Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Plays and Novels, and a comment on "TMoV"

Our friend Kevin at Waiting for Godot to Leave and I have been discussing the representation (conversion?) of novels into plays... be they stage or screen. I had not really known that GKC commented on this (though he commented on just about anything one can name!) until our friend Enbrethiliel at Sancta Sanctis asked whether GKC had commented on "The Merchant of Venice". So I happened to find a very interesting essay. See what you think.
-- Dr. Thursday
I see that very various, and upon the whole very vague, criticisms are still circulating about the adaptation of "The Newcomes" and Mr. Tree's impersonation of the Colonel. It is certainly time that someone protested, apart altogether from the merits of this particular play, against the absurd assumption which seems to exist in the minds of many people, that any good novel not only may be, but must be, put upon the stage. That a good novel should make a good play is not only rare, it is intrinsically unlikely. If it is a good novel it will probably make a bad play. We should see this at a glance in connection with any other two forms of art. Anybody can see that if a thing is a good sonnet it will probably be a bad song. Anybody can see that if a thing is a good three-volume novel it will probably be a bad epic in twelve books. We all realise that if a thing is a good wall-paper the chances are that it will be a rather loud waistcoat. Nobody proposes to adapt carpets into curtains. Yet all this is in no way more essentially false or foolish than the perpetual assumption that the art of fiction is akin to the art of drama, and that therefore the merits of the former will provide material for the latter. But if, indeed, they are really thus akin, why is not the process more often reversed? Why have we not a bold and brilliant school of adapters of plays whose business it is to turn them into novels? Am I really free to bring out in three volumes my fascinating psychological romance called "Othello; or, The Mystery of the Handkerchief "? Can I bring out a yellow-backed novel called "The Pound of Flesh; a Tale of Venetian Commerce"? In such a case I am not sure that the novels would be good novels, even if I wrote them. You would find that in a steady and careful prose narrative the reader would reject as coarse and incredible exactly those "properties" which on the stage are, indeed, quite proper: the necessary "business" of the ring, the dagger, the poisoned cup, the letter - in a word, the gross material symbol which is so constantly necessary to make things clear behind the footlights. Thus in a novel about Othello we should be irritated with the accidental importance of the handkerchief; it would remind us of an idiotic detective story. Thus in a novel founded on "The Merchant of Venice" the business of the pound of flesh would seem, not as it seems in the play, merely harsh and barbaric, but openly ludicrous and unthinkable.

A novelist can use thousands and thousands of images and symbols to suggest a soul or a situation; because a novelist can refer back and forward, can shift the scene every paragraph, can allude to things remote from the field of action. All novelists do this, but no novelist ever did it so much as Thackeray. He tells the truth by a tissue of irrelevancies; he comes to the point by wandering from it. But on the stage it is impossible to create these multitudinous and miscellaneous impressions, changing every moment even in the matter of time and place. The only scene on the stage that would bear any resemblance to a chapter of Thackeray would be the transformation scene at the end of a pantomime. In ordinary plays the action is so concentrated in point of time and space that the playwright is obliged to use a palpable and permanent symbol, like the Handkerchief or the Pound of Flesh, the black robes of Hamlet, or the purple robe of Caesar. Thus, conversely, it commonly follows that a good novel makes a bad play because it is a good novel. It may be urged that Shakspere himself was an adapter, and that he took the plot of his plays from old or contemporary romances. It is quite true that Shakspere made his dramas out of novels. But then, with his abysmal and starry sagacity, he always made them out of bad novels.
[GKC ILN June 30 1906 CW27:222-4]


At 20 September, 2006 00:47, Blogger Kevin O'Brien said...

Very interesting. Doctor, you have a kind of Chesterton Eight-Ball, don't you? Ask it a question, turn it upside-down and up pops an essay. What does Chesterton think of novels to plays? Now we know, and in dashing Gilbertian paradox, "A good novel makes a bad play".

Chesterton talks of Thackery. But think of Henry James, poor humorless Anglophile Henry James, befuddled by his visit with Chesterton and the stomping intruding Belloc. Think of James' novels - brilliant novels, beautiful stories - filled with subtlety and a web of ambivalence and detail and hesitiation - fiction that could never be drama. James wrote lots of plays in his day; they fill a hefty volume, but many of them are adaptations of his novels, and as his novels are very good, his plays are very bad. Henry James was a master of intricate psychology and complex inner lives showing themselves in the most tentative of ways (kind of like life, but nothing like the stage). James was able to turn his early novel "The American" into a cliche-ridden melodrama, for example. And (be it noted) dialogue was not his strong suit.

Now regarding "The Man who was Thursday" - as novels go I don't think it's all that good (I know this sounds heretical, but bear with me). It is more philosophy and allegory and surrealism with occasional striking dramatic moments. It is wonderful writing, but it's not a great novel, if you judge novels by the strength of what novels are good at, which is the abandonment of the unity of time in favor of presenting the fullness of the inner life of its characters. But "Thursday", brimming with symbolism, suspense, and brilliant dialogue, has many of the elements of a great stage play, perhaps an even better screenplay.

