I saw The War of the Worlds: The Musical
at the Dominion Theatre in London. The Dominion is an enormous theatre--one of the largest in the West End--with a seating capacity of more than 2000. For many years, it was the home of We Will Rock You
, a rock musical set in a dystopic future. Perhaps The War of the Worlds
seemed to fit--in scale and theme--with this long-running popular production, but it did not live up to this promise. The vast auditorium was eerily empty, with more seats empty than occupied. Why didn't the people who flocked to see the Queen rock musical return to take in a bit of musical Wellsian terror?
The musical is based on the 1978 concept album by Jeff Wayne. And there is the curious Dickensian link: Wayne had, a decade earlier, composed the score for A Tale of Two Cities: The Musical, which was, by most accounts, a theatrical flop. Beyond the horrific and world-rattling horror at their centers, the two stories wouldn't seem to have much in common. Chaos, destruction, disorder--both are deeply engaged with the sensation of terror, but their "human" narratives feel rather different. One is an historical novel, looking to the past; the other is a future-peering speculative science fantasy. There is in both an interest in the breakdown of civil order and the chaos of the crowd. The link probably tells us very little about Wells and Dickens, a bit more, perhaps, about pervasive 19th-century anxieties, and something about the persistence of those anxieties into the 21st century. It says something, too, about the translatability of stories of large-scale human disasters into musical and theatrical idioms.
There was, I must confess, not much in the production that I found entertaining. Or intellectually interesting. There were lasers. And walls of flame. Guitars screamed. It was loud. So very loud. And with the flames shooting from the stage, rather warm in the front rows. The choreography was little more than a frenzied running about, with the actors dodging lasers and bursts of fire, occasionally becoming "frozen" to show that they had been hit by the Martian heat ray. So many lasers. So much running about.
There wasn't much acting. The story was invested almost entirely in a video narrative. Every few minutes, a screen would descend from the ceiling so that a pre-recorded Ralph Fiennes could tell us the story. So there was lots of description and running about, but not much in the way of drama. Is it that the production team felt bound to the concept album? Is Wells's novel not particularly theatrical? Does emphasizing the technology and the terror come at the expense of the human drama of the story? Is the piece simply not alternative enough?
I wondered what had brought people to the show. The two middle-aged women behind me were surprised to learn, from their programs, that the show was "based on a classic." One thought that its originary was the 2005 Steven Spielberg film and hoped that this show would "be true" to that "classic film." The comment is interesting, as it reminds us that The War of the Worlds is one of those novels that everyone knows without having to read it for themselves: it has been so frequently adapted as to have achieved an identity independent of its written text. From the famous radio drama to the many film adaptations, The War of the Worlds has entered into free cultural circulation. What, then, does "fidelity" to its source mean, when everyone in the audience has in mind a different originary?
Given this disconnect between written text and story, it is somewhat curious that the production relied so heavily on the "holographic" narration. Why not sever the link to the originary novel's first-person narration--often very awkward to achieve on stage--and embrace more fully musical and theatrical tools? In some sense, the video screens did double duty, delivering Wells's words--thus assuring us of the production's fidelity to its source text--but also recalling the electronic media--tv and film--that for many--if not most--in the audience may have been the first--or only--encounter with Wells's story. The video voice-over thus "authenticated" the production by linking it to its predecessors, across different media.
Another somewhat curious "authenticating" move was provided by the period costumes. As Spielberg's film showed us, The War of the Worlds can translate to the modern day, speaking as it does to contemporary anxieties about foreign terrorism, military invasion, and global conflict. For Wells's initial readers, it was a warning about imperialism and, a generation later, a grim forecast of the development of weapons of mass destruction. At mid-century, it was an all-too realistic portrayal of total war. It's not strictly a nineteenth-century story, and needn't be set in Victorian England. With the modern electric guitars and laser lights, the period costumes feel a bit anachronistic. The costumes do remind us of the show's Victorian source--reinforcing the show's "classic" roots. The costuming also creates a rather odd sense that what's playing out is a conflict between the technology-driven modern age and an idyllic, human historical past. What's odd is that the show encourages its audience to identify with that lost historic idyll, though the show itself seems to celebrate the sensory effects of modern technology. It's a curious tension.
