Faber and Faber were the first to print The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, in 1925. Here is how it starts:
‘Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.’
Imagine if I were now to reason that this text, whilst admirable, was somewhat elitist, and that a new, modern version was needed on the grounds of accessibility and inclusivity. This is my modern take on the poem:
'Shall we go, the pair of us, before it gets too dark?
I hate these streets, these pubs and wine bars; they make me wonder…
Never mind. Come on.'
It’s true that this took me 90 seconds and the original, given Eliot’s way of working, perhaps 200 hours, but why in these equal times should that mean that my work be treated less seriously than his? A school-leaver would react more favourably to my version, notwithstanding its lack of rhythm, absence of selective rhyme and indifference to language. What if I approached Faber and said to them that I wanted my Prufrock published, that I wanted 100% of the royalties on sales, and directed them that the front cover should look like this …
…thus making clear my equivalence as author.
Faber would bin it, yes?
Unhindered by his inability to speak Russian, David Hare has produced a modern version of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. It has been published by Faber and been performed at Chichester and The National.
I have no problem with adaptations in general. All of Shakespeare could be said to be one. The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton is not a great play but is a very good one. It wouldn’t exist had Moliere not written Le Misanthrope. A great play is particular but its themes are universal; they can be taken by another writer and imagined in a different time, given new names, new vocabularies, new backgrounds and the play a new title. This is what Hampton did and what Hare did with The Blue Room.
Hare’s Seagull does none of that. It remains nominally set in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, the names of the characters are unchanged and it is still called The Seagull. The language used throughout is what you might expect to hear if you sat in a Chelsea wine bar and eavesdropped. Thus Medviedenko complains to Masha that he is being ‘totally blanked’ and Kostia instructs Yakov to be ‘back in ten’. ‘Basically’ and ‘totally’, useless words in plentiful current use, litter the text, as do subtle adjustments to retrospectively nudge Chekhov into a position politically correct.
If you found a loving translation of The Seagull – Peter Carson’s Penguin version for example – opened the text at random, and transcribed a page or two of dialogue into contemporary speech, you would have an MS of equal literary and dramatic value to Hare’s.
Please do this. It proves the worthlessness of Hare’s work. It took my 12 year old son 25 minutes to adapt the first scene between Masha and Medviedenko. He is a clever boy who loves football and maths, in that order. He hates the theatre. His script is better than Hare’s.
Of course, no text produced in this way has any merit.
"Now it is possible to go into a bookshop and buy a copy of The Seagull and read a play that is not The Seagull"
The way we talk is physical, and good and great writers understand this, probably instinctively. Our speech patterns, vocabulary and what we physically do whilst talking and thinking are defined by where we came from, what our influences were. Language and the muscularity of same is a result of the culture of the person speaking it. Someone who complains he has been ‘totally blanked’ has grown up in an urban world of social media; he has been exposed to recreational drugs and pornography, to American influences.
A good or great writer creates dialogue in a very particular way. Pinter didn’t claim to be in a trance when he wrote but he did admit that his characters told him what to give them to say. Given Pinter’s genius, I think I might say he was. Miller’s stage directions are as passionate as his dialogue. I like to think that he was in such a frenzy of creativity that he found himself unable to switch off. What the good writers do is somehow imagine themselves into the souls of all their characters simultaneously.
Hare has gone through no artistic process with his text. It is random, shallow, inconsistent and bears no serious critical scrutiny. Characters manifest one speech rhythm on page 12 and another on page 15. There is no thought behind these changes. There is no love there either, and no respect for a genius.
There are many related issues and questions. Why would the subsidised Chichester Theatre commission a third rate version of a play that already exists? If they fantasised that it would somehow be worthwhile they then had the chance to reject it when they saw the result. Why has The National decided to produce Hare’s version? Why did Faber publish? Why does the Arts Council support institutions which make these inartistic decisions?
Anyone who doubts the relevance of these questions should do my son’s test. Then consider that the cleaners at Chichester and The National have paid tax so that Hare’s text might exist.
Unlike in politics, our State-sponsored theatrical elite receive no meaningful criticism from anyone. Those in the profession are scared, rightly, that their careers will suffer if they do and others either don’t know enough or don’t care. Mainstream critics, one way or another, will not bite the feeding hand. Thus they proceed unchecked. They have created a theatre where a young Burton or Harris would never get work (they would show everyone up) and a new Orton would not be performed but prosecuted.
The Seagull by David Hare is not a one off. He has already penned a modern version of The Master Builder, and Patrick Marber is in on the act with a contemporary Hedda Gabler. Will they stop? No. It’s a nice little earner, they get to have their names associated with Ibsen and Chekhov, plus they don’t have to worry about thinking up characters, plot, themes or any of that creative, difficult stuff. A play can be adapted, in the manner that Hare has done, in about 50 hours.
Now it is possible to go into a bookshop and buy a copy of The Seagull and read a play that is not The Seagull. Perhaps in twenty years that will be the only edition available. Then people might say: “Ah, yes, The Seagull. Didn’t Hare and Chekhov collaborate on that?”
By then Shaw, Miller, Tennessee, Wilde, Coward, Synge, O’Casey and others may also have been improved, adapted and cleansed of incorrectitude. Saint Joan is a good play, but she is a bit of a nationalist. I’m sure there is a literary pygmy lurking in the Barbican willing to airbrush that element. Shaw was writing for eternity, it’s true, but, hey, he’s dead, who cares?