspectives to the on-going discussion on fidelity, betrayal and the ethics of directing, a discussion which seems parochially attached to a conservative “marital” discourse, when ideally, the encounter of text and performance should be based on excitement, passion and surprise. Adaptation is no hostile activity, an attack on a vulnerable source that must remain shielded against directorial invasion. Far from an inimical scheme against the author, the siege of the literary text should, I believe, be viewed more in terms of a growing love affair: that of an immortally attractive text often “playing coy,” yet deep down longing to surrender to the persistent, sometimes aggressive, but altogether amorous attentions of yet another suitor.

Odyssee, Opera by Claudio Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, text by Von Giacomo Badoaro, Prologue by Luigi Novo. Directed by Jay Scheib. Staatstheater Darmstadt Germany, 2014. Photo: Meentje Nielsen
Odyssee, Opera by Claudio Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, text by Von Giacomo Badoaro, Prologue by Luigi Novo. Directed by Jay Scheib. Staatstheater Darmstadt Germany, 2014. Photo: Meentje Nielsen

Back in 1975, Frank Kermode formulated a definition of the classics as works that “possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions” (44). The classic’s “openness to interpretation,” and, by extension, the lending of its power to adaptation and revision is perhaps part of a capacity to support multiple interpretations over time: the classic text is “complex and indeterminate enough to allow us our necessary pluralities” (121). Directors treating the dramatic canon as a mirror that reflects both the accumulated sagacities of the past and the imperatives of the present are faced with the challenge of facilitating the interactive texts and metaphors that co-exist in any act of interpretation pierce through the solid fabric of an existing myth, play or story, in order to access the cultural and aesthetic norms of today. A “contemporary” reading of an old text is not, strictly speaking, a reading that merely exploits the readily available iconography of our times, but one which brings forth the principal dialectic that the source text is perceived to have displayed at the moment of its birth, adjusted, however, to present-day circumstances; it heightens the correspondence between tensions and implications that have survived time and the anxieties and needs of the modern spectator.

In the process of adaptation, the literary “work”—to borrow from Poststructuralist terminology—opens up to become transparent “text,” rendering itself available—as well as vulnerable—to a plethora of readings. Reimagining the source text, the director reveals with the mise-en-scène meanings, nuances and allusions that can only be unearthed through embodied exploration. The text is revisited (and on occasion revised) with fresh eyes, the oedipal logos “understood as preexistent discourse that needs to be re-marked and contextualized so that an understanding of its affiliations to culture and to various acculturating agencies can be exposed” (Vanden Heuvel 63). In this light, directors can still recreate history not like historians, but like poets, to use Robert Wilson’s apt observation (89).

Adaptaphobia or Tales of Betrayal

Today, several decades into the practice of re-inventing the canon, directors continue to generate controversy, putting right on the table a number of issues relating to the ethics of directing, as intellectual and artistic operations, adaptations/revisiting/reimaginings/versions of(f) well-known plays have been cultivating a chain of arguments on the limits of directorial interpretation and the rights and wrongs of artistic autonomy, tenaciously supporting or undermining the faithfulness versus freedom binary. The charge of “massacre,” “dismemberment,” “cannibalism,” and other such crimes, is brought constantly to the fore through the unconventional work of conceptualists, such as Ivo van Hove, Thomas Ostermeier, Liz LeCompte, Oskaras Koršunovas, Katie Mitchell, Frank Castorf, Romeo Castelluci, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Guy Cassiers or Jan Fabre, to name but a few. Robert Stam pointedly argues that words like “infidelity,” “betrayal,” “deformation,” “violation,” “bastardization,” “vulgarization” and “desecration” have come to proliferate in adaptation discourse, each word carrying its specific charge of opprobrium (Stam and Raengo 3). While most of these terms should have by now become obsolete, escorted as they are by an obstinately verbocentric approach that no longer provides exclusive ammunition to current, largely postdramatic theatre practice, the tendency to point one’s finger to radical experiments with the classics has spread like an epidemic. In some respects, adaptation has also been facilitated by the reaction of living authors to the use of their texts as mere source material for new pieces. Some playwrights’ refusal to submit their work to the potential injuries of interpretation has led many directors to seek refuge in the safe haven of dead, copyright-free dramatists, sparing themselves, at the very least, countless hours of disheartening conversations with writers, if not more serious legal headaches. Directors’ iconoclastic impulses, their leaning on and toward writing, which sometimes may feel like a more solid and durable instance of creativity, the undercurrent needing to fight against the ephemerality of performance (Sidiropoulou 155) in the end make adaptation a win-win choice.

