How to hone your Austen powers


As the Gate Theatre revives Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, MylesDungan, broadcaster and self-confessed Austen adaptor, has devised a guide to bringing her bonsai action to the stage

As a mere minor, spear-carrying member of AA (Austen Adaptors), writing about transferring the material of the Mistress of Irony to the stage invites accusations of hubris on my part. So be it! Here follows a précis of my forthcoming academic work for the would-be adaptor, "Critical Approaches to the Development of your Austen Powers".

It is often the case in Jane Austen novels that not a lot actually seems to happen. But appearances are deceptive. The storms may be of teacup proportions but the "bonsai" action is plentiful. Just as Mr Rushworth is advised in Mansfield Park to take the axe to the bulk of his trees in order to improve his estate, wholesale textual hacking has to be undertaken in the process of creating performable drama from Austen's plots and characters. Emma Thompson discovered this when she landscaped Sense and Sensibility for the screen. Her diary entry for Tuesday, April 1st, 1995, reads: "Lindsay's [Lindsay Doran, producer] already in Plymouth frantically trying to cut the script. It's still too long."

Here, Thompson has come to terms with the central axiom of all Austen adaptation, the Austen Principle. It holds: "The current draft is always too long".

Fidelity is one of the core virtues of Austen's prose. She is faithful to her characters and there is a fidelity of tone and expression in her extraordinary use of language. An apt metaphor for her would be that of the constant and dutiful wife.

Enter the licentious and promiscuous adaptor. In any literary relationship with Jane Austen, conjugal infidelity is inevitable. First there is the "Incident" problem (discussed above). Then there is the "Dialogue" problem. They make fidelity to the text impossible. Willis Hall was probably guilty of over-scrupulous devotion in his 1996 stage version of Mansfield Park, which had a theatre all warmed up and waiting in the West End but never made it out of summer season - a lesson Patricia Rozema might have taken to heart in her tangential screen version. It pays to be liberal rather than literal with the Mistress.

Alan Stanford, who is responsible for about 50 per cent of the revived Gate Theatre production of Pride and Prejudice, reckons that "you start with the theme of the book and then work up, rather than starting with the story and cutting down". He is living proof of the essential truth of the Austen Principle: he started, not with the novel itself, but with a pre-existing adaptation . . . "a sound vehicle on which to work", he says, sounding like one of those guys who change the tyres on Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. He began to cut immediately, to eliminate all traces of bookishness. "You cannot put a book on the stage," he maintains. "You have to write a play. That play may not be the book." He offers what we can call the Stanford Corollary: "You can always keep improving".

Then there are the speeches. Austen dialogue tends to come "not single spies but in battalions". Actually the term "dialogue" is probably inappropriate; "serial monologue" would be more apt. Characters don't so much speak as expostulate. They don't deliver lines, they nail theses to the church door of conversation. You must become adept at "Austenese", a sort of faux-Austen language which passes for the real thing.

However, an unfortunate consequence of a credible film adaptation is that this faux-Austen can then be recycled as an ersatz version of the real thing in a "novelisation". This peculiar practice of hiring a writer to unmake the omelette and turn the screenplay back into prose for publication as a novel was resisted by Emma Thompson in the case of S&S, but you can't fight City Hall when City Hall is Hollywood looking for its money back. What's wrong with encouraging people to read the original? No merchandising for the movie moguls, that's what's wrong!

Another priority for the adaptor is to identify that most vital element of any Austen novel, the "CAD". This is a technical term, not to be confused with a mere cad (as in a bounder or a "bad un") . CAD stands for Characteristic Austen Deceiver.

In Pride and Prejudice, the plausible Wickham spreads deception in his wake; in Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford is the serpent; in Emma, Frank Churchill is the viper in the bosom. Without your CAD you have nothing. No villain, no conflict. No conflict, no resolution. The CAD must be coddled and cherished like a newborn infant.

Austen adaptors are a distinguished lot. Aside from the aforementioned Emma Thompson, Pride and Prejudice alone has attracted Aldous Huxley (co-writer of the 1940 film version with Olivier as Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth) and Andrew Davies, the man responsible for the smouldering 1995 BBC version. The Gate production of Pride and Prejudice, despite having the fingerprints of director Alan Stanford all over it, was actually originally brought to the stage by James Maxwell, who has also staged works by Buchner, Schiller, Dumas, Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Adaptations do have their drawbacks, of course. Not long after the superb BBC Pride and Prejudice, a generation of exam students, delighted at being relieved of the burden of actually reading one of the greatest works of English literature (what a shame the BBC didn't do a novelisation), were able to identify the precise moment at which Elizabeth Bennett began to soften in her attitude towards Darcy. It was when he dived, fully clothed, into the lake in front of Pemberly, his ancestral pile, and was introduced into her presence looking like a competitor in a wet T-shirt competition.

Sadly, in real fiction, Eliza was denied the spectacle of a moistened Darcy. The students were technically correct - the walk around the Pemberly gallery did mark a turning point in the relationship between the proud and the prejudiced, but the likelihood is that Elizabeth was more interested in the pics than the pecs. (A useful tip for future P&P adaptors: get past Darcy's Christian name as quickly as possible. He is, of course, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, but this fact should be glossed over. He becomes completely demystified when his Christian name is restored to him - automatically excluded from that pantheon of singular greats such as Pelé, Madonna, Morse, Cher, Rasputin and Svengali.)

THE most obvious characteristic of every Jane Austen novel - and one adaptors ignore at their peril - is the sex. If you can't spot it, you just aren't looking. The real joy of sex is, of course, in the antici . . . pation. And Austen positively fizzes with expectation and anticipation. Sex and money are her main concerns - both, of course, are at the centre of most adult relationships, so no great effort is required to make her work relevant to 21st-century audiences. We may have substituted Benetton or Next for "empire line" and more aggressive forms of approach for the subtle sexual negotiations of the early 19th century, but today we've got a society even more obsessed with sex and money than they had back then.

Finally, lest those who have attempted to adapt Austen for stage, screen or radio get above themselves, take note of this cautionary tale from Academy Award-winning writer Emma Thompson. Her diary of the making of Sense and Sensibility includes the following preamble. "Production meeting in Oxford St - Lindsay goes round the table and introduces everyone - making it clear that I am present in the capacity of writer rather than actress, therefore no one has to be too nice to me." If the status of the writer is as low as the movie industry constantly asserts, imagine how subterranean is the status of the mere adaptor, Oscars notwithstanding.

The Mistress seemed for a while to have had her day. But she hasn't gone away, you know! It ought to be clear by now that, like Shakespeare, she never will. If you thought that the Jane Austen vogue had finally passed with the PatriciaRozema film version of Mansfield Park, think again. Even if the Gate Theatre's revival of Pride and Prejudice is the one swallow that doesn't make a summer, there will be a nouvelle vogue along soon.

Oh, and by the by, like my humble "Critical Approaches" etc, don't take her too seriously, there's a good lad.

Pride and Prejudice opens at the Gate on Tuesday. Myles Dungan adapted the recent presentation of Austen's Mansfield Park.