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.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.
-- Dr. Thursday
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]