Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Adaptation Debate

In case you've missed them, over the past few days there have been several articles and letters in The Australian. Rosemary Neill published this article on the weekend, and then this follow-up. Ralph Myers responded. We sent this letter we sent to the paper today:

We’re 7-ON, a group of seven mid-career playwrights. We are writing in response to the recent series of articles regarding the place of adaptations on the current Australian stage.

It is a pity that this debate is descending into an acrimonious ‘us and them’ dispute. There are bigger and more interesting, and we think, more urgent questions to ask: about the nature of change in our industry; about ‘what is writing?’ in an age of remix and reproduction; about sustainability in the arts and in arts careers; about the monoculture we see on so many of our stages and how we might change it to reflect the diversity of Australia in 2013 and our globalised world; about the place of the Live in a culture where people spend most of their time in front of screens; about innovation—what it is and how we might create space for it to flourish; about the diminishing scale of productions outside the mainstages ... and much more.

With regard to the original article—we have nothing against adaptations, we think of them as the writer collaborating with Shakespeare or Ibsen or whoever, giving us a dialogue with our predecessors and the past, but in an idiom readily accessible to the present, in a way which illuminates the present. We would, though, like to look beyond the obvious texts to adapt, and be bolder in our approaches. 

Back to Myers’ article, it was interesting to note that the four writers he picks out for approbation are male, and that the only female writer mentioned is dismissed as a stereotyped rejected and embittered woman who’s past her prime.

The seven of us don't agree amongst ourselves on every aspect of this debate. Some of us uphold the idea that plays aren't literature, while others reject it; some believe adaptors have the right to 'steal and corrupt' from the ancients, though not the recently-dead like Miller—if you don’t like the script as written, then don’t do it. (And how very, very hard-won are the copyrights that allow writers to make a living while alive, and then provide for their descendants.) Some of us love the results of these ‘corrupted’ classics. Some don’t. And we’d like to point out that any notion of someone being ‘best’ or even ‘worst’ at their craft is, at base, a subjective opinion. But all of that is okay. Divergence of opinion is healthy.

There should be a place for adaptations on our stages, of course there should—but not at the expense of new work. Ideally, the new writing informs the adaptation, and the classic informs the new. Both matter, both need the other.

But there’s no denying the fact that writing an original play is a much more difficult, and much braver, undertaking than adapting, where all the heavy lifting has been done by the playwright. And obviously, if there are no new plays, there are no future classics.

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