While, inevitably, the passage from page to stage, from literature to performance, is full of turbulence, there is also a quality of completion and maturity of the text/s that characterizes the confrontation of writer and adapter (director). There is a “transfer of ownership,” which, “gained by the recoding of adaptation into a productive activity, becomes a signifier of authority and originality” (Cobb 108). It is certainly worth examining whether all productions should in fact be considered “adaptations,” given that “every text is an intertext whose stability and integrity are social and political rather than ontological” (Leitch 88). The question where “adaptation proper” crosses the boundary and becomes “adaptation improper” (88) is by no means rhetorical and could put into perspective the polemic of directorial authorship as well as auteurism. In reality, the act of re-reading is tantamount to re-writing. Unless revisited again and again, a text will be perennially stuck in its finite temporality. An exciting encounter between the play’s original circumstances and a context that instigates critical thinking in todays’ audience can furnish important insights for the understanding of both the play and the world we live in. As a cultural product simultaneously foreign and familiar, the old–and yet timeless—text foregrounds its enticing complementarity through mediating influences, traditions and production histories. Directing the canon should therefore cease to be perceived in terms of “explaining” or clarifying. Far more constructive would be to consider directors’ revisionism a mental operation that expands the original text physically and adds more layers of meaning by means of visual, aural and sonar indicators. At the same time, directors’ “fidelity” could more effectively be applied to the pursuit of remaining true to one’s own authorial voice. In other words, in order to claim one’s autonomy as an auteur, one must somehow “betray” the original author. Such betrayal, would, however, be one fraught with passion and excitement. While the source work is frequently viewed as a precious stone that needs to be safeguarded against the greedy hands of scourging (con)artists, a strong adaptation, far from eradicating, will probably reinforce textual authority.

By means of example: Van Hove’s treatment of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1999) uses full-frontal nudity to expose the illusion at the core of the play, all the while making Blanche’s bathtub the actual locus of most external as well as internal action. His production’s minimalist aesthetic deconstructs the play in a surprising manner, revealing, beneath the poetry of the words—often spoken literally—the raw violence of Williams’ world. The metaphor of the bathtub, which dominates the otherwise bare stage, is not, in this case, a strategy of relocating the play to the modern times, but rather, a way for the director to expose the universal energies and obsessions that run through the “entrails” of the text: desire, sex, and an eternal longing to be made pure. Quite similarly, honoring the tradition of German Regietheatre, Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin-based Schaubühne, is notorious for his provocative ways of reviewing established texts within a postmodern landscape. His 2011 Othello uses a sleekly designed rectangular pool—with a sizeable bed afloat center stage supporting the intimate scenes between Othello and Desdemona to evoke an ironically euphoric atmosphere of a beach culture, further embellished with “raucous music, neon lights, and alcohol-fuelled brawls” (Boyle 83). Ιn Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy (2007), the image of the ransacked City is transferred to an industrial cityscape, near a modern-day port site. The set captures an eerie iron prison where the female citizens of Troy, immaculately dressed, are locked in, lamenting their losses, while occasionally dancing to familiar tunes or smoking cigarettes. Staging a ritual of mourning for their dead husbands, the female Chorus members dance the quickstep with imaginary partners. These plays’ historico-cultural, dramaturgical and philosophical foundations have been re-examined and illuminated through essential metaphors that freed up their emotional energy within an utterly updated context.

To Please or not to Please (Spectators, Playwrights, Texts)?

Traditionally, some of the practices involved in deconstructive theatre projects have been associated with an emphasis on form over (assumed) content. As a matter of course, formalist productions integrate with considerable, some or little success, stage matter extraneous to the context of the play: from compelling imagery to self-indulgent stunts to downright tasteless and portentous exercises in form. Repeatedly, the postmodern freedom and tyranny of choice make it difficult for directors to channel their interpretation into a clear point-of-view. Practitioners are instead avidly searching for new imagery, found text and objects, unusual sounds and any shot of quasi-authentic detail; in general, for any kind of material that can provide that felicitous strike of inspiration that makes an adaptation flourish. So much so, that the very notion of material has assumed vampiric properties, an omnivorous engine that feeds upon itself in order to keep propagating forms, patterns and structures ad infinitum, given that anything and everything seems potentially stage-materialisable. Although there is an urgency about the classics—about any great play, for that matter—which every director must address, the mix-and-match disposition of deconstructive aesthetics eventually leads to a soporific directorial stance, a toothless, bloodless staging; filled with a deluge of current cultural references, this kind of theatre may indeed ring home, yet it fails to instigate emotional stimulation and/or critical thinking. An insistence on aesthetic consummation therefore becomes a way to counter-balance the lack of visceral engagement with the text and its universe.

