Conference Report CDE 2008

17th CDE Annual Conference, Attendorn, Germany
May 1-4, 2008
Organised by the University of Siegen
„Adaptations – Performing across Media and Genres“

Adaptation has become a much contended but still underrated academic field in recent years. After initial discussions about traditional concepts of originality and of fidelity to the original, adaptation studies developed into becoming an exciting and challenging new area of interdisciplinary and intermedial research. The German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) consequently adopted adaptation as the topic of this year’s annual conference, organised by Eckart Voigts-Virchow and Monika Pietrzak-Franger from the University of Siegen. The conference topic was chosen with the deliberate intention to test the boundaries of drama and theatre and to explore the often neglected „performance across media and genres“, putting in mind that adaptation has always been a central element of theatre and is maybe more present on the contemporary stage than ever. With its intermedial and theoretical focus and with the attention paid to unusual theatrical events, this year’s conference tied in thematically with past CDE conferences such as „Non-Standard Forms of Contemporary Drama and Theatre“ (Heidelberg 2007), „Drama and/after Postmodernism“ (Augsburg 2006), „Extending the Code – New Forms of Dramatic and Theatrical Expression“ (Meissen 2003), and „Mediated Drama – Dramatized Media“ (Giessen 1999). In its 16th year of existence, CDE also geographically returned to its roots at the University of Siegen, where the society was founded in 1992. This year’s gathering included playwrights Stella Feehily, David Eldridge and Jo Clifford, the director Max Stafford-Clark, renowned theatre studies experts Christopher Innes, John Bull, and Albert-Rainer Glaap, as well as other scholars and theatre practitioners from around the globe.

For the fifth time, CDE proudly presented young scholars with the biannual „CDE Award for Outstanding Research in the Field of Contemporary Theatre and Drama“. This year, the award was split between two very different but also complementary studies: Ricarda Klüßendorf’s The Great Work Begins. Tony Kushner’s Theatre for Change in America and Janine Hauthal’s Metadrama und Text-Theatralität: (Selbst-) Reflexionen einer intermedialen literarischen Gattung am Beispiel englischer und nordamerikanischer Meta- und Postdramatik (Metadrama and Textual Theatricality: (Self-)Reflections of an Intermedial Literary Genre in Selected English and North American Metadramas and Postdramatic Plays). Where Ricarda Klüßendorf’s thesis focuses on the textual analysis of specific plays by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, A Bright Room Called Day, and Caroline, or Change) and investigates the depiction of societal change in contemporary American drama, Janine Hauthal’s study takes a theory-informed approach. Hauthal attempts to develop a general theory of metadrama which can also serve as a description of historical developments. Both Klüßendorf’s persuasive assessment of Kushner’s plays and Hauthal’s meticulous theoretical work give convincing answers to topical questions in contemporary drama studies. Together, they represent a multiplicity of current critical approaches to drama and offer important impulses for further research in this field.

The conference discussions were opened with an intense „report from the workshop“ by Scottish playwright and adapter Jo Clifford, who took to the challenge to speak in Germany on his 2006 adaptation of the most revered of German classics, Goethe’s Faust (Parts I and II). His remarks on the adapter’s identification with the original work and the need to bridge both cultural and temporal distance proved a fascinating introduction to this year’s conference topic from a practitioner’s perspective. In his keynote lecture, Max Stafford-Clark spoke on what he highlighted as the Royal Court Theatre’s central ambition: to produce new plays as if they were classics and classics as if they were new writing. As an example of the latter, he singled out his 2004 adaptation of Macbeth for the touring company Out of Joint. The „Scottish play“ was set in an African framework by Stafford-Clark and thus accentuated both the timeless quality of the Shakespearean text and possible contemporary allusions such as the civil war in Rwanda or images of child soldiers. The friction between Scottish and African elements in the production also underlined the colonial roots of African conflicts and illustrated how adaptation can both challenge a classical text by radically reinterpreting it and affirm its significance through actualisation. Max Stafford-Clark’s lecture was supplemented with comments by the Irish actor and playwright Stella Feehily, whose plays Duck (2003) and O Go My Man (2006) have been produced by Out of Joint. Another theatre practitioner, David Eldridge, celebrated both for his original plays and his stage adaptations, discussed the processes which lead to the numerous adaptations appearing on the British stage. For his main example he drew on his own 2004 adaptation of the Danish cult film Festen for the Almeida Theatre, which proved a resounding success and sparked off several new commissions for adaptations, e.g. of Ibsen plays such as The Wild Duck (2006) and John Gabriel Borkman (2007).

The fruitful tension between adaptation theory and interpretations of individual pieces of adaptation was approached in several joint papers, the first of which was given by Katja Krebs (Bristol) and Marta Minier (Glamorgan). Minier’s analysis of the 2002 NT production of Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Powerbook was given a theoretical framework by Krebs, who connected Winterson’s own adaptation of her novel with Judith Butler’s theory of performativity as a challenge to embodied discourses (in the case of the NT production those of stage realism and a unified acting style). Kathy Smith (London Metropolitan University) worked the other way round, i.e. with a deductive rather than an inductive method. Starting from the example of three productions of Rona Munro’s Iron in Edinburgh, Athens, and Osaka, she investigated the intercultural appeal at the core of the play.

