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The Art of Adaptation

Date: Sep 11, 2012


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by Jonathan Mandell

Arthur Miller hesitated before adapting Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People.  He believed that the story of a man scorned and spurned by his entire town was relevant to the times in which he was living, the McCarthy era, but, as he writes in his memoir Timebends, he had always thought the play "musty." The producer who requested the adaptation assured the playwright that Ibsen's play was "not at all wooden" in the original Norwegian, but "slangy and tough." The fault was with the English translations.

Clearly, a good translation is essential to any adaptation, something British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz understood when, more than half a century after Miller, she was asked to adapt the same play. But she also knows that the art of adaptation involves more than just translation.

Lenkiewicz's version, the 10th Broadway production of An Enemy of The People, is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Dec. 6. In it, Boyd Gaines plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a hometown physician who discovers that the water used in the town's spa is toxic. Richard Thomas plays the doctor's brother Peter, the mayor of the town, which depends on the spa as its main source of revenue. The mayor leads the effort to silence Dr. Stockmann.

Like Miller before her, Lenkiewicz sees the story as timely. "There are a lot of modern parallels," she says. "It's still going on-one person against the establishment; the fight against censorship."

Also like Miller, Lenkiewicz does not know Norwegian. She constructed her script by consulting a new, word-for-word literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, and keeping today's theatregoers in mind. "I wanted the audience to receive the play as modern, just as Ibsen's audience received it as modern. I didn't want it to feel like a fur coat and mutton chop production," she says, referring to the elaborate sideburns worn by men in the 19th century.

Originally commissioned four years ago to adapt Ibsen's play for the London stage, the British writer has had to adapt her adaptation for the Manhattan Theatre Club production, changing "post" to "mail" and excising "Bloody" and "rubbish."

A good adaptation, she says, is not a strictly faithful translation of the original text."If you're going to adapt something, you have to dive in and get under the skin," she says. "Presumably you love the work you are adapting, so you don't want to distort it. But you want to inhabit it. Your job is to find your own rhythm and a truth in the psychology."

Lenkiewicz researched Ibsen, discovering that "he wasn't sure whether the play was going to be a comedy or a drama. There are funny parts in it. But I chose to go deeper, darker. I've tried to heighten the temperature."

She gives as an example a line that Dr. Stockmann says in a climactic confrontation with the townsfolk at a public meeting. In the first known English translation of the play in the 1890s, Dr. Stockmann says, "My native town is so dear to me that I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie."

In Lenkiewicz's version, Dr. Stockmann says, "I love this town intensely. I'm wedded to it. Nobody wants to see their bride become syphilitic."
That line is part of an extended scene that Lenkiewicz-and audiences in general-found especially challenging, since Dr. Stockmann seems to be arguing against democracy. "It could sound like somebody is promoting fascism and eugenics," she says. "Part of you is repelled and part of you agrees. When he says 'idiots outnumber geniuses,' we're all with him." She decided that his speech does not reflect "his philosophy. It comes from primal rage. It's an explosion. I think this is a man suffering a breakdown."

Although she is an established playwright in Great Britain, with well-received productions of some half dozen of her plays over the past decade, An Enemy of the People is the first of her works to receive a high-profile production in the United States.

It is her second adaptation, but not her last: She has received commissions to adapt Strindberg's Miss Julie and Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw.

"Adaptations are wonderful, because you can study somebody else's craft," Lenkiewicz says. "It's a gift because you've got the story, you've got the structure. Your job is to let yourself hear the voices."


Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times, Backstage, Playbill and American Theatre. He is on Twitter @NewYorkTheater.