Adaptation is a time-honored theatrical tradition. Writers have always taken dramatic material that speaks to them and transposed it to new times, places, media, and structures to better speak to their audience and emphasize the message the original work sought to convey, “haul[ing] its themes and ideas into the present day,” not just in the onstage setting, but also in the dramatic context and the way in which the audience relates to the work (Lane 160). Lane finds adaptation to be an essential part of theater, which he sees to be “stealing and borrowing from existing narrative sources to create new ones” (Lane 157). Though some adaptations work better than others, the act of adapting theatrical works is an essential part of keeping them alive. When a work has become a true cultural icon, it is recognizable and enjoyable even outside of its original form.
Greek dramas are some of the most frequently adapted and continue to elicit emotional reactions from contemporary audiences despite the fact that they are, chronologically speaking, quite out of date. Changing words, languages, characters, and settings does not alter the essence of these works–their message can be kept the same and therefore resonate with an audience of today in the same way the original does in its own context (Foley). Adaptations range from serious, thoughtful engagements with the text and meaning of a work–like Yup’ik Antigone, communicating a “stirring defense of traditional Inuit mores”–to the “irreverent reverence” (perhaps a little more towards the irreverent) of Oedipus for Kids! (a work that is distinctly, absolutely not for kids) (Jain, Varod). Each adaptation provides a fascinating perspective and commentary on the original, on the performance history of the genre, and on the context in which the new work was created–regardless of whether the adaptation is successful.
The tradition of adaptation continued as the development of Western theater did, most famously with Shakespeare. The musical West Side Story is clearly a reworking of Romeo and Juliet–scholars like Nigel Simeone draw nuanced connections between bookwriter Arthur Laurents’ paring down of the story and Shakespeare’s work complicating the plot. Laurents worked to “keep those…essences of Romeo and Juliet” that the audience needed to tie the two stories together, ensuring that it was recognizable both as the art form and as Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare himself probably adapted Romeo and Juliet from a “fifteenth-century Italian novella” of the same name and a verse adaptation of that novella by Arthur Brooke (Lane 157). Without constant updating of the story, paring down of the characters, and restructuring to make the novella work as a play, the play work as a musical, and the musical work as a 1996 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo and Juliet would likely not have embedded itself as solidly in the contemporary public conscious or even be seen by people who didn’t consider themselves the target audience for a standard Shakespeare play but might have been more likely to watch a movie version.
It’s not just Shakespeare. More contemporary writers from Chekov to Ibsen find their work rewritten as operas, as translations into modern speech patterns, and placed in new locales and times. Even Oscar Wilde, a contemporary (and acquaintance) of Gilbert & Sullivan, is frequently re-staged, rewritten, and inserted into other works, like the play Handbag, in which the characters from The Importance of Being Earnest interact with a modern cast of characters living their own story (Lane 159). Playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs find themselves moved by these and other classic works and are inspired to “honou[r] traditions of the past while envisioning possibilities for a new future” (Jain). Reworking a piece of art becomes a new way for the writer, the directors, the designers, the actors, and the audience to engage with it and connect to the most essential parts of the work that draw them in. It can help “discover new aspects of the story” and solidify people’s love for the art in question, as well as drawing in an audience that might never have felt the original work was written for them (Jain).
We’ve seen some of these adaptive practices emerge with Gilbert & Sullivan’s works over the years–not just in HRG&SP, although we’ve done our fair share of changing locales and exploring creative visions. Productions across the globe experiment with settings, casting, added text, and more. A recent example is the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2018 production of Princess Ida, which returned to the original Tennyson text to clarify Gilbert’s ambiguous potential critique of the education of women, a belief no longer compatible with contemporary society. Speaking of Ida, Gilbert’s libretto & lyrics, including the blank verse of the dialogue, is a direct adaptation of a Tennyson poem, The Princess, which was highly popular at the time and influenced not only Gilbert’s plot, but also the structure of the show and the choice of speaking convention (blank verse is unusual compared to his other operatic collaborations). A 1992 version of Ida at the English National Opera set in a Japanese theme park led to the following review:
“I can hardly bear to think about Ken Russell’s production… I can’t recall three hours in a theatre which have left me feeling more dismal… the tit-and-bum vulgarity, the pathetically witless sexism of the staging pushed the proceedings beyond any redemption.” (Christiansen).
