Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Does A Text Become A New Text? Simon Stone, EL James, and Crossing the Textual Rubicon

“’...as far as pure ideas are concerned, 1884 was the end. We were expecting the worst... but that didn’t happen. Against all expectations, recycled ideas were working.

‘But isn’t it the way they are told?’ asked Havisham in her not-to-be-argued with voice. ‘Surely the permutations of storytelling are endless!’”

-          Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots


Quoted in a long article in The Australian about the current trend of adapting the classics, Simon Stone claims that his works “are closer to an original play than an adaptation”, and that “every play ever written is a rewrite of something”. He openly admits to cannibalising classic texts, reworking and remaking them and creating new texts. He stands in contrast to some of the other theatre makers interviewed in the article, including Andrew Bovell, who exhorts people to “write your own plays and stop effing around with everyone else’s”. He also earns the ire of the journalist, Rosemary Neill, who has also penned a terse editorial in which she describes Stone’s attitudes as “self-serving nonsense”. A (false, I think) dichotomy is set up between adaptation and new work, between refurbishing overseas texts and new, uniquely Australian stories.

Debate over adaptation has been going on for ages and I have no doubt that it will continue to go on for some time. It’s a complex debate with many dimensions, but from a narratological perspective, the one that interests me in particular is this idea of textual boundaries. When does a text stop being a text and become a different, new text? How far do you have to change a text before it is not that text any more? What is the point where an adaptation becomes a new text? To borrow a quote from Michel Foucault in his essay What Is An Author?:

“What is a work? What is this curious unity which we designate as a work? Of what elements is it composed? Is it not what an author has written? Difficulties appear immediately... A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffers in the absence of such a theory.”

The dichotomy set up between adaptation and new work seems to suggest that the two are a binary, two sides of a coin – and thus in competition with each other – when it would probably be more correct to place them on a spectrum. All texts are arguably on some level derivative. What is unclear is at what point a text like the ones created by Stone shifts toward the new work end at the spectrum.

Stone is right when he notes that shameless idea-stealing is a part of theatre’s history: the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre would not exist without it. Many canonical plays are technically adaptations. Or are they? Romeo and Juliet has its roots in Arthur Brookes’ 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, which itself probably has roots in a novella by Matteo Bandello. Does this make it an adaptation? Or is it something else? And is Stone doing the same thing when he, say, takes Death of a Salesman and changes the ending?

The question at the crux of this debate is, I think, authorship. I find this interesting, because in modern literary criticism, the author is the arguably the least important figure. (Listen to pretty much any academic moan about how irrelevant the authorship question is in the study of Shakespeare and you’ll hear what I mean.) Nineteenth century Schleiermachian criticism was deeply worried about the author, prescribing a hermeneutic method wherein the reader basically became a detective, combing texts for evidence of the author’s true intentions. In the twentieth century, New Criticism brought the text itself into the foreground, and this in turn was supplanted by the reception aesthetic, where the reader became the central concern. Foucault asserted that the author was more a function than an actual person, and in 1968, Roland Barthes famously declared the author dead. However, almost fifty years later, authorship on the stage seems to be a matter of great angst, the question of who writes or creates a text deeply vexed.

Even a cursory examination of the question of authorship and the stage (and I don’t pretend to be making anything more than a cursory examination here) shows us that theatrical authorship is already more complex than in a written text. Instead of there being a direct line that goes author à text à reader, in the theatre, there are filters laid on top. There are more mediators: playwright à director à actors à audience. You will note that the text does not appear in this second schema, because which text is the fixed text? We could argue that it is the script, the written text provided by the playwright to the director. However, because the play is an inherently performative form, the text can never be wholly experienced on the page. It must be performed to become an object of consciousness for the audience, and so it must pass through director and actors. There are a number of subjectivities in play here: to get to the audience, the playwright’s text must pass through a number of interpretations or readings. The director in particular becomes a figure who is both author and reader: at what point does the director’s reading of a text change the text itself? (We could veer off in a very Derridan direction here and start talking about how the theatrical text has no centre and how the play is quite literally play or jeu, but I’ll spare you that longwinded and probably pointless tangent.)

And so we get these confused textual boundaries, because the theatrical text is not fixed. It is fluid, and must by its nature be subject to a middleman’s reading to be realised. Can we call the printed script the text when it can never be fully realised in that form? Does each production constitute a new text? And if so, what barriers must be crossed for one text to become an entirely different one?

