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Dramatising Mrs Dalloway.

By Michelene Wandor.

I HAVE — USED the word ‘dramatised’ in the title to this piece. This is significant, since it is important to understand the different ways in which texts are worked on, when they are prepared for performance. There are three main ways in which this can happen; the distinctions are important, since they define somewhat different ways of reading, different approaches to performance, and, finally, to the transmuted form the performed text takes.

There are three terms to correspond with these different approaches: abridging, adapting and dramatising. I think it is very important to use them accurately, in order to begin to be able to appreciate the complexity of the task.

‘Abridging’ is a term which applies to a text where the fundamental form is not altered: at its simplest, it means shortening a book so that it can be read by a single performer – a reading which retains the most significant elements of the original – story, significant events, etc. The text is shortened to fit a time-slot, keeping its prose coherence; it is a scaled-down version of the original, but nevertheless recognisable as the original. Clearly, not everything will be included; it is often assumed that the process of abridging simply means ‘cutting’, and, of course, material is excluded, but the more important decisions are about what to keep and how to maintain the book’s structure. Any ‘cutting’ follows from this, and is a second-order decision. The book is shorter, remains the same – and it is the performed ‘reading’ on radio or audio cassette which alters the forms of distribution and consumption. Of course, one can argue that by abridging one is ‘altering’ the original text, and this is true. But since the purpose is to scale the novel in line with a broadcast medium, the chief identifiable features of the original book are retained. The single voice of the reader generally chimes with the single-voiced narrative device of the novel. If it is in the third person, then it may create the illusion of an ‘authorial’ voice, but within the traditions of BBC radio and British audio-book production (a big industry now), the books are read by professional performers, so that any notion of a simulated authorial voice is always itself additionally characterised.

The second term, ‘adapting’, refers more explicitly to a process where a text has been originally written for one performance medium, and is then made appropropriate for a different medium. As with abridging, the original form remains intact. In the case of radio, particularly on the World Service, there is a long tradition of adapting stage plays for broadcast. This does also involve ‘abridging’, but since the change of medium means that everything must be heard rather than seen, some modification for the purposes of radio is generally involved. In 2000, I adapted Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan for radio; it was shortened to run for sixty minutes. It’s interesting in this kind of process, that sometimes one actually also has to make inroads on the original style. With George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which I adapted in 1995, there were two matters. Firstly, reducing the length of the full-length play to sixty minutes, but also, in order to maintain as much integrity as possible, to tighten the rather more fulsome conversational style of Shaw’s period writing. This was a fascinating process, because by the end, I had actually speeded up the pace of the conversational exchanges, so that what began as a technical exercise (shortening a long play) ended up as a kind of modernising of the rhythms and pace of the language.

‘DRAMATISING’ IS THE  third and most complex (and, I think, most exciting) process. Here the literary form itself is fundamentally altered, and the basic tropes of the original text are under close scrutiny and some serious transformation in terms of genre. What was written as a novel, with all the conventions of that form, is transformed into a play, a dramatic rather than a primarily narrative mode. It is often assumed that this simply means lifting the dialogue out of the novel and filling in some extra bits. But it is nothing like that. Even where dialogue is fluent and neat, it can never just be lifted off the page, since it has to become part of an art form which is formed around, and driven by, dialogue. There is no surrounding description, authorial intervention, first- or third-person narrative to provide any kind of coherent point of view from which the story is told. The most important elements – the spirit of the original, fidelity to plot, etc. – must all be maintained, while the form is fundamentally changed.

Clearly, however, all the prose bits are still absolutely central to the novel. What happens to them? Well, the answer is that it varies. The ability to dramatise a novel depends on two things: being a subtle and meticulous reader, and knowing exactly what writing drama is, and in what ways it is utterly different from writing prose fiction. At first (literally), one needs to be able to read carefully, critically, taking in the obvious and the apparently not-so obvious, following the surface events of the text whilst detecting the sub-textual – the gaps and unwritten or underwritten moments. One must engage with the rhythms and the style of the original, so that the dramatising process remains faithful to these, as well as to the more obvious issues of story, etc. The consummate dramatiser is also a consummate critical reader, for whom part of the dramatisation is the challenge of including not only elements within the prose, but also, in a sense, re-reading the imperfections, the contradictions, the lacunae, even, in the text. This is essential because, of course, one is reading from the present, with one’s critical insights, whatever they are.

The second skill, the ability to write drama, means knowing that everything about the novel must be presented and contained within the dramatic form, where dialogue is all. The single and singular narrative voice of prose is a very different matter from the technically multi-voiced form of the drama, and the two skills must absolutely dovetail with one another.

by Virginia Woolf

Dramatised by Michelene Wandor for Radio 4, Classic Serial, in two episodes

Episode One | Episode Two

The full text of Mrs Dalloway is available online here.

Michelene Wandor is the author of a study of the cultural influences on creative writing in the academy, The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else, and, forthcoming, an “historical, literary and theoretical resource for creative writing students and their teachers” called Critical-Creative Writing: Readings and Resources (Continuum, November 2012). Her two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. A third collection, Natural Chemistry, will soon be added to Arc’s list. She performs with the Siena Ensemble and reports regularly for The Fortnightly Review.



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