When art imitates art.

A J HartleyA J Hartley
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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.

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5 comments to When art imitates art.

  • I have a book signing that day or I would surely come. In fact, if I can slip away….
    This sounds lovely, AJ.

  • Wish I could be there for the reading. I’ve always loved the play, I loved what you and David did with it, and I have no doubt that this will be a memorable evening. I think your point about adaptation is a good one, but I also think that just as every performance is different, depending not only on the actors on a given night, but also the differences between one night’s audience and the next, so is every reading experience of the same book different from reader to reader, and even reading to reading. We’ve discussed this before on this site and also you and I on our own. Each reader brings something unique to the reading of our books, and so each time a book is opened it is made anew. And I can read a book once as a young man, and once as . . . well . . . a slightly less-young man, and my take on the book will be different, because the life experience I bring to the reading has changed. This is why art — music, visual art, literature, theater, cinema, etc. — is timeless. Because experiencing art is not a unidirectional interaction. It is a conversation, and so is fluid and ever-changing.

  • Vyton

    A.J., this is fantastic. I wish we could be there. Particularly so since we have just seen Georgia Shakespeare’s fall production of the Scottish play with its reference to the Orsen Welles production during the Federal Theater project in the 1930s. This production retells that old story in a unique setting and in a unique way. We would be able to contrast that with the reading of your novel would be quite an experience.

  • Thanks Faith. The event isn’t till 7.30, so if you get out early, come by :)

    David, yes, that’s fair. Of course the difference is solely in the reader rather than in the text itself, but I accept that the reader is a co-maker of meaning. I’ll quibble with your use of the term “timeless” (predictably) because while I don’t think you mean it this way, most people think that suggests constancy, not infinite variation. “Romeo and Juliet is timeless because it means to day what it meant in 1595 or so.” I don’t buy that at all. If it’s timelessness is in its capacity to create new, relevant meanings from one generation to the next, that it’s not expressly bound by the period in which it was created, okay :)

    Widdershins,
    thanks!

    Vyton,
    haven’t been able to get down to GA Shakes this time, but I’m glad you are supporting them. Great company.