Can we talk? Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:30
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Category: Culture

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A character stands at the center of the stage, talking directly to the audience, sharing a story, taking the crowd into his or her confidence. The device–as hallowed as the soliloquy and as modern as today’s solo–performance scene–has become an almost universal feature of contemporary dramaturgy. The character reaches across the footlights and bonds with the live audience: It’s one of the most powerful tools playwrights can adopt to set off their work from the better-funded, better-distributed competition on movie and television screens.
It also leads to a paradoxical difficulty when the successful play, having reached a wide enough audience to catch Hollywood’s attention, gets translated to celluloid. Those lucky playwrights who get the chance to write their own screenplays–having done their jobs well in the theatre and exploited the unique traits of their art–must turn around and figure out how to reinvent the same material in a new medium.
According to the old conventional wisdom, the job of bringing stage plays to the screen was largely a matter of “opening out” the material–getting characters off the walls-and-furniture set and out into more photogenic locations. But the quick-shifting writing and fluid, one-object-suggests-a-whole-scene stagecraft that’s the norm among more accomplished playwrights today has made that process simple. What’s become devilishly difficult is working out just how to film those crucial, direct-to-the-crowd speeches.

Addressing the thin air 

Voiceovers, of course, are a possibility, but they rob performers of their faces, making it even harder to glue that bond with the viewer. The speech straight into the camera is considered something near anathema in the world of mainstream movies today, and though you may frequently find the device in the work of independent and European directors, you’ll rarely see it in any movie that hopes to play at the mall. (Someone’s afraid, I suppose, of disturbing the cozy trance induced by the aroma of popcorn.)
Thus, for instance, we have the sad spectacle of Kenneth Branagh’s Benedick, in his overpraised recent film of Much Ado About Nothing, ruining one of Shakespeare’s most foolproof passages of comedy–the speech in which the love-spurning soldier, having eavesdropped on his comrades’ contrived conversation about how madly Beatrice adores him, does a psychological about-face. The speech is a daftly lurching soliloquy (“The world must be peopled!”), and every Benedick I’ve seen who’s brought the lines to comic life has addressed them casually to the audience, in conversational rhythms that bring out the process of self-delusion underway in the character’s mind. Instead, Branagh awkwardly addresses the thin air–and improvises some fussy business with a folding chair to cover the resulting dead time. What might have possessed the actor-director to avoid the camera’s eye, and thereby ours? Some misguided notion of cinematic realism? Or just unthinking adherence to Hollywood convention, by the very sort of artist we’d expect to overturn it?
Two recent adaptations offer some valuable and contrasting lessons in the art of stage-to-screen translation. With both M. Butterfly and Six Degrees of Separation, talented playwrights got the chance to write the screenplays for their successful dramas. Each play was built around direct address, and each writer sought to redesign his work to sidestep that device. Yet the David Henry Hwang piece comes stillborn to the screen, whereas John Guare’s play retains its vibrancy. What happened?

From fantasia to pathology 

On the stage, M. Butterfly unfolds as the confession of Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who was convicted of spying with the aid of his Chinese lover, a male opera singer disguised as a woman. Hwang took a newspaper anecdote and wove it into a complex web of dramatic artifice. Western opera and Asian theatre, male fantasy and female impersonation, imperialist ideas and revolutionary dogmas met and clashed as Gallimard took center stage and tried to explain his bizarre story.

Hwang teased us with our prurient curosity: Just how was this man duped for decades about the gender of his partner–or did he know all along, and repress the knowledge? But these questions eventually prove less tantalizing than those Hwang emphasized–not the “hows” of this seduction but the “whys.” If we want to believe something badly enough–and if it plays directly upon our vanities and prejudices–then, the playwright suggests, nothing so prosaic as physical reality is likely to stop us.
Unfortunately for M. Butterfly, physical reality is precisely what the medium of cinema fixes its gaze upon. The stage is neutral ground, free to metamorphose in our minds; the camera keeps bringing our attention back to particulars. Presented on that level, M. Butterfly can’t help shrinking from an evocative fantasia into a kind of narrow study of psychological pathology. In the play’s intricate structure, Gallimard simultaneously told us his life story and led us through a comic explication of the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; the movie gives us a much more linear narrative, minus the personal history that helped make sense of Gallimard’s psyche and the digressions that connected his saga to wider public issues.