Anja Müller (Bamberg) and Mark Schreiber (Siegen) probably bridged the widest gap between theory and dramatic practice by applying typologies of adaptation and postmodernist theory to the sometimes hilarious and sometimes startling versions of Samuel Beckett plays to be found on the internet platform Youtube. Ewa Keblowska-Lawniczak (Wroclaw), in a paper on the intertextual use of paintings in contemporary drama, showed the various functions of the adaptation of pictorial art in plays by Tom Stoppard, Shelagh Stephenson and Edward Bond.

Surveying adaptations of 20th-century Anglophone theatre classics, in particular those of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, on the stages of the „Weltbühne Wien“ (World Stage Vienna), Ewald Mengel and Margarete Rubik (Vienna) focused on the changing reception and the different approaches to plays which caused scandalised outrage in the 1960s and have now gained the status of somewhat dated classics and „celebratory productions“ for retiring star actors. Albert-Rainer Glaap (Düsseldorf) approached the theme of recontextualised classics from a different angle by comparing two productions/adaptations of King Lear from New Zealand and Canada. Both the version of Geraldine Brophy (in co-operation with Simon Bennett) and that of Richard Rose introduced a gender-bent reading of Shakespeare’s play in which the central character is a woman. But while the New Zealand production Leah supplanted the patriarchal structures of King Lear by matriarchy, Rose’s project Hysterica also moved the setting from ancient Britain to a postmodern and intercultural Canada.

The importance of adaptative processes for musical theatre and opera was the subject of a joint paper by Christopher Innes and Brigitte Bogar (Toronto) and a talk by Kara McKechnie (Leeds). While Innes and Bogar analysed the reworking of biblical material in the musicals Godspell (1970/1) by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak or Jesus Christ Superstar (1970/1) by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, McKechnie discussed adaptation in opera productions. She took Phyllida Lloyd’s Opera North production of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (1997/9) and its TV version (2000) as an example of how, in a process of repeated adaptation, historical events are turned into historiography and a historical novel, then into an opera libretto and celebratory opera, and finally into a new opera production and film.

The question of the adaptation of history in drama was taken up again by Sarah Giese (Bamberg), who analysed Abby Mann’s 2001 Broadway version of his own film Judgement at Nuremberg and Richard Norton Taylor’s dramatisation of the Nuremberg trials for the Tricycle Theatre, Nuremberg (1996). Giese aimed at establishing a theoretical framework that allows for the description of the multiple adaptational processes which make a theatrical event out of a film based on court proceedings investigating historical events. The political dimension of adaptations was also addressed in Julia Boll’s paper on recent productions of EuripidesWomen of Troy. Boll highlighted the tragic consequences of a „clash of civilisations“ both in classical myth and in early 21st-century politics. But whereas these productions only loosely relate to the Global Citizens Movement, adaptation becomes a much more direct tool of political campaigning in activist performance groups such as Billionaires for Bush. Pia Wiegmink (Siegen) explored how this group uses parodic adaptation of political campaigning to invert political messages and to „invade“ and undermine the machinations of the public media space. On a less political but still highly intertextual note Davide Maschio (Turino) analysed the adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Dermot Bolger’s A Dublin Bloom (1994). Following Kevin J. H. Dettmar’s contention that „Modernist texts […] always contain the germ of their own Postmodernity“, Maschio illuminated the relationship between a modernist classic and its postmodern stage adaptation.

Academic discussion was further fuelled by talks of John Bull and Graham Saunders (both Reading). Bull picked up on the interaction of German and English drama, concentrating on the adaptations of Bertolt Brecht’s Leben des Galilei for English stages by Howard Brenton (1980), David Hare (2005), and David Edgar (2005). Saunders then illuminated the adaptation of the genre of the city comedy from its roots in the early 17th century to the contemporary scene. With examples drawn from the 1970s (Barrie Keeffe’s A Mad World My Masters), the 1980s (Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money), and the early 21st century (David Eldridge’s Market Boy), Saunders showed how a theatrical form developed under specific historical circumstances can be revitalised in a different age through processes of adaptation.

The papers and discussions of the conference were complemented by practical theatre work in the form of a workshop by Michael Fry (Essex) and theatrical productions by ACTS (Stuttgart) and Desperate Thespians (Siegen). Fry provided valuable insights into the practical understanding of adaptation processes with reference to his own dramatisations of novels by Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. ACTS (Stuttgart) presented the play American Café Paris, already staged in Paris and Stuttgart, an adaptation of the historical moment when radical novelists like Orwell, Joyce, Stein, Barnes, and Hemingway met in the cafés and bookshops of 1920s Paris. Desperate ThespiansMythtakes also reflected on the conference topic by staging „found“ texts of mythological quality (ranging from Hamlet to Kurt Cobain and from the Book of Genesis to Neil Armstrong), thus offering another amusing and challenging approach to the processes of adaptation.
Mark Berninger (Mainz)