Wednesday, January 18, 2012
When is a story not a story (and really a play)?
I've said in several interviews and articles that when an idea comes to me I know instantly whether it's a story, a novel or a play. Recently, though, I blushed to think that it may not be quite true, for I'm working with a producer on developing ideas for radio drama, and one is an idea that started out as an unpublished short story. And, now that I've thought about it, I remember that it's happened before:
I once wrote a story based on a wedding. I guess it was quite an innovative story in terms of form: it was done as a menu, a wedding meal menu, beginning with the sherry offered to guests arriving at the reception, but each item triggered a 'flashback' to an incident portraying family disharmony and in total signalling a poor prognosis for the happiness of the married couple. I never published the story. It was rejected at least a couple of times - it's always harder to sell innovative stories, and I guess, looking back, that those publications interested in innovative work would be uninterested in what they might consider 'bourgeois' subject matter. Perhaps it didn't help that I signalled its weirdness by giving it the title 'Marriage Menu' which sounds odd until you read the story. Anyway, since it was a time when I was having quick success with a lot of stories, I saw it as one that just hadn't worked, and gave up trying with it.
However, the basic situation stayed with me: I'd abandoned the short story but I still wanted to write about the scenario; and when, a few years later, a radio producer asked me to submit some ideas I thought of turning the situation into a radio play. The menu structure disappeared and the omniscient narrative voice was replaced by the reminiscing monologue of one of the characters, an ironically unreliable narrator, intercut by dramatised flashbacks. The wedding was still central to the story - it was the occasion the protagonist was purportedly reporting (while rambling off into the family story) - and I kept something of the original in the title: the result was my BBC Radio 4 broadcast play, Dry Sherry. The whole tenor of the thing had shifted, though: now it had become a satirical portrait of a scheming, bitter and disappointed ex-wife.
Later I even wrote a stage play based on the same situation, this time an entire monologue, in which the voice was not disembodied as in the radio play, but the character - even more monstrous, since things can be so much bigger on the stage - was in her own living room, inviting the audience, her guests, to hear her tale. This was Drinks with Natalie, which I performed myself for the 24:7 Theatre Festival, as you can see above.
But is it actually the case that the idea was really a play (or two plays) all along? I don't think so: I've said how turning to a different form shifted the thing, turned it into a different beast and basically - in just the same way that happens in an adaptation, as I have explained previously - changed the emphasis and thus the meaning. To my mind, the form dictates or alters the message. On the other hand, I have no wish to return to the original short story - as far as I'm concerned, it's now been done.