The Novelisation of Theatre

This morning I had the pleasure to participate in a theatre class at Dongguk University (동국대학교), a good place to study theatre in Korea. Today’s topic was “From Literature to Theatre” (소설의 연극화).

Crime and Punishment (Myung Pum)

After some theoretical discussions, we watched scenes from a production by the Myung Pum Theater Company (명품극단) which limits its repertoire to works based on novels, both Korean and Russian. In fact, I had seen their version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание, kor. 죄와 벌) about ten days ago at the National Theater.

The Camellias (Myung Pum)

This time it was a theatrical rendering of The Camellias (봄봄, lit. “Spring, spring”) by KIM Yu-jeong (김유정, 1908–37). This novella is required reading at Korean high schools, thus the students should be familiar with the plot which, in the words of its adaptors, focuses on “the conflict between [the] supervisor of a tenant farm and his farmhand, working to his bones to get married to the supervisor’s daughter Jeomsun.”

According to a review by Charles Montgomery, posted on the great KTLI blog, it is “a ‘first-love’ story in which a rather bumpkin-ish boy confronts Jeomsun a rather higher class girl who loves him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through aggression – the ‘potato incident’ and the ‘cockfight’ being two of the more amusing cases of her sublimated love.”

We saw a scene that presented the interaction between the farmdwellers, all entangled in a web of rubber band. Generally, the production makes much use of traditional masks, puppets, and other accessory and also features various folk games. Which sounds like a potpourri right out of the Korea House might actually be a worthwhile watch. Maybe I will have the chance to see the revival which will be, fittingly, next spring.

The dramatization of novels seems to be a trend not only on Korean, but also on German stages—at least in the eyes of theatre critic Gerhard Stadelmaier who bemoaned the neglect of original dramatic literature in favor of novels and movies last July (back to him later).

In fact, the plundering of prose literature for stage material has quite a tradition. For example, already back in 1957 Glenn Loney refered to the period between 1900 and 1906 as “The Heyday of the Dramatized Novel” (in the US). The boom went hand in hand with the “rise of the best-seller” and provided steady revenues for minimal effort:

Because both the historical romances and the local color novels contained the same calibre of melodrama and low comedy to be found in the average stage play of the period, adaptation was a fairly easy matter. Cutting the novel to play-length, heightening the melodrama, and broadening the farce were the chief responsibilities of the playwright.

Earlier in the 19th century, the lack of copyright had offered proliferate playwrights easy inspiration. Despite efforts to protect the rights of the original authors—in the US since 1870—, the practice of dramatizing novels prevailed. On 3 Aug. 1879 The New York Times published a quote from British Macmillan’s Magazine, describing the situation:

The mode and extent to which novels and stories may be used for the stage varies very considerably. Stories have been prepared … in a form adapted for theatrical representation almost without change; particular parts and passages of novels are sometimes transferred bodily into a drama, the bulk of which consists of original matter; and at other times the plot of a novel is used as the basis of a play, while the dialogue is entirely original.

For Stadelmaier copyright issues play only a minor role. He rather takes aesthetic offense in what he calls an “epic contamination” of theatre repertoires and distinguishes two kinds of novels adapted for the stage: established classics and recent best-sellers, both a simple means to attract audiences and allowing the egomanic director (Stadelmaier’s most beloved enemy) to entertain himself.

For me it does not really matter what inspired a theatre production (a videogame might not be the worst choice), as long as the resulting performances are engaging. Dramatic literature, after all, is merely a material in the process of playing (albeit a historically privileged one)—and not the holy scripture that critics like Stadelmaier like it to be.

Too often, productions of dramas do not much more than saving the spectator time, a reproach regularly put up against dramatized novels (e.g. a German reviewer calls them “literature light”, allowing for “an accelerated acquisition [of the novel’s content], compared to the effort of reading.”). This is especially true for many productions—or rather scenic illustrations—of classics like Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, or Schiller that still dominate German stages (see a response to Stadelmaier at nachtkritik.de).

In the end, theatre is what you make of it—and I am talking both about the director and the spectator.

