The following blog post comes from Stephen Spotswood, our production dramaturg for THE CHOSEN. Steve is very much a playwright-on-the-rise in his own right (mark your calendars for his play about a successful resurrectionist — a bodysnatcher who digs up the recently dead and sells them to physicians and medical colleges for dissection) and we’re glad to have him working with us. Here he writes about a recent discussion involving writer/director Aaron Posner, about the unique challenges of adapting existing material for the stage.
The Art of Adaptation
Adaptation is an art unto itself. There are whole series of classes devoted to taking original material (novels, short stories, fairy tales, poems, biographies, etc) and creating something new from that source material for the stage. And the ability to write well is only one part of the skill set needed to succeed at this. Great playwrights can be terrible adapters. And, of course, not everything wants or needs to be adapted for the stage.
But, if you’ve decided to go down that path—as Aaron Posner did with Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen in 1999—how do you decide what makes it onto the stage and what gets left behind?
Aaron was asked that question recently. The cast and crew of The Chosen were invited to Tifereth Israel Congregation for Shabbat service and dinner, after which the cast read a short portion of the play. As in past readings at the synagogue, the congregation asked some incredibly sharp questions, including “What part of the novel that didn’t make it into the play do you regret losing most?”
“An adaptor has to have a really good ear,” explained Aaron, who also adapted Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, as well as works by Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Mark Twain, and P.G. Wodehouse. “He or she has to listen to the source material and feel out what its core is, what parts of it need to be shown.”
In adapting The Chosen, he distilled the story to the relationship between the two fathers and sons. The play has only 5 characters: Danny and Reuven, the two boys who form an unlikely friendship, their fathers, and an older version of Reuven who acts as narrator. This was a choice that Chaim Potok firmly approved of.
But this choice meant doing away with dozens of ancillary characters, many of whom bring great depth and nuance to the novel. And while this might be the easy answer to the question of what he most regrets leaving out, Aaron said that it’s Potok’s writing style that he misses most.
The novel is a collection of short scenes that “accrue meaning over time,” Aaron said. For example, in the novel as in the play, Reuven has an accident that damages his eye. The emotional impact of that, as well as the profound nature of how amazing eyesight is and what a terrible thing it would be to lose it, is built over many scenes. It happens slowly and subtly, until the reader suddenly finds him or herself understanding on an emotional level the fear and relief and wonder that Reuven is feeling.
“This kind of thing makes for great novels. But it makes for terrible theatre,” Aaron joked. A play needs drama; it needs tension; it needs continual movement. And so Potok’s rhythm needed to be sacrificed during the transfer to the stage.
But his meaning and his intent were not. One of the wonderful things that was added in the adaptation is the framework Aaron sets up to lead us into one of the great themes of the book. In the first moments of the play, the older Reuven appears on stage and says, “Ayloo ve’ayloo deevray elocheem chai’eem,” a Hebrew phrase which means “Both these and these are the words of the Living God.”
It puts before the audience the suggestion that opposites can exist in the same time, the same space, without conflict. It’s an idea that will appear again and again in the play: that Jewish identity is neither simple nor singular, and that two men can live on opposite sides of a spectrum of belief and still find themselves standing on common ground. Using a quintet of talented actors (as well as some fabulous designers and a not-too-shabby director), the play drives home this idea, crystallizing the theme in a way that is unique from the book.
This is just one of the many ways that the play is a different beast than the novel, and why it exits and should be seen.
Which you will all have the chance to do very shortly.