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The Write Stuff 

Why making a play out of a book is so hard

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
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When it comes to articulating his disdain for the world, Gustav von Aschenbach is a pro. Tossing out criticisms like used Kleenex, the eminent, elderly writer (played by Giles Havergal in his staged adaptation of Thomas Mann’s famous novella, Death in Venice) treats nearly everything he sees and everyone he meets with unmasked derision; nothing and nobody comes close to meeting this aesthete’s exacting standards. But when Aschenbach finally runs into something worthy of his admiration — Tadzio, a 14-year-old Polish boy with a “winning mouth” and “clustering honey-colored ringlets” — he can barely get his lips around the syllables to express his feelings. “The boy was entirely beautiful,” he stutters, the final word uttered with such ferocity that it sounds almost obscene. In fact, von Aschenbach’s expression of beauty is plain ugly.

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 Aschenbach’s illicit passion for Tadzio and his subsequent self-destruction after spotting the youth while vacationing in Venice. That the protagonist’s 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 don’t convey raw emotion half as well as silence.

Given the above, it’s a wonder that a work of art as implosive as Death in Venice should inspire adaptation at all. Then again, perhaps it’s 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 Visconti’s 1971 film adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde. Lingering seductively over Tadzio’s delicate frame as he splashes in the waves, from von Aschenbach’s removed perspective on the seashore, the camera at once titillates the spectator and keeps him at arm’s length. Meanwhile, in Benjamin Britten’s 1973 opera version, the lover’s inability to connect with his beloved (as in Mann’s original, von Aschenbach and Tadzio barely exchange glances) is conveyed by giving the boy and his family nonsinging parts — they’re dancers accompanied by spooky, gamelanlike music.

Originally conceived at Glasgow’s 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 theater’s tools to bend Mann’s intractable treatise on beauty to its will. The actor’s physicality is particularly powerful. Havergal’s icy exterior — his deliberate, poised movements, his impeccable slate-gray suit’s architectural lines, his deathly pale skin and gaunt physique — suggests someone in perfect control. But glimpses of the character’s inner life (largely taken from Mann’s descriptions of von Aschenbach’s dreams) reveal the opposite. Making the most out of theater’s ability to turn the hyperreal and the everyday into natural extensions of one another, the show’s 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 Goya’s 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 Witcomb’s 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 it’s 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 Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This theatrical version of Death in Venice follows suit. The play’s soundscape features snippets from many different works in the classical repertoire, the most prominent being Chopin’s 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 protagonist’s 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. Visconti’s film and Havergal and MacDonald’s stage adaptation both use music as an emotional crutch. Mahler’s music is so overbearing in Visconti’s movie that it soon became cloying. Similarly, we hear Chopin’s Mazurka so often during Havergal’s play — almost every time von Aschenbach mentions Tadzio — that it eventually becomes redundant. In the end, the sound that stands out the most isn’t music at all: It’s the sterile clacking of von Aschenbach’s typewriter keys, which returns our attention to the written word.

This refocusing comes at a price: When we hear the typewriter, we can’t help but think how little the adaptors have done at the most basic, textual level to make Mann’s 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 Aschenbach’s “last, unpublished work” (i.e., Death in Venice) is read out at a memorial service celebrating his achievements — Havergal and MacDonald haven’t done much to alter Mann’s text. Even with the imaginative use of theatrical elements and Havergal’s controlled, detailed performance, the play comes across as little more than an elaborately staged reading of Mann’s 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, it’s in demonstrating the inadequacy of all modes of expression to articulate that beauty. Music comes closest, but even it falls short. After all, it’s not the songs that stick out in the reader’s mind when von Aschenbach witnesses a performance by Venetian street musicians: It’s the sound of mocking laughter.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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