The Process (Shilhum Theater Group)

During the last months I saw two productions based on novels: Crime and Punishment by Myung Pum (mentioned above) and The Process by the Experimental Theatre Groupe (discussed in an earlier post). Kafka’s nightmare put on a distant stage did not really work for me—in fact, this was (melo-)drama at its best. “Silenced, sometimes dozing off, sometimes drifting off to the strange story,” this process made me reflect about my own situation more than about the people on stage (which might not be a bad thing, occasionally).

Crime and Punishment, on the other hand, was an intense 90 minutes of body theatre. Shown at the intimate black-box Studio “Byeol” of the National Theatre (별오름극장), in a likewise gloomy, scarcely lighted space, the performance set of dynamically from the very start: the protagonist running circles with increasing speed.

Crime and Punishment (Myung Pum)

With a cast of only five persons, the play was absorbing, featuring almost artistic activities behind, on and around several worn off door leaves that were leaning against each other, were carried around the stage, balanced on heads, caught in free fall, both burdens to be borne and cover for those hiding from their own fate. Furthermore, a metal stairway mounted on rolls was used as a jungle gym, a springboard, and a scaffold, alternatively.

A little bit of this physical endeavours can be seen in the following video:

Crime and Punishment (Myung Pum)

Legitimized by a suggestion from Dostoyevsky himself (“Select one fundamental and pivotal ideology from it, and change the whole story completely.”), director KIM Weon Cuk (김원석) concentrates on the process of Raskolnikov’s (오경태) confession to Sonya (최소영/국보미) and parallels it with the compressed relationship between Raskolnikovs sister Dunya (박지연) and her pursuer Svidrigaïlov (최영열) who finally commits suicide. In the ultimate scene Raskolnikov’s mother Pulkheria (고윤미), soon to die or already dead, enters the stage like a ghost, delivering a closing monologue.

This production is considered only a work in progress by its makers, the beginning of a more and more elaborate engagement with Dostoyevski’s work. Experimenting with constellations and situations drawn from the novel, elaborating its themes from a certain perspective using some means of theatre, Myung Pum’s approach to Crime and Punishment adds new layers to the text without questioning its authority—an exploration rather than a transformation. While this works also for people like me who have never read the book, it does not spare me the reading (unlike the “scenic illustrations” mentioned above).

Minou Arjomand’s fear that the trend towards theatre inspired by novels might result in “a reversal of fifty years of theater practice that has come to prize the body, the image, the non-signifying voice, and even sensory assaults on the audience over the word” seems unfounded (Peter Stein’s mammoth productions that spare neither prose nor drama are a different story, although they pretend not to).

As these examples show, novel theatre neither means the death of drama nor does it necessarily imply a return to more text-based performance.

By the way: The first recorded performance of a foreign play in Korea in 1914 was a dramatization of a British novel of unknown name (the Korean title was 형제, “Brother”). In fact several early productions were based on novels, e.g. Resurrection by Tolstoy and Les Misérables. By contrast, Shakespeare’s classics were read—long before they performed on stage—in the prose-versions by Charles and Mary Lamb.

— 2010 Nov. 30 (火)

  • The Trial, Shilhum Theater Group, dir. by GU Tae-hwan, Arko Arts Theater, Main Hall, The 31st Seoul Theater Festival, 2010-05-04 (Tue.), 20–22 h.
  • 〈심판〉 (審判), 실험극장, 연출 구태환, 아르코예술극장, 대극장, 2010 서울 연극제, 2010년 5월 4일 (화), 20시~22시까지.
  • Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevski Series Part 1: Confession of the Crime), Myung Pum Theater Company, dir. by KIM Weon Cuk, National Theater of Korea, Studio “Byeol”, 2010-11-19 (Fri.), 20–21.30 h.
  • 〈죄와 벌〉 (도스토예프스키 시리즈 제1부: 죄를 고백함), 명품극단, 연출 김원석, 국립극장, 별오름극장, 2010년 11월 19일 (금), 20시~21.30시까지.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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