Describing beauty has always been a self-defeating proposition. We only know perfection exists because we feel it when we perceive it. But we lack the tools to communicate these subjective feelings to the world. Mann deliberately sets himself up for failure with his story about the upright von Aschenbachs illicit passion for Tadzio and his subsequent self-destruction after spotting the youth while vacationing in Venice. That the protagonists overwrought attempts to describe the object of his desire in terms of characters from Greek mythology merely turn the boy into an expressionless face on an ancient marble frieze makes exactly this point: Words dont convey raw emotion half as well as silence.
Given the above, its a wonder that a work of art as implosive as Death in Venice should inspire adaptation at all. Then again, perhaps its that very failure of the written word to capture perfection that has driven artists in various media to try. For example, the camera becomes an erotic toy in Luchino Viscontis 1971 film adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde. Lingering seductively over Tadzios delicate frame as he splashes in the waves, from von Aschenbachs removed perspective on the seashore, the camera at once titillates the spectator and keeps him at arms length. Meanwhile, in Benjamin Brittens 1973 opera version, the lovers inability to connect with his beloved (as in Manns original, von Aschenbach and Tadzio barely exchange glances) is conveyed by giving the boy and his family nonsinging parts theyre dancers accompanied by spooky, gamelanlike music.
Originally conceived at Glasgows Citizens Theatre in 1999 by Havergal and Robert David MacDonald, the adaptation of Death in Venice for a solo performer draws upon many of live theaters tools to bend Manns intractable treatise on beauty to its will. The actors physicality is particularly powerful. Havergals icy exterior his deliberate, poised movements, his impeccable slate-gray suits architectural lines, his deathly pale skin and gaunt physique suggests someone in perfect control. But glimpses of the characters inner life (largely taken from Manns descriptions of von Aschenbachs dreams) reveal the opposite. Making the most out of theaters ability to turn the hyperreal and the everyday into natural extensions of one another, the shows creators transform the old man into a crawling creature of the night, consumed by longing and self-disgust. Whether rushing about in a frenzy, spluttering lines in a state of quasi-asphyxiation, or gorging himself on soft, overripe strawberries (as in Goyas Saturn Devouring his Son), the character allows his frustrated passions to tear through his crystalline facade.
Stark contrasts in Zerlina Hughes lighting design from the bright orange wash of the beach to the muted tones of the Venetian alleyways give definition to these violent mood changes. Marrying scattered, ordinary furnishings (a glass bowl of strawberries on a side table, a wooden desk with a typewriter on it) to more expressionistic features (an alabaster memorial plinth with a death mask carved into it, a row of tall metal faucets), Philip Witcombs scenic design evokes, like a Dali landscape, a waking dream. The most persistent detail of the mise-en-scène, however, is its use of music. Working at the gut level, music can connect us to beauty better than all other modes of expression put together. As such, making an opera out of Death in Venice makes sense. And its no surprise that Visconti should have recast von Aschenbach as a famous composer rather than a writer and swathed his film in the rapturous sounds of Mahlers Fifth Symphony. This theatrical version of Death in Venice follows suit. The plays soundscape features snippets from many different works in the classical repertoire, the most prominent being Chopins wistful Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 in A Minor. This fittingly Polish piece for solo piano serves as a leitmotif for Tadzio throughout the play, becoming synonymous with the protagonists concept of beauty and his insatiable yearning. The trouble with using music as a way to define the indefinable is that if overused, it can lose its power. Britten understood this, I think, when he made his Tadzio mute. Viscontis film and Havergal and MacDonalds stage adaptation both use music as an emotional crutch. Mahlers music is so overbearing in Viscontis movie that it soon became cloying. Similarly, we hear Chopins Mazurka so often during Havergals play almost every time von Aschenbach mentions Tadzio that it eventually becomes redundant. In the end, the sound that stands out the most isnt music at all: Its the sterile clacking of von Aschenbachs typewriter keys, which returns our attention to the written word.
This refocusing comes at a price: When we hear the typewriter, we cant help but think how little the adaptors have done at the most basic, textual level to make Manns story work on stage. With the exception of some cuts, the changing of the narrative voice from third-person to first-person, and the unwieldy tacking on of a framing device von Aschenbachs last, unpublished work (i.e., Death in Venice) is read out at a memorial service celebrating his achievements Havergal and MacDonald havent done much to alter Manns text. Even with the imaginative use of theatrical elements and Havergals controlled, detailed performance, the play comes across as little more than an elaborately staged reading of Manns masterpiece. Literary prose might be poor at capturing beauty, but theater is equally poor at capturing literary prose.
If this production sheds any light on the aesthetic debate, its in demonstrating the inadequacy of all modes of expression to articulate that beauty. Music comes closest, but even it falls short. After all, its not the songs that stick out in the readers mind when von Aschenbach witnesses a performance by Venetian street musicians: Its the sound of mocking laughter.