As many of you know, earlier this year I published a novel based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, co-authored with David Hewson. The story was originally released as an audiobook voiced by Alan Cumming and saw print in May. On Friday, November 2nd, David and I will be participating in an event at UNC Charlotte which will feature a staged reading of portions of the book followed by a conversation about collaboration and adaptation. It’s free and open to the public, so if you are in town, you should come by.
What this means is that I am currently taking portions of what was once a play but became a novel and turning it back into something like a play, only a very different one. I’m not sure of the format of the event itself yet, but a staged reading is a kind of halfway house, a hybrid of narrative and drama. It isn’t performance exactly, but neither is it simply text, since the words are mediated by the voice and body of an actor, albeit not one who is really acting… It’s all very complicated and makes my theory-soaked brain start bouncing around the inside of my head like a caged chimp in a banana warehouse.
I’ll want to maintain some of the narrative feel of the novel, but will also want to emphasize the theatrical valences of the event itself, so I’ll prune the description in order to foreground dialogue (we’ll have five or six actors to work with), which will—I hope—make the whole rather more engaging than simply listening to a reading of the text. After all, we already have that in the audiobook (and with a superlative performance to boot), so the evening should feel like something new, something you had to actually be there for.
I recently attended the Unchained raconteur tour which featured, among others, Neil Gaiman, telling autobiographical stories without recourse to notes, to a live audience. The experience reminded me how special liveness can be, how crucial it is to the sense of what theatre is. Liveness makes it different from other story media like books or film. Live theatre is about relationships: relationships between characters on stage, of course, but also between those actors and the living, breathing audience for whom the evening’s experience is theoretically and practically unrepeatable. As anyone involved in theatre knows, no two performances, however carefully rehearsed, are ever the same because the audience changes from night to night, and the audience’s response—its laughter, its tears, its stony silence, its boos, its interrupting cellphones—all become part of how the theatrical event makes meaning.
What will happen on this evening will thus be a brand new version of a story which I have told a couple of times before, and which has been told thousands of times in different iterations all the way back to the putative Scottish king of the title. Shakespeare built his story from competing historical sources—themselves influenced by legend and folk tale as much as fact—and Shakespeare’s version has spawned an almost infinite number of stagings, all also unique in their specifics. The implications of the story, its ideas, the feelings its stirs in its audience are subtly different every time, and so our event is a natural outgrowth of an unavoidable process.
What this process amounts to is finally about how old tales become new: their form shifts, their voice mutates, the cultural accretions alter, and what we thought we knew becomes an entirely different animal right before our eyes.
It’s an encouraging thought, I think, that in this world obsessed with novelty and gimmicky freshness, the old can somehow be remade in its own image in ways which, paradoxically, make it both an echo of what was and an entirely new work of art.
People sometimes glibly remark that there is nothing new under the sun, that there are only half a dozen real stories and we just keep retelling them. To this I would say that while there is a grain of truth to the idea that stories repeat over time, I reject the notion that that somehow means they can’t be new. The effects of a story are in its details, and those are what vary from one telling to another. When you go back to the core of a familiar tale, a Bible story, or an ancient Greek myth, say, and resolve to retell it, you aren’t simply dressing up the original in (Emperor’s) new clothes; you are creating an entirely new work of art whose deep structure partakes of an older original. This seems to me a worthy artistic endeavor because all such retelling is necessarily adaptive, and all adaptation is ultimately transformative.
Whatever form our Macbeth takes in a couple of weeks, it will be different from any version of that story that has ever existed, including our own prior tellings. For a story we all assume we know, that’s kind of cool.