The musical War of the Worlds was not my cup of tea. For me, it just didn't work. Yet it does pose some questions that get to fundamental issues of adaptation. Why do we revisit particular stories at particular moments and in particular ways? What draws us to modern renderings of "classic" texts? What makes a particular adaptation "successful" (and on what basis do we make that determination)? How can adaptations acknowledge their literary source texts--and predecessor adaptations--while also remaining free to create something new? How is our knowledge and experience of nineteenth-century literature mediated by modern adaptations? And what do we do with the curious links that modern adaptations create among originary texts (linking, in this example, Dickens with Wells, Revolutionary France with Martian imperialism)?
I hope everyone reading this, especially those who love “Cox and Box,” will be delighted to learn that Retrospect Opera, a UK charity I help direct, is going to make a recording of Sir Francis Burnand and Edward Solomon’s “Pickwick” of 1889. Better still, Simon Butteriss is going to sing the role of the immortal Mr Pickwick! Please do look at our website for more details: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/
Burnand and Solomon, who were writing comic songs together as early as 1880. Of their collaborative works we believe that “Pickwick,” the first really successful musical version of a Charles Dickens story, is the one that merits revival. When it first appeared, critics saw it as a natural successor to “Cox and Box.” Though Solomon was often compared to Sullivan, and sometimes seemed to be waiting in the wings to take over as the Savoy’s composer in chief, we believe that his music has NEVER been recorded! If anyone knows differently, please reply to me.
That’s the good news. The bad news (mayhap) is that we do need to raise funds to make the recording possible, probably about £12,000. We have a supporters’ scheme whereby anyone who donates £25 or more gets their name on our website and a copy of the recording and accompanying materials when it is released. Bigger donations get bigger rewards. Anyone who wants to pay for the whole thing will be wined and dined as they have never been wined and dined before!! (But in fact, 10% of the funding has already come in from Dickens people and more is promised from that direction.)
21st Annual Symposium: “Adapting Dickens”
Iceland University, Reykjavik
11–13 July, 2016
No sooner had Dickens made a name for himself by writing novels than the London theatres began to adapt them to the stage. Indeed, both The Pickwick Papers
(April 1836–November 1837) and Oliver Twist
(February 1837–March–1838) underwent such adaptations before the serial run of either had come to an end, and the latter was staged in one form or another no fewer than forty times before 1850! Just over half a century later, “The Death of Poor Joe,” a silent film from 1901 initiated a long series of adaptations of his works for cinema, and in 1959, BBC television broadcast adaptations of Great Expectations
and Bleak House
that proved how well suited his works were to either type of screen. Over four hundred adaptations later, there is no sign that the public’s enthusiasm for adapting Dickens is on the wane. Quite the contrary, audio versions of his works, a mode that can be traced directly to Dickens’s own dramatizations and his celebrated (and much imitated) readings can now be downloaded in a matter of minutes in MP3 format from a large number of internet sources. By the 1840s, his novels had been translated in Dutch, French, German, Italian and Russian, influencing a host of European writers over the following three decades. If we add the visual arts, musicals, graphic novels, video games, and a multitude of objects from Christmas decorations to cigarette cards and figurines, there seems to be no limits to the adaptability of Dickens’s works.
Papers (deliverable in twenty minutes) related to adaptation as well as proposals on all aspects of Dickens and his works are welcome.
Potential subjects related to the symposium theme include:
- Dickens and translation
- Dickens and film
- Dickens and performance
- Dickens and the theatre
- Dickens and television
- Dickens and audio
- Dickens and the visual arts
- Dickens and adaptation theory
For more information, visit the Dickens Society Website