The playwright Tony Kushner once remarked that novels lend themselves more readily to filmic than theatrical adaptation, and it only takes a bit of reflection to realize why this would be the case. The novel is a form that thrives on shifts in perspective and point of view, on proliferation of detail, on access to characters’ interior psychology and motives, and on precise matches or juxtapositions of setting and mood. The storytelling device of the camera can do all this and more, because it focuses and frames in ways that can replicate or even best prose — for example, a film can set a whole scene silently through the editing of a series of images in a way that exceeds a novelistic description of the same scene. But the kinds of shift in perspective and point of view that novels and films can achieve are not only difficult to do on stage (because of the technical challenges they pose) but also somewhat at odds with what makes most drama work. Drama usually thrives on a certain reduction in detail, on stripping situations down to their essential conflicts, and on an exteriorization of what, in the real world, would stay deeply hidden.
I usually try to avoid such philosophic generalizing about genres (because I’m not a big believer in either genres or big statements about them), but I’ve been thinking a lot about why it’s hard to turn a novel into a play as I’ve been avoiding writing this review of Quantum’s The End of the Affair. I have great appreciation for the challenge director/adaptor Karla Boos took on when she asked herself, “How to put Graham Greene’s wonderful, strange novel into three dimensions?” Greene’s novel tells the story of a love affair from the point of view of a loosely autobiographical writer/narrator Bendrix, and Greene’s use of first person narration allows him to track not only his main character’s passions and obsessions, but also his essential insularity — that is, his inability to truly know and understand what moves and motivates others. The plot is relatively straightforward — boy meets married girl, boy gets married girl, boy loses married girl, boy almost regains married girl, girl dies — but the interest here is generated by the psychosocial and religious factors that impinge upon the lovers’ happiness, and, moreover, on the misunderstandings that a lack of honest communication (or, better: the inability to read another’s mind) can generate.
Boos’s solution to the challenge of adapting this novel to the stage is to have the actors narrate much of the action, describing what they (as their characters) are thinking and feeling as they move from one scene to the next. It’s a solution that might work if used a bit more sparingly, but for my taste there was too much telling and not enough showing, and I found myself restless for more action and less monologue. The moments when the actors are in scenes with each other are often electric, which made the frequent shifts into narration even more deflating and dispiriting, especially because all too frequently the scenes themselves are almost comically brief in relation to the narration that brackets them. In many ways the script lends itself to a radio play rather than theater, and I suspect that the effect of the drama might even be enhanced if it were a purely aural experience.
The performances in this production are strong, and the cast brings us into Greene’s world believably. Tony Bingham is convincing as the smug but jealous writer Bendrix; Gayle Pazerski, as Sarah, nicely straddles the line between buttoned up British wife and fully unbuttoned lover (and she sells the crisis of faith that breaks up the affair well); and James FitzGerald brings his prodigious talent as a character actor to the task of playing both Sarah’s husband Henry and a raft of variously accented supporting characters.
Moreover, setting aside the overdependence on narration, in places the script and production are successful in capturing the novelistic shift in perspective and point of view through more theatrical means. In particular, the repetition of the scene that precipitates the end of the affair (first, from the perspective of the narrator Bendrix, and then later, from the perspective of his lover Sarah) neatly captures how two different people can experience the same moment in time in widely divergent ways, with (in this case) devastating consequences. The effect is quasi-cinematic, in that from one iteration to the next we move, as if a hidden camera, from one space to the other, in order to see what each character was thinking and experiencing while the other was absent; and it’s also quasi-novelistic, in that we are put in the position of the omniscient narrator, with an understanding of the situation that is superior to that of the poor, only-partially-knowing mortals to whose story we are witness.