Neil Rathmell

A collection of 100+ essays on literary topics

The ballet of the play of the book

Most people who saw the premiere of The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Ballet earlier this year would have known that it was based on a play by William Shakespeare, even if they did not know the play itself. But few I imagine would have known that Shakespeare’s play was based on a story by Robert Greene and even fewer would have read it.

Pandosto, The Triumph of Time was published in 1588. Shakespeare’s dramatisation came about twenty years later, long after Greene had written his last pamphlet, A Groats-worth of Wit, in which his description of ‘an upstart crow’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ is generally taken to refer to Shakespeare. A Cambridge man sneering at a grammar school boy. Perhaps it’s as well that, lacking the protection of copyright laws, he didn’t live to see the only Shake-scene in a country beautifying himself in the feathers of one of his own stories.

The Winter’s Tale is often singled out as being unusually faithfully to its source. But that is only if you ignore Romeo and Juliet, which follows very closely the events of the story of Giulietta e Romeo as told by Luigi da Porto (1486-1529), or the plays whose plots are lifted wholesale from Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Shakespeare’s skill was not in making up stories. His two great accomplishments were in the arts of blank verse (much to Greene’s chagrin) and dramatisation. He knew it seems by instinct how to replace the voice of the story-teller with the voices of his characters. Once under way, with the help of such scene-setting devices as a prologue (‘Two households, both alike in dignity…’) or a conversation between two characters (‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall’), the story in effect tells itself.

In the four hundred years or so since Greene wrote his story and Shakespeare dramatised it, the dramatist’s art has gradually been incorporated into the art of fiction. A modern writer, sitting down to tell the story of Pandosto (or Leontes, as Shakespeare called him) would not begin as Greene did by telling us in general terms what the events of the story will tell us in more detail.

Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed there is none that so galleth with restless despite as that infectious sore of jealousy, for all other griefs are either to be appeased with sensible persuasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worn out – jealousy only excepted, which is so sauced with suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust that whoso seeks by friendly counsel to raze out this hellish passion, it forthwith suspecteth that he giveth this advice to cover his own guiltiness.

Later writers would be more likely to take Shakespeare as their model than Greene (though Greene wrote very well in the conventions of his time and is worth reading) so that the reader, like the audience, can share in Leontes’ private thoughts.

                              There may be in the cup
A spider steept, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
Th’abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts: – I have drunk, and seen the spider.

Modern novelists make as much use of soliloquy and dialogue as Shakespeare did. Choreographers, however, have to do without words. Christopher Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale belongs in the tradition of classical narrative ballet. The story, first told by Greene, dramatised by Shakespeare, is re-told in the language of dance. If you know the play, you recognise the spider as a repeated motif in the balletic vocabulary of Leontes, but if you don’t it works just as well, conveying through movement and gesture what Greene describes in the first sentence of his story as ‘suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust’.

Turning Shakespeare’s play into a ballet seems more of a transformation than his own dramatisation of Greene’s story, but it is not. Shakespeare and Greene both used words to tell the story, but they did so in different ways, a difference as great as that between words and movement. The difference is as much in the way in which the work is experienced as in the way in which it was made. Reading a book, watching a play and watching a ballet are not different ways of doing the same thing. Intellectually, emotionally and physically, the nature of our engagement is unique to each. The opera Mascagni made of Verga’s short story, Cavalleria Rusticana, like the one Tchaikovsky made of Pushkin’s poem, Evgeny Onegin, or the settings George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and others made of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, have the same integrity as does the play Shakespeare made of the story by Greene.

A musical setting of a poem is not simply a poem set to music. It is, or should be, a transformation of one art form into another. The point is not somehow to enhance Housman’s words by singing them. If it’s the words you want, you can’t do better than read the poems. Comparing the music with the poems or the play with the story is to misunderstand what the composer, the poet, the dramatist and the story-teller were trying to do.

If there is an exception to this rule – and there always has to be an exception – it is the stage version of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. It was written by Owen and Donald Davis and was a great success on Broadway in the 1930s. ‘The best dramatisation of a novel I have ever seen in a theatre,’ wrote John Anderson in The New York Evening Journal. Edith Wharton herself wrote in a foreword to the published script that ‘few have had the luck to see the characters they had imagined in fiction transported to the stage without loss or alteration of any sort’. Though I have only read it, not seen it on stage, that was my reaction too.

One reason might be that, as I suggested earlier, novels had become more like plays, making the task of dramatising them easier. Another might be that, at the time when Edith Wharton was writing, the movies were beginning to shape the American imagination. The dramatisation of Ethan Frome happened, coincidentally or not, at the start of the age of the film of the book. In the hundred years between the Civil War and World War II America was like England in the hundred years between the Reformation and the Restoration. It was a period in both countries when the job of the writer was to shape the country’s language. What Elizabethan writers didn’t have was the movies. They had to make do with the play of the book. But it’s worth remembering that the play of the book is what nearly every Elizabethan play was.

winters tale ballet 01  ethan frome 01

The next post, on 18 June, will be my Reader’s Diary.

On 25 June I will be writing about America’s communist manifesto.

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