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Adaptation and adapting

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 11 / Day 2


I’ve recently started collaborating with a director on adapting George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. It’s an interesting novel because it’s about Jews in 19th Century England and presents some nascent ideas about Zionism, written by the not-Jewish Eliot in 1876, when few non-Jews were writing about Jews (at least not in flattering terms). For a Victorian novel, it’s surprisingly progressive – about antisemitism, gaslighting and domestic abuse. An upper-class Englishman discovers he’s Jewish. A young English woman ends up in a bad marriage with a bad man. Not all of these concepts work together in harmony; as many people have commented, it often feels like two books forcibly combined into one. But for adaptation, problem novels are sometimes more interesting than flawless ones. A 2002 BBC version (which did its best to bury the Jewish storyline as much as possible) is one of only a few adaptations. It’s always nice to find a book to adapt that has a recognisable title but hasn’t been done to death, has contemporary relevance and you don’t have to scramble around to get the rights to it.

My director and I are trying to figure out the radical ways in which we can deconstruct it, so that the play says something about the original novel but also something about contemporary British society. We’re especially interested in its intersectional elements – how Jews and women were subject to marginalisation in every aspect of their lives. How gaslighting operates, both in the context of misogyny and also in that of antisemitism.

I have the luxury of spending the day doing some dramaturgical research for this project. My director is doing the same. Then we’re going to meet and discuss what we’ve found, as you do. Since I’m the writer on this project, I could really use a dramaturg. But because there’s no funding yet, there’s no dramaturg yet. So, I’m kind of my own dramaturg for the time being. But oh, how I miss the British Library… Having to research everything online, being beholden to short and superficial pieces, long and meaningful J-Stor articles hidden behind institutional pay-walls and Google Books with pages missing. Hello, research hell.

However, side by side with this project, I’m also spending today reading up on antiracist ideas and practices – far more readily accessible than literary analyses of late-19th century Victorian novels. At the Dramaturgs’ Network, we’re planning a session on antiracist strategies for dramaturgs (more on this later), so I’m looking into what I can share from what I’ve been reading and listening to. But I also just want to know more, for my own artistic practice. So I can interrogate myself and my own ideas to make my work more robust, more interesting and less… (unintentionally) racist.

Two particular pieces I’ve come across strike me. One: writer, dramaturg and lecturer Amissa Miller’s talk ‘The Seeing Place: Black Audiences and the Racial Spectacular’ where she discusses how we make space for black performers and black spectators and break out of the cycle of the ever-present filter of the white gaze. (You can check out the talk if you attend the LMDA 2020 digital conference.) Two: Nicole Brewer’s article ‘Playwrights of Color, White Directors, and Exposing Racist Policy’ on the problems inherent in hiring white directors to direct plays by writers of colour. Both these pieces discuss issues of the constructed white space of theatre and black presence, or absence. Or presence as absence. Which, interestingly, dovetails in a way with some of my Daniel Deronda research, particularly Edward Said’s 1979 essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims’, wherein Said acknowledges the novel’s exceptional stance against Victorian antisemitism but problematises its treatment of Palestine as the mythical Orient, as an empty space to be colonised by Europeans. Absence, presence. Who is there and who is not? Who is seen and who is not and by whom and in what way?

And how do you solve a problem like the white British canon? Even a well-intended novel like Daniel Deronda, considered the antiracist action of its day? In a bizarre coincidence, I come across a tweet of a picture of a few gormless-looking white men ‘guarding’ the George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, her hometown.

Are they super-fans of Middlemarch? Or did they get lost looking for Churchill? Everything about this gesture feels absurd. Just looking at that picture, I want to shout – get away from George – she doesn’t belong to you. She does not need you to defend her honour from imagined protestor-villains.

Suddenly I wonder, Oh god… am I playing into the hands of crazed right-wingers by adapting a canonical novel by a white author, written at the height of the British Empire? Am I just reinforcing the samey-sameness of stereotypical British theatre by writing yet another adaptation of a classic novel? Will people like that come to my play thinking, ah finally – some good, old-fashioned British storytelling!

But then I think to myself… wait. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe these statue-guards aren’t as ridiculous as I think. Maybe someone is coming for George Eliot. Maybe that someone is me. After all, maybe I’m the one who’s coming for this symbol of Victorian culture, not with a can of spray-paint but with a laptop. For some reason, I’m reminded of a delightful headline that appeared in a Lindy West op-ed as the Weinstein scandal broke in 2017: ‘Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.’

Maybe they should be afraid.

Photo: A statue of George Eliot

Sarah Sigal is a freelance writer, dramaturg, director and researcher working in physical theatre, devised work, site-specific and interactive theatre and new writing. As well as working in performance spaces, she also creates, facilitates and curates work for unusual spaces and events and is interested in the possibilities for theatre-making. Originally from Chicago and based in London, she has a BA from Gettysburg College and an MA and PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at a number of British universities as a freelance lecturer and her book Writing in Collaborative Theatre-making was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. She was the Live Performance Programmer at JW3 from 2016-2019 and has just completed a LABA Fellowship at the 14th St Y (NYC). She is a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board. She is currently working on adapting her play Agent of Influence into a novel and writing the libretto for a new opera called The Agency with composer Matthew Olyver, which will premiere as a scratch at the Têt à Têt Festival in September. Website: Twitter: @SigalSarah


Headshot photography is courtesy of the author.

Photograph of George Eliot statue courtesy of 'diamond geezer' on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons Licence.


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