Capturing the play’s spark 

In the hands of director David Cronenberg–a sometimes inspired filmmaker who has never shied from the disturbing or the grotesque–the story unfolds at a distance from us. Part of the trouble is that Jeremy Irons–unlike John Lithgow, who played Gallimard on Broadway–makes no effort to reach out and seduce us into looking at his lover, Song, through his eyes. Part of the trouble is that, without the play’s self-presentational speeches, the actor really has no opportunity to do so.
The movie M. Butterfly returns to stage setting in its final scene: Gallimard appears to be putting on some kind of solo performance piece for his fellow prisoners. It’s really the film’s futile, last-ditch effort to recapture some of the play’s spark by borrowing its operatic finale–in which Gallimard turns out to be the true “Butterfly” of the piece, betrayed by a faithless lover. But what was a natural consummation of the story in the theatre–a kind of ritual of completion that, in John Dexter’s majestic production, brought the play full circle–comes off here as a rickety melodramatic contrivance. It’s never clear what the man is doing on this peculiar prisonstage in the first place: Since when do inmates perform operatic scenes for one another? That’s not the sort of question that should be occupying us at the movie’s climax.
In Six Degrees of Separation, Guare, too, was inspired by a news story–this one about a young man who fibbed his way into the homes of a number of wealthy Manhattan couples under the pretense that he was Sidney Poitier’s son and attended Harvard with their children. Both play and movie use that odd newsbite as the jumping-off point for an ambitious meditation on wealth and poverty, imagination and experience, and the interconnectedness of human lives.
As staged by Jerry Zaks at Lincoln Center Theater, Six Degrees played with whirlwind fluidity; actors hopped onto and off the largely bare stage from the front row of the theatre, and the two central characters–an art dealer named Flan and his wife, Ouisa–told their story directly to the audience. In the movie, Guare has the couple recounting their tales to friends and cocktail-circuit acquaintances at New York museums, concert-hall lobbies and society luncheons. It’s a film in which, on the surface, the action seems to be all gab.
Under director Fred Schepisi, Six Degrees performs the usual opening-out-the-action stunts: The movie is full of Manhattan locations, from the Strand Bookstore to the Rainbow Room to the Waverly moviehouse, that serve as signposts to the particulars of Flan’s and Ouisa’s lives. But the high-contrast metropolis isn’t just used as an eye-catching backdrop; Six Degrees looks deep into the nature of a city that’s built on hustles up and down the social ladder–and that plants dreams in people with no intention of ever delivering the goods. It helps, too, that the movie has Stockard Channing repeating–and extending–the brittle, observant performance as Ouisa that carried Six Degrees on stage.

On conversational autopilot 

None of that, though, would matter if the movie left you wondering why you were hopping from one cocktail party to another to hear the story related in retrospect, rather than simply watching it unfold in a manner more natural to the film medium. Guare doesn’t simply finesse his way around this problem; he turns it to the script’s advantage.
In one of the play’s climactic speeches, Ouisa objects to taking the whole story of “Paul Poitier”–for whom she has developed a frustrated, quasi-parental affection–and turning it into “an anecdote to dine out on.” The thought was powerful enough on the stage, but in the movie–where we’ve been watching the couple “dine out on” anecdotes all along–it carries an extra, transformative insight. As they tell their friends their story throughout the film, Flan and Ouisa seem to be on a kind of conversational autopilot. When, late in the film, Ouisa declares her resistance to becoming a “human jukebox spilling out anecdotes,” we look back at the earlier scenes and realize that this is the exact image for how she and her husband have been behaving.
There was no way for the film version of Six Degrees to duplicate the in-your-face dynamics of the stage production. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a satisfying movie. Unlike Hwang and Cronenberg–who were unable to find a new language to replace the confessional dynamics of M. Butterfly, the play–Guare and Schepisi found something else for their film to do that the play couldn’t, and thus secured its independent value.

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