Platonov, or the Disinherited, after the play by Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Jay Scheib. The Kitchen, New York City, 2014. Photo: Caleb Wertenbaker
Platonov, or the Disinherited, after the play by Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Jay Scheib. The Kitchen, New York City, 2014. Photo: Caleb Wertenbaker

In his review of Peter Sellars’ 1985 Seagull’s “aberrant approach—tricks, quirks and sight gags” (1985), New York Times critic Mel Gussow reacts against directors’ “tearing apart a text, shuffling its parts and leaving the skeleton exposed” (1988). Indeed, Gussow takes a very clear stand in the debate on the ethics of auteurism, contemptuously dismissing Sellars’ “search of directorial signatures,” which prohibit him from keeping his mind on “the play’s values” (1985). In a similar vein, Cry, Trojans (2015) (image), the Wooster Group’s take on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is an American-Indian themed (complete with a tepee and everything) multimedia synthesis, which stretches the concept of adaptation to extremes. The tribal war dances, the wigs, masks and “eye-popping costumes” that seem to have been “culled from an epochs-spanning cultural compost heap” (Brantley 2015), the stylized choreography that matches movement with video footage, and Kate Valk’s portrayal of Cressida as a “skipping Pocahontas type” (2015) are only some instances of an attitude towards adaptation that can sabotage the very ground it is based on—namely, originality. We sorely miss Shakespeare’s speeches, no less than an enlightened view on this resolutely cynical tale of love, hypocrisy and anti-heroics. Formalist verve is now substituted by formulaic anachronism.

Retraction to pattern—one of the most common dangers associated with the decay of avant-garde art and a fast way downhill to mannerism—threatens the fragile identity of the adapted text of performance. Just as directors continue to forge and solidify their own signature style, form must be subjected to constant reinvention in order to not feel trite, tired, or irrelevant. Notwithstanding the attempt to bring closer to the audience those elements in the play that are fundamentally foreign to it, a strategy that Julie Sanders calls “proximation” (26), there is nothing lasting or meaningful in forced analogies to the present and cliché cultural currency. Sexy—if pretentious—directorial maneuvers eventually collapse under the weight of the dramaturgy, unable to sustain the non-negotiable aspects of the writing. An imaginative scenography is no doubt appealing, but that is not the case with visually oversaturated spectacles. After all, emphasis is not synonymous with obsession. Furthermore, the deliberate deflating of the original to produce a simplified variant, custom-made to fit our current media-fed stupor, is reductionist and damaging, not just to the source but also to the audience’s sensibilities. Director Tom Markus’ account of his process of staging Henry IV Part 2 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (1979)—what he calls “play doctoring”—is both risky and patronizing: “shorten each scene as much as possible . . . eliminate everything that might confuse an audience . . . cut all characters who are unnecessary to the scene . . . cut all scenes which do not advance the story . . . cut or change all words that are archaic or obscure” (qtd. in Dessen 6).

Luckily, spectators will also bear witness to a more thoughtful attitude towards adaptation: instead of shrinking—or in contrast, over-layering—the action to/with enterprising metaphors that are, however, detached from an attempt to build subtle associations between the classic and the modern times, directors go deep into the very fabric of the play, to work on the language and recalibrate the arguments involved therein. Ideally, in rehearsal, directors and actors will work together to create new sets of stage conceits, which can elucidate textual alterity. By unsettling the audience’s expectations, a surprising mise-en-scène can help create or revive interest in the original work. The literary text is no longer a ghost whose moldy, tenacious texture fills up the cracks of the theatre walls, it is no mere reminder or warning to the new inhabitants that the old landlord is still the boss within the adaptation establishment; directing becomes more about building worlds, and also, as Romeo Castelluci corroborates, about passion: “the idea of heat, the idea of temperature, the idea of danger, that’s where the first encounter takes place” (qtd in Laera 96).

Experience has shown that a word-for-word fidelity to the original source makes for a context of asphyxiation, in which the play’s universal stakes are shrunken to a miniature copy; far from expanding, enriching and making the text relevant, an all too “faithful” staging keeps it all removed from the present, a distant echo that we no longer care about or are able to hear. “The production which today seems fully to capture or embody a supposed original—and this is true whether one speaks of text or performance—enjoys only a potentially temporary and limited currency” (Hutcheon 9). Conversely, a mise-en-scène that refrains from “tidying up” the messy parts of text, while also resisting surrendering to the dialectic of fidelity versus betrayal, gradually builds dramaturgy and settles the audience’s wavering between the instinct for stability and the impulse for change. Therefore, resisting the myth of immutability is essential; no story can ever be fixed. Interpretation is fluid, shifty, slippery. Plot, characters, setting and dialogue may be re-focused or over-written. What remains is the themes, deep structures and poetry of the original plays. In my view, such an attitude to interpretation emancipates directors from the need to defend their own metatext (the mise-en-scène); encouraging them, instead, to sharpen and channel through their informed point-of-view the variety of cultural and intermedial references and influences at work. Revised forms can act as a kind of umbilical cord that nourishes the relationship between past and present, as opposed to a blind corrective towards the audience’s instinctual response to texts, given that both appreciation and enjoyment lie beyond mere pattern and style.

