Can We “Understand” Adaptations?
Sometimes we encounter moments that completely redefine the way we look at adaptation studies, irrespective of which theoretical standpoint we might embrace. Whether we favor a Piagetian view (relating the self to the adaptation process); a text-based view; or a transmedial view; there are times when we realize that each one of these approaches have their shortcomings.
Such was the case for me during the last week. I was fortunate enough to watch G. W. Pabst’s version of The Threepenny Opera (1931) on television. Premiered in pre-Nazi Germany only three years previously, the film contained three of the cast who had been involved in the stage version. Evidently Brecht himself had been initially involved in the film version, but Pabst eventually dispensed with his services. The finished product contains few of the original Brecht/ Weill songs, and some critics have noted that the lush recreations of the London underworld detract attention away from the musical’s political overtones. Nonetheless Pabst’s vision does not shy away from the satiric material, with the actors (Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Fritz Rasp, and Lotte Lenya) singing the lyrics in deliberately discordant tones direct to camera. They function as commentaries on the action, especially the overriding emphasis on self-interest that dominates the characters’ minds. Sometimes the story seems slightly incoherent (we do not quite understand why Mackie Messer (Forster) is eventually reprieved from a death-sentence by hanging), but the film provides a valuable record of “Brechtian” drama as conceived during his time.
Three days later I watched the Berliner Ensemble perform the same work at İstanbul’s Zorlu Center, directed by the American Robert Wilson. This time the group used the whole text with all of the songs. Performed on a cavern-like and largely bare stage, Wilson used a variety of visual effects drawn from a cornucopia of traditions – commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh theater, the circus, cabaret, the Theater of Cruelty, mime – to emphasize the play’s political material. The effect was quite stunning: a set comprised of a series of metal bars, horizontally and vertically placed, could double up as Macheath’s lair, a prison, a courthouse, or whatever venue was required. The actors’ use of mime recalled how much Brecht was indebted to early silent film in his drama. Most of the lines were delivered at the front of the playing area direct to the audience, so as to sustain a Verfremdungseffekt, or a sense of alienation, preventing us from identifying with the characters in any way. With a live orchestra performing the songs, and displaying a remarkable versatility in the process, the entire production not only challenged our concepts of what “drama” could encompass, but forced us to concentrate on the importance of the words – whether delivered in spoken or singing voices.
Some of the packed house of 2,000 did not like what they saw. The first half lasted just over two hours without a break; when the interval finally arrived, several playgoers walked, complaining that they had been short-changed in their expectations from an organization as prestigious as the Berliner Ensemble. I do not want to speculate too much on their opinions, but I venture to suggest that these playgoers had expected something more along the lines of a “well-made play,” with a beginning, middle and an end, and a story they could become emotionally involved with.
Throughout the evening, I felt exhausted, as if I had been blown away by an artistic tornado. I could not judge whether I “liked” or “disliked” what I saw; perhaps it did not matter. What I did understand, however, is how a performance – whether live on stage or filmed – is a highly complex text sending out a multiplicity of messages, both visual as verbal. As spectators, we not only have to make sense of the sets and costumes, but we take into account the actors’ movements, the director’s management of space, the music, facial expressions and the use of silence. And all this on top of trying to understand the words, stresses, intonations, verbal interactions, and so on …
What I am trying to say is that watching adaptations is difficult. Our judgments are continually shaped and reshaped from moment to moment; in a revival like Wilson’s Threepenny Opera this process of development can become overwhelming, rendering us mentally exhausted. I would venture to suggest that such interpretive issues arise while watching every adaptation, irrespective of the medium for which it has been conceived and/or performed.
I began by making distinctions between three types of standpoint – the textual, Piagetian and intermedial. My experience of watching The Threepenny Opera prompts me to conclude that all three approaches play an intrinsic part in the experience of every adaptation. This is what renders them such complex texts to decode and relate to our own experiences as audiences and/or critics.