The word “faithful” is often used in conjunction with adaptations. There is a sense that the director has been loyal to the author’s intention, and has endeavoured to communicate this audience. What Simon Stone appears to be doing is essentially going rogue, rejecting this idea of faithful adaptation. He is not averse to changing the meaning of a text, to the extent where he argues that he is creating a whole new text. By claiming the position of primary author, Stone seems to be crossing a sort of textual Rubicon: if there is a line between old text and new, he is figuratively arguing that he has stepped over it. He is declaring his intention more important than that of the original author: “corrupting” texts and twisting them into something different. Roman Ingarden argued that the author was the source of the text, but that the meaning was intersubjective, transcendent of author, text, and reader. But what happens when that meaning is explicitly changed, as in Stone’s practice? Is that the point when it becomes a new text? Is what Simon Stone does imposing a reading (albeit an aggressive one) on a text, or is he creating a new text (albeit a derivative one) altogether?

This rewriting of a classic text is hardly an unusual literary phenomenon. In an example from my own academic field, Jennifer Crusie’s book Maybe This Time is a rewriting of Turn of the Screw, reimagining James’s terrifying novella as a light-hearted contemporary romance novel. Crusie’s intentions are clearly vastly different to James’s: she owes a textual debt, which she openly admits to, but, like Stone, obviously claims Maybe This Time as a new text, with herself as author. This practice is arguably more appropriation than adaptation: instead of attempting to translate a text through a new lens for an audience, it takes elements of it to create a new text.

The key difference, of course, is the names. Crusie’s book is not called Turn of the Screw, nor is it sold as such. Stone admits that the titles are a marketing technique, then handwaves it away, saying that titles are largely irrelevant. This seems to be at the core of the problem people have with Stone’s work: he is using the names of famous authors to mobilise audiences, but what he is presenting has more to do with himself than those authors. (And, by extension, he is making royalties off it.) It could be viewed as breaking faith not only with the author but with the audience, who came to the theatre to see Tennessee Williams but came away with Simon Stone. This creates a kind of authorial battle: who has the authority (pun intended) to dictate what a text’s meaning should be?

I’d be really uncomfortable with suggesting that directors had to even attempt to be loyal to an author’s intentions. Just because an author meant to say something in a text doesn’t mean they actually do, and it’s quite possible that meanings and readings exist in a text that the author was completely unaware of. We ditched Schleiermachian criticism a century ago for a reason. However, on the other side of this is the question of the audience, who has come to see one text but may end up with quite another. Simon Stone is well known enough now that people will see his shows on his own merits: having “Simon Stone after” on a theatre program may be a bigger sell for some people than the author’s name that comes after. He has become an authorial brand in his own right. But is he a sort of EL James to Tennessee Williams/Eugene O’Neill/Henrik Ibsen/etc’s Stephenie Meyer? Is what he does sort of like creating alternate universe fan fiction – and then marketing it under the moniker of the original?

I actually find this comparison to EL James quite a useful one (though I’m not sure if Stone himself would particularly like it). I’d like to be very clear that I’m not making an equivocation between the quality of James’s work and Stone’s – far from it – but in terms of textual appropriation, there are some similarities. James took Meyer’s characters, replaced vampirism with sexual dominance, substituted repeated sex scenes for repeated episodes of abstinence, and created a new text. At first, it was openly derivative – Master of the Universe was Twilight fan fiction – but then she simply changed the names and published it as Fifty Shades of Grey, a new text in its own right. Its roots in Twilight are obvious (even if one didn’t know about its literary history, I’m pretty confident a reader of Twilight who read Fifty Shades would be able to pick it), but it has an entirely remade dialogue and structure. It is not Twilight – it is something else – but it is not not Twilight either. I’d argue that Stone’s practice is not dissimilar: his The Wild Duck, for instance, remakes dialogue and structure. It is not The Wild Duck but not not The Wild Duck either. It transforms Ibsen’s text into something new and different (and, in this case, genuinely excellent).

Perhaps this question of ‘excellence’ is the key. One of the threads running through both pieces in the Australian is that adapting or appropriating rather than striving to create a new story is lazy or easy. In her editorial, Rosemary Neil writes,

“...let's not pretend that this director's penchant for reworking classics that have a proven track record is as courageous or important as a creating a new, powerful play with no track record.”

I’m not particularly interested in disputing this. However, does it matter? How much does the audience actually care about the courage of a text’s creator, as long as the end result is excellent? How much does it impact their enjoyment? I wouldn’t claim that it doesn’t impact it at all. Again, EL James provides a useful reference point here. Many readers find their enjoyment of Fifty Shades mitigated because they believe it to be an unethical reworking, unfairly capitalising on the popularity of Twilight. On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest selling book of all time, so clearly it’s not bothering that many people. On the whole, I don’t think the amount of effort exerted by the author ultimately matters that much to a substantial amount of the audience. What does matter is the text and their own enjoyment and appreciation of it. And as his popularity shows, audiences are largely appreciating Stone’s work.  

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