Adapting Dickens’ Great ExpectationsWednesday, February 02, 2011
Guest Blog: Errol Durbach
|Mia Ingimundson as Estella
Why translate one genre into another — in this case, a novel into a play? One reply might be because it has always been done, and that we would have no “original” plays by Shakespeare if we discounted his adaptations of Giraldi Cinthio, Holinshed, North’s translation of Plutarch and the many other sources he plundered for his plots. Another might be that Dickens himself was a stage actor of his own texts, and that his style (full of melodramatic action, all the techniques of the Victorian theatre, and a wonderful ear for dialogue) lends itself to drama like no other novelist’s.
But, above all, there is the chance to make the theme and ideas of the novel accessible to an audience that might not know Great Expectations, its social vision, and its analysis of economic ambitions (closely linked to our sexual desires). These themes are as pertinent today as they were in the 1860s, because they embody universal truths that need to be stated again and again. Consequently, Great Expectations is one of the few novels of any age that has acquired a “mythic” status; and readers are recommended to two modern offshoots of Dickens’ novel that corroborate this claim: Lloyd Jones’s Mr. Pip, and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs.
And this simple ethic — naïve, maybe, but given tremendous force by Dickens — lies at the heart of this adaptation: that the road to social change is through the hearts of individual men and women. This, I think, is the “mythic” idea at its core. And my favorite line in the play belongs to Magwitch — the convict treated with such humane concern by young Pip on the marshes. “Why risk imprisonment and death for some chance encounter with a child in a churchyard?” asks the older Pip. And Magwitch replies: “No one ever saw me as someone with a little human worth, and you helped me, dear boy, to ask me’self if — p’raps — I might have been a better man under better circumstances.” This is as close as Dickens comes to articulating his sense of the transforming power of decency and compassion; and it is a piece of dialogue that, as adaptor, I have had to dredge out of the prose of the novel, fashion into direct speech, and put into the mouth of a dramatic character.
Adaptation, then, inevitably reveals the bias of the adaptor. And I can only hope that I have tapped into the deep structure of Dickens’ vision and represented his myth correctly. Of course there have been many other adaptations — for stage, screen, and television — the best known being David Lean’s movie of 1946, which some consider the definitive adaptation. But there is no artifact, however brilliant, which has any claim to be “definitive”. Lean’s movie was made to reflect the climate of expectation that prevailed in Britain after the War, and he read the Dickensian myth with an over-optimism that prompted him to provide a happily-ever-after glow of Romanticism to the movie’s final scene. But Dickens was in two minds about the way to end his novel — hence the two versions that he wrote: an invitation to all future readers and adaptors to make their own considered choice. I have exercised the adaptor’s prerogative in this version of Great Expectations and conflated the two endings to create a mood of 21st Century ambiguity; and I invite all theatregoers who see this play to return to the novel and decide for themselves the feasibility of their own expectations.
Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, adapted for the stage by Errol Durbach,
Feb. 3 - 19th. at the Gateway Theatre
A Blackbird Theatre production with Persephone Theatre Saskatoon
Errol Durbach on Falstaff