Clytemnestra’s Tears (solo production). Written and directed by Avra Sidiropoulou. Dipylo Theatre, Athens 2004; La MaMa ETC, New York City, 2007. Photo: Marilena Stafylidou
Clytemnestra’s Tears (solo production). Written and directed by Avra Sidiropoulou. Dipylo Theatre, Athens 2004; La MaMa ETC, New York City, 2007. Photo: Marilena Stafylidou

Resistance and Surrender

The torturing and limiting dualities imposed by the “faithful philanthropic philology” (Pavis, “On Faithfulness” 125) fortifies the guilt complex that continues to haunt the text-performance continuum. Some directors remain bound to the security of the author’s name, not daring to fully explore the possibilities of the stage in order to bring the text to fruition. They are, indeed, feeble lovers, perennially fastened to mere wooing, yet never fully engaging in a passionate love affair, terrified of the kind of deeper engagement that such a relationship would involve. The prolonged delay of interpretation, which originates in the fear of meaningful intercourse with the original (be it a text, a theme, a spark of a story), ends up marring a relationship whereby the desire is there but in which the anxiety of performance (pun intended) and the fear of commitment ultimately take over.

We need the classics for our own comfort—their solid humanist structures and universal scope can ease our existential anguish. We admire and learn from their resistance to time and within our own slot in their recycled life we experience a sense of belonging and rootedness. Still, as spectators, we also appreciate guidance, an inspired entry-way into a world that is quite within reach yet still requires a passcode for someone to enter. The Wooster Group’s director Liz LeCompte considers adaptation a way of “passing on a tradition by reinventing a play” (qtd. in Kramer 54). That could be the job of the director: to give us the key to that world, allowing us to pick for ourselves the places we ultimately wish to visit.

Works Cited

Boyle, Michael Shane. “Review of Shakespeare’s Othello (directed by Thomas Ostermeier).” Shakespeare 8.1 (2012): 83-86. Print.

Brantley, Ben. ‘“Cry Trojans’ is the Wooster Group’s Take on ‘Troilus and Cressida.’” New York Times. New York Times, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/theater/review-cry-trojans-is-the-wooster-groups-take-on-troilus-and-cressida.html?_r=0>.

Calvino, Italo. Why Read the Classics? Trans. Martin McLaughlin. New York: Vintage, 2000. Print.

Cobb, Shelley. “Film Authorship and Adaptation.” A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation. Ed. Deborah Cartmell. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 105-21. Print.

Dessen, Alan C. Rescripting Shakespeare. The Text, the Director, and Modern Productions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence and Change. 1975. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. Print.

Kramer, Jane. “Experimental Journey.” The New Yorker 8 Oct. 2007: 48–57. Print.

Laera, Margherita. Theatre and Adaptation. Return, Rewrite, Repeat. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation and Intertextuality, or, What isn’t an Adaptation, and What Does it Matter?” A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation. Ed. Deborah Cartmell. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 87-104. Print

Pavis, Patrice. “On Faithfulness: The Difficulties Experienced by the Text/Performance Couple.” Theatre Research International 33 (2008): 117-26. Print.

Vanden Heuvel, Michael. Performing Drama/ Dramatising Performance. Alternative Theatre and the Dramatic Text. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Print.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Sidiropoulou, Avra. Authoring Performance. The Director in Contemporary Theatre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Stam, Robert and Alessandra Raengo, eds. Literature and Film. A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Wilson, Robert and Umberto Eco. “A Conversation.” Performing Arts Journal 15.1 (January 1993): 87–96. Print.


*Avra Sidiropoulou is a director and a lecturer of Theatre Arts at the Open University of Cyprus. Her main areas of specialization include the theatre of the director-auteur, theory of theatre practice and adaptation. She taught at the University of Peloponnese, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Bosphorus University. She has directed and conducted theatre workshops in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, U.S.A., the U.K., Estonia, Israel, Bulgaria and Iran. Her monograph Authoring Performance: the Director in Contemporary Theatre was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.

Copyright © 2015 Avra Sidiropoulou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Mise-en-Scène as Adaptation

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