FLANN OBRIEN was an enemy of the practice of dramatising novels. He devoted a Myles na gCopaleen column in The Irish Times to an attack on a stage version of Oscar Wildes novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. (Myles called it Doreen Gay.) He mocked Micheál MacLiammoirs adaptation on the grounds that it ignored Wildes own judgment of the appropriate form for his material.
Myles proceeded to reduce this proposition to absurdity. Perhaps Wilde was similarly mistaken when he wrote plays and really intended to make The Importance of Being Earnest a novel: Why not a novelisation of his ‘plays? And he suggested that the same principle may explain why he himself is puzzled about the intentions of certain contemporary painters. This painter, I say, can it be that he is a novelist? A poet? A worker in exquisite enamels? A musician in the manner of Ravel? For certain it is that painter he is not.
Behind the mockery Myles insisted he was terribly serious about this because it involved a major problem in aesthetics. He asked, rhetorically, Is artistic function interchangeable? And he suggested that at the root of the desire to dramatise novels lay the reality that some people are chronically incapable of appreciating a thing in terms of itself.
The same considerations apply, of course, to Flann OBriens own work. He had a strong interest in the theatre and wrote two passably funny plays, Faustus Kelly and Thirst. Had he wished to shape the material for At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman into a dramatic form he would undoubtedly have done so. It seems safe to assume that he would have been most unhappy with the idea of others making this decision on his behalf.
And yet theatre companies havent been able to resist the urge to do precisely that. Hugh Leonard did a stage version of The Dalkey Archive for the Gate as early as 1965. Eamon Morrisseys brilliant 1974 one-man show The Brother showed how well OBriens language works as public speech. Jocelyn Clarkes version of At Swim-Two-Birds for Blue Raincoat, which finishes tonight at the Project in Dublin before continuing its tour, is at least the third. The Abbey did a large-scale adaptation in 1970 and a different one in 1998. (Brendan Gleeson is planning to direct a film version this year.) Clarkes version of The Third Policeman was preceded by Morrisseys for the Gate in 1974. The Poor Mouth, which Blue Raincoat will stage in October, was cleverly adapted as a two-hander by Paul Lee in 1989.
So should Flann OBriens ghost be haunting all of these endeavours? Was he right to be so sceptical of the notion of translating works from one form to another? The answer, in his own case at least, lies in the whole notion of the authors intentions. There is a large debate to be had about this subject, but in the specific case of OBrien it can be rudely cut short. For the last person to be in a position to use authorial intentions as a firm principle of judgment is OBrien.
Much of his comic genius was devoted to the destruction of the idea of authorship. The many masks of Brian ONolan/Flann OBrien/Myles and so on were ciphers of this systematic obliteration of the author. And, of course, At Swim itself is based on the conceit that characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another ... The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. If characters are interchangeable between one book and another, why should they not wander out of novels altogether and on to the stage?
The real question, then, is not whether a novel like At Swim should be dramatised but whether it can be dramatised successfully. And the test here is not whether everything in the novel is translated on to the stage but whether something worthwhile survives when all the untranslatable bits have been discarded.
In the case of Blue Raincoats At Swim the answer is undoubtedly yes. It works as a vivid, breakneck, high-wire circus of language, parody and role play. The deft choreography of Niall Henrys direction and Jamie Vartans superb designs anchor the performances of a fine ensemble. The physical skills that are Blue Raincoats forte ensure the engagement with the novel is not primarily literary.
Whats not quite so clear is whether the adaptation works so well for those who do not know the novel. My guess would be that, even in the simplified form imposed by the needs of drama, the deliberately dizzying plot would be difficult to follow if you dont already know how it works. To that extent, the stage version remains dependent on the book. It works best as a visual elaboration of OBriens verbal pyrotechnics.
But it eventually escapes this dependence. This is particularly so in that the stage version is strongest where the book is weakest. The denouement of the novel, in which the author, Trellis, is tortured by his vengeful characters, is somewhat squashed. It benefits enormously from being played out physically, giving it a force and clarity lacking from the original.
For all his scepticism, OBrien might have given some grudging respect to this achievement. His complaint about those chronically incapable of appreciating a thing in terms of itself cuts both ways. Particularly towards the end, this At Swim becomes a thing in itself and deserves to be appreciated not as a version of a book but as a vibrant piece of theatre.