Fintan O’Toole, ‘Lost in translation: a Wilde notion from Myles na gCopaleen’, in The Irish Times (5 March 2011), Weekend Review, “Culture Shock” [column], p.9.

[Bibliographical note: available online; accessed 21.03.2011.]

FLANN O’BRIEN 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 Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. (Myles called it Doreen Gay.) He mocked Micheál MacLiammoir’s adaptation on the grounds that it ignored Wilde’s own judgment of the appropriate form for his material.

“Wilde wrote a number of plays and also this ‘only’ novel. Unless he was mad, he must have intended to write ‘Doreen Gay’ as a novel, otherwise he would have done what was for him the customary thing – written it as a play. Since however a man of the calibre of Mr MacLiammoir does not hesitate to reverse Wilde’s judgment, I fear we are faced ... with the theory that Wilde fully intended to write it as a play. He couldn’t think of the word, went ahead writing, and the thing turned out to be a novel!”

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 O’Brien’s 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 haven’t 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 Morrissey’s brilliant 1974 one-man show The Brother showed how well O’Brien’s language works as public speech. Jocelyn Clarke’s 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.) Clarke’s version of The Third Policeman was preceded by Morrissey’s 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 O’Brien’s 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 author’s intentions. There is a large debate to be had about this subject, but in the specific case of O’Brien 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 O’Brien.

Much of his comic genius was devoted to the destruction of the idea of authorship. The many masks of Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/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 Raincoat’s 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 Henry’s direction and Jamie Vartan’s superb designs anchor the performances of a fine ensemble. The physical skills that are Blue Raincoat’s forte ensure the engagement with the novel is not primarily literary.

What’s 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 don’t already know how it works. To that extent, the stage version remains dependent on the book. It works best as a visual elaboration of O’Brien’s 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, O’Brien 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.

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