Princess Ida is far from alone on the list of Gilbert & Sullivan shows to have received the adaptation-of-a-classic treatment. The Hot Mikado, an early jazz adaptation of Mikado, received a completely new score including elaborate dance numbers and featuring an all-Black cast. Mikado also became part of the play The Mikado Project, in which an Asian-American theater company grapples with the work. HMS Pinafore has been recreated with a “jazz score,” as a completely different musical under the name Memphis Bound, and set in locations as far removed as the fictional universe of Star Trek. Pirates has been turned into a ballet, a reorchestrated Broadway revival, and a very 1980s movie adaptation. The creators of the children’s show Veggie Tales! wrote a Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired episode entitled Lyle the Kindly Viking, which is not only immediately recognizable as a Gilbert & Sullivan show, but contains all the essential elements of one reworked for the purpose of a Biblical children’s show with talking vegetables. The play Mr. Burns takes inspiration not only from the form of Victorian light opera, but even includes music from and references to G&S in its dialogue. I know that when I’m reading, researching, or listening to music, I’m excited to see a Gilbert & Sullivan reference, hear a snippet of Sullivan’s music captured for a new purpose, or come across someone who was inspired by their work. Not only is it nice to “get” the references, it’s also thrilling that something so time-period specific (their work isn’t called “Victorian light opera” for nothing) can live on in the minds of scholars, writers, and artists today.
Those of us who love G&S should find relief that by the adaptation measure, Gilbert and Sullivan have solidly entered the realm of the classics. We can rest assured that their legacy will be preserved and continue to draw the love and appreciation of fans, and that their work will continue to be adapted for the future in ways that we may enjoy or find confusing (or both). We can grumble about the versions of their work we don’t like and discuss why, but at its heart, meaningful theater is the process of adapting common truths, stories, and work to communicate things that matter both to the performers and creative team, and to the audience. We can look at the long history of adapting the classics for reassurance that no matter what new Gilbert & Sullivan creation comes along, their original work will not sink into obscurity–no one has forgotten Romeo and Juliet since the animated children’s movie Gnomeo and Juliet came out. Rather than shorten the lifespan of the works of G&S, change, from restructuring to rewriting, ensures their longevity as the inspiration for new generations of theater.
Allen, Brooke. “Adapting the Classic.” The Hudson Review, vol. 66, no. 4, 2014, pp. 694–700.
Bull, John. “Add-Aptation: Simon Stephens, Carrie Cracknell and Katie Mitchell’s ‘Dialogues’ with the Classic Canon.” Journal of Contemporary Drama in English6.2 (2018): 280-99.
Christiansen, Rupert. “Princess Ida.” The Spectator, 28 November 1992.
Crystal, Ben. “‘Gnomeo and Juliet:’ A Tragic Take on Shakespeare’s Tale of Woe.” The Atlantic, 14 February 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/02/gnomeo-juliet-a-tragic-take-on-shakespeares-tale-of-woe/71198/
Foley, Helene P. “Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy.” Barnard College, Columbia University. 1998. https://classicalstudies.org/sites/default/files/documents/FOLEY98.pdf
Jain, Ravi. “In adapting a classic, honour tradition and break the rules; When imagination is let loose, the old and new come together and speak to the present moment.” The Toronto Star, 17 October 2017. https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ga/default.aspx
Lane, David. “Adaptation and Transposition – Reinterpreting the Past.” Contemporary British Drama. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 157–187.
Varod, Gil, Kimberley Patterson, and Robert J. Saferstein. Oedipus For Kids! Samuel J. French, 2009.
Washburn, Anne. Mr. Burns and Other Plays. Theatre Communications Group, 2017.