Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Raymond Carver and "He says"

Seattle’s Book-It Theatre is dedicated to adapting prose classics.  In June, I saw their adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I found as uncomfortable and irritating as the source material.  On Tuesday I saw What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation of four Raymond Carver short stories.  It’s wonderful.

I have seen a couple adaptations of Carver before, three if you count the play within the movie in Birdman.  I thought Short Cuts reduced Raymond Carver’s cynicism to the trite and the precious.  Robert Altman should have been the one to do Carver well, but his approach to the vignette, always stronger when it emerges out of improvisation, doesn’t work when he faces the precise rhythm of Carver’s dialogue.  The moments of ambiguity in Carver’s stories, the moments pregnant with misery simply because the heroes realize they are at a loss for any easy answers, become easy in Altman’s movie.  I’m thinking here of the final moments in Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing”, in which a bereaved couple confront the baker who tormented them.  The anguish in the original story, the realization of just how much they have lost and how much they can gain from just one small piece of kindness is brutal in the story.  Altman’s adaptation can’t get beyond the story’s punchline.  

There’s also a short film from a local Washington state filmmaker that I don’t remember too well.  

The stage adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” within Birdman was meant to be a joke.  Born showmen, genius hams like Edward Norton and Michael Keaton are the last people you would want in a Carver adaptation.  It may not have been intentional, but they remind you why Robert Downey, Jr., Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits are the last people you would want in Short Cuts.

Of course, you should be allowed all the liberties you want in an adaptation.  If you want to take the text as a starting point and transform it into something completely new, that’s fine, as long as that new thing is interesting.  Still, I have to say Jane Jones’s stage production I saw the other night opened up Carver for me, if for nothing else than for making me understand the power of the word “says.”  Elmore Leonard said that he learned the importance of the word “says” from Carver.  Jones’s adaptation shows what the word can do when spoken out loud, when it becomes a word for the ear, and not something the eye merely glances over on the page.

Jones’s adaptation is fiercely loyal to the text.  I don’t know if she omitted a single word from the original stories.  I don’t just mean the dialogue.  Her principals naturally recite Carver’s narration, looking straight at each other, with the same naturalness and rhythm with which they recite his dialogue.  And that “he says” and “she says” becomes an integral part of that narration.  After several minutes, the narration and the dialogue merge.  How does it work?  WWithout directly quoting from it, this is the general technique that drives the stage script.

Man: Let’s Drink.

Woman: He says.

Man: I like to drink.

Woman: He says.

(pause)

Woman: I don’t want to drink.

Man: She says.

We hear in each “he says” or “she says” the attempts of each character to receive the spoken word directed towards himself, to process it.  That “he says” is as much for the protagonists as it is for the audience.  The sound reminds us that there is a lot noise within each pause between sentences. 

Those “he says” and “she says” temper the actors.  Even at their most histrionic, those two little words force each of them to ground themselves within the reality of their stage settings, and remind them of the sounds of the voices that exist inside their heads.


There’s much more I could say.  The four actors were excellent.  For what it’s worth, Kevin McKeon, a charismatic chameleon who plays the alcoholic cardiologist in “What We Talk About…”, the blind man in “Cathedral” and the late middle-aged man absorbing the pain he caused his ex-wife in “Intimacy”, was the evening’s star.  There is clearly a showman inside him.  He reveals it in his inability to control a glass in “What We Talk About” and his deadpan deliveries in “Cathedral.”  But he controls that showman.  He withholds himself.  That “he says” reminds him over and over again that there’s power in restraint on the stage, just as it reminds Carver that there’s power in restraining his own voice on the page.   

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