Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Theatre Versus the Novel

Award winning author Mark Haddon ("The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night Time") is about to stage his own book in a London West End theatre. That's a journey I made in the opposite direction, starting out writing plays and then moving into writing prose. Of course in terms of success and status, Haddon and me are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, I'm almost exhibiting hubris mentioning myself in the same breath as him. But I'm only raising it as Haddon made some interesting and I believe wrong-headed, statements in an interview he gave to London newspaper "The Evening Standard".

He claims to have given up novel writing for stage plays, ( I seem to remember Zadie Smith making the same claim as she wanted to concentrate on essay writing, but she has returned to the novel form recently) "so much better for the immortal soul" Haddon is quoted. I don't quite understand what he means by that.

It's true historically the stage play is an older form of literature stretching back to the Ancient Greeks and maybe there is still some sort of ghostly cultural inheritance from that. But stage plays are as multifarious as genre fiction, through the physical theatre of the likes of Theatre de ComplicitĂ©, musical theatre, cabaret and burlesque, comedies, farces, absurd and avant garde through to the political theatre and theories of Brecht, Artaud and the like.

He therefore goes on to claim that theatre goers are more open to a broader spectrum of taste, than novel readers where "those categories are much harder to leap out of". Well, when I was working in theatre, the audiences were no less tribal, as were the commissioning artistic directors. Physical theatre practitioners and the more conventional staging of plays never mixed. The interesting contemporary stuff was going on in the Fringe theatres (as well as a lot of terrible material there too), almost never in the established West End theatres. And Haddon's example of the variety of seeing an Ackybourn and then a Roy Williams play, only strikes me as being superficially removed from one another. The theatre in Britain remains a middle class audience, even if Williams writes urban plays in patois.

British theatre produces very little new, contemporary work (unlike in the 1960s and 1970s when it genuinely formed part of society's discourse with itself during these turbulent times). Any aspiring playwright worth their salt, now jumps ship to the better paid TV or film, so there are few long-established, developed careers writing for theatre. The West End is dominated by musicals or what I call tourist theatre - classic plays from the dramatic canon performed by big name actors. In that sense I do understand Haddon's "immortal soul". Or the occasional new play that becomes so successful it takes off for Hollywood anyway and the stage version is like some vestigial homage or museum exhibit to it, as with "Warhorse". Haddon is perfectly entitled to adapt his own novel for the stage, it's still not exactly new material. It will just be an interpretation of a novel brought to life for the stage. He may go on and pen plays that didn't start life as a novel, but we're not able to be at that point of the argument yet.

So while theatre has a proud back-catalogue that it is constantly reinventing with new productions, the notion of writing new works to join that immortal canon is I think risible. Can anyone name a play of the last 20 years that could honestly be said to have joined the pantheon of great dramatic works? And when Haddon bemoans the loneliness of the novel writer in contrast to the playwright who collaborates with actors, directors, set designers, choreographers and musicians, he is surprisingly out of touch for someone who has demonstrated such savvy with social media; prose writing today in the digital world absolutely offers the author opportunities to burst out of their bubble. Both with regard to collaborators in design, video and digital platforms, but more importantly to their readers who now are the equivalent of an audience sat in a theatre auditorium. Their feedback can be instantaneous and at any stage of the writing process, just like the actors and playwright can feed off the reaction of the audience sat in the stalls. I don't know if Haddon is aware of the multi-media, multi-collaborator project involving Will Self called Kafka's Wound. That gives a sample of the possibilities of prose in the digital age.

I really loved Haddon's book "The Curious Case..." I thought it was an uplifting triumph of prose writing. I shan't be seeing it in the theatre though. For much the same reasons I gave as to why I don't go to see film adaptations of literary novels. I'll be interested to revisit these issues when Haddon premiers a brand new play written especially for the theatre.

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