Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Perils of Book to Stage Adaptation

by Susan Land

The day before Thanksgiving, at the Hampstead Theatre just north of London, I dragged my husband to a one-man show he enjoyed, based on a memoir I read last winter and absolutely, positively, with all my heart and soul adored. Though relieved that Mark liked I Found My Horn, I wasn’t just disappointed in the adaptation, but irritated in a way that kept me up at night trying to figure out why. I’d laughed, hadn’t I? I’d enjoyed the music. I even play the horn. (Badly.)

I’ve also taught courses in reading memoirs and memoirs-in-progress, and I’ve learned:

1) Beginning with humiliation works better than beginning with triumph.

2) Readers expect writers to own up and grow up.

3) Readers want an Ah ha moment somewhere near the end of the story, a summing up of a piece of a life. Like a goody bag at the end of a successful birthday party, the moment doesn’t have to have anything of intrinsic value in it to be greatly appreciated.

4) British memoirists don’t dwell on their inner pain with the same candor as American writers.

I Found My Horn is based on the memoir, The Devil to Play, by Jaspar Rees. The memoir focuses on a middle-aged man’s return to the horn he’d abandoned after leaving high school, and the relationships between man and horn, and between horn and history. The book is frank, funny, touching, and very proper. No explanation for the divorce that triggers the crisis that leads to the horn. No romantic pining. No railing at the gods.

The pleasure of The Devil to Play is in the wit and melody and tender, humbling, raging, all-consuming love Reevs feels for his horn.

In the one-man show, the private life left out of the memoir is filled in with a mixture of the actual memories Jonathan Guy Lewis, the adaptor-actor-horn-player, and with Lewis’s dramatic embellishments. We hear him rant about meaningless and the pain of leaving his marriage and sons, and we watch him press the bell of the horn against his groin while wearing only his boxer shorts. He blows and grunts. It isn’t pretty, but it is pretty humiliating: see Item 1.

About halfway through the show, Lewis, playing Rees, reveals a secret humiliation from the past that makes the story more dramatic - and less true. But we get to see him take on the demon nervousness and ultimately triumph: Item 2.

He also gives us a long raunchy scene with Mozart and Mozart’s friend, the first known great horn player and a successful cheese merchant. In fairness to Lewis, live theatre needs to be bolder than print. There’s no time to reread, rewind, reflect.

For the all-important Item 3, Lewis, clothed, gives us a terrific ah ha wrapped up in a performance of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 3, embellished with trills and little declarations about doing the best you can and feeling good about yourself. The only thing is, in the book he never learned how to trill!

So whose story is it now? Lewis is listed in the program as the first author, Rees the second.

I have no trouble at all with truth passing itself off as fiction. Fiction is always a mix, and Grace Paley, for one, felt that everything was fiction, because no one could really capture the non.

But non-fiction, once it has introduced itself as such to, say, this vulnerable reader, cannot just decide to make itself more attractive to others without leaving her dwelling on her pain: Item 4.

So, heartbroken, I seek solace with greater faith than ever in the honest joy of fiction. A good short story will never betray you with untrue trills!

Susan Land MA (Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars), Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction (Stanford University), has received three Maryland Council on the Arts Fellowships, and published fiction in many journals, including The Washington Review, Other Voices, the Florida Review, West Branch, and Missouri Review. So To Speak nominated her story "Amenities" for a 2006 Pushcart Prize. She had written and recorded a personal essay for NPR's All Things Considered, has a short story in Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction By Washington Area Women, and a chapter on teenagers and games in Like Whatever, the Insider's Guide to Raising Teens.This winter, Susan Land is offering a workshop on reading and writing short stories. Reading and writing longer short stories.

Look for a future book to stage colloboration with Round House Theatre, coming this May.

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