Ever read a book and wish you could experience it, live? That’s what playwrights are in business to do, isn’t it? But how can the hundreds of pages of a novel be captured in “the two hours’ traffic of the stage?” With nearly 600 pages, The Cider House Rules by John Irving needed two plays (well, one play in two parts for a five-hour encounter) to do it justice. The movie version reduced it to just over two-hours, leaving out so much, but wonderfully capturing the essence of Irving’s intent. Shakespeare worked mostly with short stories and historical accounts, not whole novels – a chapter of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, one of the tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a section of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. But The Bard was mostly interested in plot points and character, not mood, tone, or style.
And most theater-goers in the 16th/17th Centuries hadn’t read the story or poem that was crafted from the “best sellers” or important literary works available in their day. Today, books are often evaluated before publication for their dramatic potential with an eye to the commercial value they bring to a project. (“Everybody’s read it.” “They’re dying to see it on stage!” “It’ll sell like hot cakes.”) And the dramatizations are usually (too often, perhaps) evaluated for their “faithful” representation of the source.
Of course, in the limited a space of a theater, with less than a tiny portion of the army of collaborators that’s scrolled at the end of a film, what can you do? Obviously, it ain’t easy. We’ve had five (and a sixth “inspired by”) such productions in Los Angeles this fall. Let’s look at how they fared.
Let’s begin with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently presented in a relatively large-scale, rather complex production at Pasadena’s popular classical repertory theater, A Noise Within.
There is a mythic conceit at the center of Oscar Wilde’s late-Nineteenth Century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A trope that taps “into a root of Western folklore” according to the author of a recent study of the poet John Gray, who is believed to be the real Dorian Gray.
The conceit of the tale is the painted image of a beautiful young man that suffers the corrupting ravages of age while its living subject physically retains the bloom of youth. Hence, the vanity of beauty is made visibly dramatic by a Faustian bargain – a bargain that leads the living Dorian Gray to regret the deal he made, for it brings him a loveless life and the corruption of his soul. With this conceit, Wilde the novelist sets out to plumb the cost to the spirit of rampant narcissism. Originally made available to the public as a homoerotic magazine serial, the critical reception to Dorian Gray was typically Victorian – the wit and the writing were praised but it was deemed “unclean,” “poisonous,” “heavy with the mephitic odors (noxious vapors) of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” Sometime later, Wilde “cleaned up” the prose, extended the tale by a few chapters, and published it as a novel. That was 1890.
Five years later, 1895, Wilde was defending himself in a court of law against the charge of “gross indecency,” for which the main exhibit against him was his novel. He insisted that The Portrait of Dorian Gray was “a highly moral book decrying the pursuit of pleasure devoid of empathy or personal responsibility.” Does that mean that by portraying the sin of vanity as it inevitably corrupts the soul, one is forearmed against the commission of that particular sin? Isn’t that like showing you the effects of excessive fatty food intake as a cure for the ills of obesity?
It is with a deep appreciation of Wilde’s intent that one of the Southland’s most talented directors, Michael Michetti, has created his own stage adaptation of Dorian Gray. Originally produced at the Boston Court in Pasadena, Michetti’s newly revised adaptation, in a no-holds-barred, visually fascinating production aptly achieves the homoeroticism of Wilde’s work.
Okay, but does Michetti’s unquestioned artistry (and A Noise Within’s restrained-lavish production elements) succeed in creating an effective stage work? In this case, it depends upon what one thinks is the purpose of the novel. Michetti, as director, has an abundance of theatrical ideas, filling the stage with Wilde’s wit, strident music, and a wide-ranging cast of Victorian characters. At the center is, of course, the handsome youth, Dorian Gray. But there is also a loquacious Wilde stand-in, Sir Harry Wotton, the enlightening goad to Dorian’s tragedy. Do these two characters give us a satisfying performance version of the novel’s essence?
Unfortunately, except for a stunningly-staged finale, the real drama, the raison d’etre of the novel, seems veiled behind the verbal onslaught of Wilde’s notorious wit and some over-wrought modern dancing.
While director Michetti fills the stage with movement and adaptor Michetti with a full evening’s helping of the Wildean excess, “the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction” – the corrosive effects of vanity on the soul – seems to get lost in the theatricality.
Even more than Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an internal drama – the soul as the battlefield between social values and naked impulse, the need to hold on to one’s youth being at odds with the richness of experience and age. In Michetti’s version, what seems to be lacking is the interior of the character. We are given a blank picture frame instead of being able to see the painting age, as Dorian’s soul is increasingly devastated by the corruption of immortality.
Michetti, the ever-inventive director, has a penchant for countering expectations. In Michetti the adaptor’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (also for A Noise Within, but many years ago) he eliminated the Ghost of King Hamlet. Why? Because, I think, Michetti the director wanted us to believe the dead monarch was not a ghost, but a deep-seated construct within the psyche of young Hamlet. So, his Hamlet is both characters, speaking the lines of the revengeful spirit facing a mirror (or really any reflective surface, for that matter). An intriguing idea that didn’t always work.
Oscar Wilde, the novelist, is exploring the internal agony of Dorian’s external vanity, but in Michetti’s Dorian Gray, it’s largely (not completely) missing – presented off-handedly, an observation here or there, buried in directorial business, or presented enigmatically in a Martha Graham-esque dance with extensive narration read from the novel. How much more moving would it be, how much more dramatic to hear – in private moments – Dorian speaking to himself, first recognizing, then denying, eventually trying to manage, finally being overwhelmed by the inner corruption that forces him to put a violent and tragic end to the conceit. But where Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy, Michetti’s Dorian is melodrama.
Of course, there is a more contemporary way of handling Wilde’s novel. It would require some modest changes to the plotting, but it would realize the hidden drama – Oscar Wilde confronting his own beliefs. What adaptor every worried about a little dramatic license? By positioning Sir Henry as the central character and Dorian as the object of Henry’s influence – just as Salieri, the lesser composer in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, sets Mozart, the better composer, on the road to destruction – it would allow the book’s deeper concerns to be dramatically realized. Sir Henry would for all intents and purposes be Oscar Wilde, the narrator/novelist, living through the experience he’s relating. And like Dr. Dysert, in Shaffer’s Equus – a tame if wise psychiatrist, trying to cure the very pagan passions (in a young patient) he only wishes he was brave enough to experience – such a dramaturgic approach would allow the audience to experience the tragedy Wilde’s novel give us.
Either approach would allow the stunningly-staged climax to bring Wilde’s confrontation with the dangers of beauty to a more successful conclusion. Destroying the Picture of Dorian Gray would be the only way out.