It may be among the best plays Chesterton never wrote.

At 20 September, 2006 07:41, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Wow - very interesting! You had better get this idea together and present it at a future ChesterCon.

Let us hope we shall eventually see TMWWT produced on stage - or on screen - I think it would make a wonderful movie, especially now that we have all kinds of special effects.

Now that I think on it, remember GKC had a toy theatre - maybe much of his writing was attempts at stage productions?

At 22 September, 2006 03:33, Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you so much for posting this, Dr. Thursday! :D

By the way, I agree with Kevin that most of Uncle Gilbert's novels are not "all that good." I'm not as articulate as Kevin is about why I think so, however--mostly because I have no practice in being critical of Uncle Gilbert!

At the moment, what I've figured out is that his plots are too surreal--so surreal that they are often absurd. There is something too incredible about Adam Wayne singlehandedly uprooting a tree, Patrick Dalroy traveling all over England with his sign, or even dear old Tuesday turning out to be a Cockney policeman in a Pole's disguise.

Yet I don't know whether the dissonance comes from the heavy emphasis on symbolism over realism (as modern novels tend to do the opposite), or, as Kevin suggests, from the medium not being the ideal one to put across Uncle Gilbert's symbols. He is a very visual writer, and I, too, would love to see a good cinematic adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday.

Since that seems like a distant dream, though, I'll settle for a good graphic novel. :P

At 24 September, 2006 02:18, Blogger Fidei Defensor said...

Thank you sir, that was exactly the quote I was looking for!

At 24 September, 2006 02:38, Blogger Kevin O'Brien said...

Oddly, though, Enbrethiliel, the Father Brown stories are marvelous, not only marvelous mysteries, but also marvelous short stories, as are many of the other stories Uncle Gilbert wrote, most of which were mysteries. Could it be that the realistic demands of the genre - the mystery must make sense and have a viable solution - could it be that these demands forced our man to contain his imagination somewhat, rein in his surrelistic streak, and channel his symbolism into succincttly defined characters, plots and moods?

Notice how with the mysteries Chesterton is able to take his strong suit, paradox, and bring it down to earth. Each of the mysteries turns on a solution which reconciles an apparent paradox - a body is found in a walled garden with no way in and no way out; a man is killed with a blow no human could deliver; an event beyond our comprehension is shown to have a natural and even base explanation, and so on. This reconciliation of paradox seemed to be a perfect format for GKC, and the characters, themes, plots, dialogue and narratives of the FB stories are unmatched. They are brilliant short stories, and the best mysteries every written.

So how can a man whose poetry, essays, plays and stories are all nearly perfect write brilliant novels that, as novels go, could be better????

At 24 September, 2006 05:16, Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


I thought the same thing, Kevin, after I had posted my comment. Uncle Gilbert's short stories are fantastic--and all of them (unless I am mistaken) are Detective fiction. Both the short story format and the Detective genre demand a lot of restraint from a writer. They are almost like sonnets, with their tight conventions; but as no two truly good sonnets are alike, no two truly good short mysteries are similar.

This insistence on form is what makes some of his novels (in my very humble opinion) better written than the rest. The form of The Man Who Was Thursday, for instance, is a great deal due to each character having a secret that must be unmasked--until only Sunday is left to reveal his true identity. We have to take each character in some kind of sequence.

Likewise, the form of Manalive is more or less defined by each of the charges against Innocent Smith: each "transgression" has to be discovered one at a time and then disproved one at a time.

Even The Napoleon of Notting Hill has some kind of order to it: we expect the colours he introduced us to at the beginning to all come running together in a grand splash at the end; so we know that until there are a total of five armies in battle together, the story cannot be over.

In contrast, The Flying Inn, the novel Uncle Gilbert reportedly had the most fun writing, is pretty shapeless. Dalroy, Pump and Quoodle don't really seem to have a method to their wonderful madness. Though we know that the insane Prohibition has to end in some great spectacle . . . it's not an easy progression to plot.

Then again, of the four I've mentioned, only The Flying Inn isn't some kind of cosmic myth. Perhaps Uncle Gilbert's problem is not that he wrote poor realistic novels, but that he created fantastic myths in novel form. This is the same reason the critics had trouble with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. One convention of novels is "realism"--which is why modern Fantasy has room for feminism, environmentalism and even anti-Imperialism, but not the messages implied by Hobbits or the Council of Days.

At 24 September, 2006 10:39, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

I am no lit'ry guy, but I do read GKC - and I might venture a comment on this paradox: when the frame is "narrow" (like in a detective story), GKC finds it "small enough" to render his cosmic art. It may be that, to some extent, these GKC "novels" are just long-form detective fiction. But! The novel, being a "large" thing, cannot readily handle the cosmic. It's hard to play tiddly-winks while wearing boing gloves.

Enbrethiliel, you also should prepare this discussion for presentation at a ChesterCon - such interesting insights! (I direct our other readers to her blogg, where she gives a most amazing sequence of GKC quotes tied to her class topics...)

Clearly, you must BOTH come to a future ChesterCon - it will be great fun to explore these and other matters!


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