More from Thomas Keneally

We’re at the business end of the production now. The actors and Ari, Hannah and I are all in the one room, and this is an exciting time for a novelist used to solitary labour. One thing I notice is that I have needed during this process to overcome the habits of the novelist. For example, a novelist writes,
“So you were actually happy,” asked Hortense, “living in Paris?”
Then the novelist explains the sub-text of this question, its climate of sensibility, and even references to how unhappy Hortense was ten years past in Paris, when her boyfriend left her for another woman and reduced her to walking the Seine embankments in bewilderment.
In a play, it’s the actors who convey, by intonation, gesture, mannerism, all those paragraphs you need to write in a novel to explain what people say. They can, by their skills, bring about the shortening of sentences. What, before I saw the actors perform it, seemed to require three sentences to define, now takes only one sentence or even a silence.
So that now the play is right down to performable scale, and it moves with its own powerful rationale and at great narrative pace. As a result I am less worried about sending Theatre J broke now.
One of the challenges of the play is the question of how to deal with the Holocaust killing scenes at Belzec and Auschwitz, which Kurt Gerstein witnessed. Spielberg dared to depict Auschwitz and Plaszow frontally in Schindler’s List, but then he had the true locations to work with, and other resources. Even so, in depicting women in an Auschwitz shower room, he was accused by a sincere minority of creating Holocaust pornography, and he had also to wrestle with Elie Weisel’s dictum that to depict the Holocaust was, in a sense, to profane it.
I – as much as anyone – did not wish to dishonour the dead or cause grief to survivors and their descendants. I think Ari, Dan and Hannah have helped us come up with an appropriate treatment which in no way diminishes the validity or potency of the events in theatrical terms, but which is more suggestive and stylized than exhaustive and literal. Indeed, that what I’ve learned – that in theatre the suggestive and stylized frequently trumps the literal, the all-said and all-explained habits of the novelist.

One thought on “More from Thomas Keneally

  1. That was exactly the question I wanted to ask at Sunday’s discussion at WHC. How do you take the literal form and rewrite into a theater piece. Thank you for taking me through your thought process and am anxious to see, in the production, how the scenes at the camps will be depicted. Good luck, joan wessel

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