Making Adaptations of Older Plays & Novels


Order 'Adaptation [of classic plays] for me was a way to learn the long form of playwriting. . . . There might be either foolhardiness or arrogance involved in some of this. . . . But just to think: oh wow, you can put your tools on the same table with that person's cool stuff.'

-- Lynn Manning

This section has been expanded and revised in the new paperback and Kindle editions of Playwriting Seminars.

A number of American playwrights have turned occasionally to adapting classic or barely known plays and novels for contemporary audiences, Tony Kushner and David Ives among them. 

If you're new to the world of dramatic writing, think of adaptations as a good way to learn the craft. Tony Kushner lived off the royalties from one of his adaptations until he finished his landmark play, Angels in America.


Against Adaptation

Spending the time to do an adaptation is rarely a practical way to launch a playwriting career.

1. Theatres commission adaptations from playwrights they know. And if they don’t know them, they turn to playwrights who've begun to have productions of their own plays. Theatres that accept unsolicited submissions of plays from unproduced playwrights seldom accept adaptations. They want to see original work.

2. Most new play competitions won't accept adaptations. This may be short-sighted on their part, but when you do an adaptation the result is always a combination of your work and that of the original dramatist. To be blunt, it's hard to tell if you've got what it takes or if you're just skating on ice provided by the original author.

Despite all this (and if you still want to be rash) find an old play – preferably one first written in a language other than English by a playwright who's not a household word in the U.S. It does help if they're a household word or at least of some historical significance where they came from.

As with adaptations of novels, try to find a play published well before 1900 so the odds will be in your favor of it being in the public domain. That means you might not have to struggle with getting the rights to do this.

   David Ives took this approach for his very successful adaptation, Venus in Fur (it opened on Broadway in 2011 following its regional theatre premiere). His adaptation is based on an obscure Austrian novel, Venus in Furs, first published in 1870. Note the slight change in Ives’ title from the original, a typical approach to titling adaptations. The novel has a 2006 English translation from the original German so while the source was likely in the pubic domain, the translators would have copyright protection for their English language version. A playwright fluent in German could base an adaptation like this on the public domain original and avoid the copyright issue with the recent translation. For that to work, a playwright would need to fastidiously avoid any use of the English translation – the safest approach being never to have read it – and not even to imply that you could have read it by using it for something as innocuous as a coaster for your coffee mug.

   Even in this seemingly open-and-shut case of an 1870 Austrian novel, it would be good to seek the advice of an attorney specializing in this field, since Austrian copyright law could also come into play. Do playwrights usually follow this cautious advice? Rarely.

   Nobody will give you the rights to a stage adaptation of an older play or novel if you’ve never had a successful production at a regional theatre, unless of course, you’re a successful novelist.

   There is a way around this, one that Jeffrey Hatcher took with his 2011 play, Ten Chimneys – the title comes from the name of the estate of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, the great American actors who are the central characters. The characters are all there to rehearse Chekhov’s The Seagull and the story in the present begins to mirror the play Chekhov wrote. Theatres would likely be open to this kind of clever approach from a new playwright since it’s not simply an adaptation of an older play. Again, a caution: Hatcher was a produced playwright and screenwriter before he took on America’s most famous acting couple and one of Chekhov’s greatest plays.

Legal Cautions

When you’re involved in adaptations of works under copyright – or that were under copyright in the past – confer with an attorney who specializes in entertainment and copyright law to make sure you won’t end up in legal boiling oil. Remember that a more recent English translation of an older play or novel may still be protected by copyright even if the original work was published centuries earlier and is not itself protected. You don’t want to do all that work of creating an adaptation only to discover that you can’t get the rights or, if they’re nice enough to offer the rights, that you can’t afford the cost.

The rights to literary work have monetary value, whether for film, television, or theatrical adaptation. As a playwright, you’ll own those rights for your own plays and you won’t want other writers poaching off your work without asking (or paying) for the privilege.

Best Practice: Treat other writers as you’d like to be treated.


Keys to Adapting Older Plays

The great English director Peter Brook said, “If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound.” The goal of a good adaptation of an old play is to make it speak to contemporary audiences. That’s usually what makes a contemporary adaptation work in the theatre.

1. Create the dialogue using your own voice. The prime reason the play needs to be adapted is usually because the original playwright's language now falls flat on our ears. It may also be so removed from our contemporary practice of speaking that it would be incomprehensible to most members of an audience.

2. Find a play with a theme that resonates now. Ideally a theme that is close to what you want to write about in your own work.

3. Reduce the number of characters. Older plays from the 19th Century and earlier (as with most novels) usually have many more characters than today's playwrights keep in their heads. There are contemporary playwrights who create work with large numbers of characters, but you’ll stack the odds against your play if the number of characters requires more than about ten performers to play them all.

4. Reduce the length of the play. Playwrights in the good old days took audiences for very long rides, but nowadays audiences like to get home by a reasonable hour so something in the range of 90 minutes to two hours in addition to intermissions is good. That said, there have been a few critically acclaimed and (audience loved) adaptations that have run as long as eight hours or more.

Best Practice: In playwriting, most rules are made to be broken.


The “Suggested By” Approach

Making a play speak to contemporary audiences was the initial impetus for Lynn Nottage’s very loose mirroring of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children in 2008. She borrowed only a few bones of plot and characters from the original, moved the setting from Europe during the Thirty Years War to the contemporary ravages of war on Congolese women, and titled it Ruined. One of the bones she borrowed: Brecht’s incorporation of music and song. And the biggest bone she threw out: Brecht’s interest in keeping his audience emotionally uninvolved. Her changes are so significant that “adaptation” is not a description of her real process.

Nottage was recognized as a major playwriting talent well before she took on this daunting project and she was commissioned to create the play by one of America’s leading regional theatres. She is not alone in this “suggested by” approach.

   Bruce Norris did this with Clybourne Park, winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with a play prompted by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, A Raisin in the Sun which had won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1960. He set Act I in 1959, the year of Hansberry’s play, borrows a character with the same name who in both plays attempts to prevent an African American family from buying a house in a “white” neighborhood. But while the situation and a character is borrowed, all else is Norris’ invention. His point of view in Act I is the white family selling their house in the same neighborhood rather than the black family buying it. And he moves the time of Act II from 1959 to the present with a white family attempting to move into the same house, now in a gentrifying African American neighborhood. (The title is taken from the name of the white neighborhood in Hansberry’s play.) Like Nottage, Norris had established his playwriting credentials before he ventured into his mirroring of Hansberry’s classic.

   If adapting other people’s plays or novels seems of less interest now, there’s always the option of using other people’s lives. You may sense the red flag of risk already.

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