standing on the steps of private planes by jane e thompson



An unsafe adaptation of Molière’s The Miser by Jane e Thompson  

I’ve never been interested in writing adaptations of plays before. I’ve vaguely tried adapting several novels (none of which I got close to finishing) in my 20s when I ran out of ideas mostly. I’ve performed in adaptations of other plays: Chekov, through the lens of Andy Warhol and Wedekind via Nirvana. I didn’t mind: it meant I got to play Nico and Courtney Love. I have nothing against adaptations per se; although I am a playwright of new work. I generally just don’t see the point of a straight adaptation—the reworking of an old work for today: do we get stuck in another time we should have ideally moved on from? What are the biases and tropes we may be perpetuating when it comes to gender, religion, class and race in these old works?

It was literally because we had to write an adaptation for an assessment in my Master of Writing for Performance that I started this adaptation; a whole two scenes. Sold to us as being ‘good for playwrights in order to better understand structure’—I was on board. I was there to learn; to better understand structure.

No one said it would be so fun. SO FUN! I’ve never enjoyed writing so much! Via Google translate from the original French, I adapted my whole two scenes. I handed in my two whole adapted scenes and thought: That was so fun, I must finish this one day! And sure enough, one day, when I needed a break from another thing I was writing that was very much not fun… my adaptation! Whatever happened to that..?

For the assessment, we were encouraged to choose a play from a playwright unlike ourselves and out of copyright. Hence, I chose Molière. And because I didn’t want to deal with verse, I had either The Hypochondriac, or The Miser—which I chose for my love of all themes greed and money. The first two scenes of the play feature Élise, the daughter of the miserly protagonist, with first her lover Valère, and then her brother Cléante. Simple. The problems arose in the third scene when we meet Harpagon, the miser, whilst berating his son’s steward, La Flèche. In my enthusiasm over adapting the first two scenes, I hadn’t properly considered the presence of the miser himself—up until that point, I hadn’t needed to. I also didn’t think he’d be a problem: he was the protagonist; I’d just have to make him work.

I reread the play. I considered the stage-time allocated to Harpagon in the original text. I recalled what I was drawn to when I originally set about adapting it. None of it had anything to do with Harpagon himself. He was a construction, an arrangement of morals and attitudes that reflected the society. His humour comes from his vulgarity in just how much he shows: too much for polite society, an open wound of tight-fisted flesh. His morals are not wrong—his behaviour is. He is an extremity, one that consumes the play, which is fine, if performing Molière’s The Miser.

I knew I’d need another title, because this wasn’t Molière’s The Miser. But there was something about the work that interested me nonetheless. And as an exercise, there were elements in the script and structure I was keen to use. In the original play, I was struck by how the women and subordinates are treated as trivial, punching down you might say. While we laugh at Harpagon, his actions harm other people much more than himself. He remains almost entirely ignorant to his issues with money, and doesn’t really learn anything at the end—he doesn’t have to, as is his privilege. It is a comedy-of-manners which takes aim at a particular class of society, which form the audience so that they may laugh at themselves and so nothing really changes or is challenged at the end. This is the form I wanted to subvert. Reliant on the wit of the dialogue, the language is very important to me: what do these words really mean? Who controls the language? Why do we laugh? Is this enough anymore?

In my new text, perhaps most noticeably, the main character in this play, Harpagon, is not present, and only exists off stage. It is also to highlight the limitations of too-direct translation: the problematic nature of translating a 350 year old text for today’s audiences. We seem to do a lot of Molière in Australia. In Hilary Bell’s recent adaptation of The Hypochondriac at Darlinghurst, some critics asked what makes a play worthy of adaptation, and how we, as an audience, can so easily chuckle over a father pushing his daughter into an arranged marriage (alternatively, a convent), without a more radical approach to the new text:

The Hypochondriac … is a portrait of an abusive man who humiliates his maid and locks up his daughter. And lives happily ever after. To be fair, The Hypochondriac is an arthritic farce almost 350 years old. But this all-too-faithful adaptation from Hilary Bell has nothing much more to say than Molière of French society way back when. Arguably less. … They’ve dodged the radical surgery required of Molière to really make a point, merely suturing together a blunt translation.” –Jason Whittaker, Daily Review

“A deeper question comes into view: what makes a work worthy of adaptation? … The bigger issue is the play’s gender and sexual politics. Molière’s backward men and trapped women don’t translate easily today, at least not without a sharper critique of the malice suffered by Angelique and Toinette and even Bèline. It’s hard to gel a plotline of a father sacrificing his daughter to an arranged marriage, or else sending her to a convent, with a contemporary setting and it’s been quite some time since a Sydney stage has hosted such a brazenly wicked stepmother character as Bèline. The ‘gold-digger’ archetype is recycled with little renovation.” –Lauren Carroll Harris, Audrey Journal

Critic Diana Simmonds goes further and questions whether there’s any steam left in producing Molière on contemporary Australian stages after experiencing The Misanthrope:

“In the end, however, despite witty direction by Lee Lewis and Justin Fleming’s cleverly wrought verse, there is something anachronistic about the basic premise of the play(s) that will not quite transfer to 2018. The seam of comedy gold that was Molière-goes-Mod Oz is now exhausted, no matter how much glister is applied.” –Diana Simmonds, Stage Noise

With Bell Shakespeare presenting The Miser in 2019 with John Bell in the lead, Molière is not yet exhausted in this country. And sure, that doesn’t mean I need to contribute to the surplus versions of plays by this 396 year-old playwright. I’ve persisted with it to get to the crux of the text, condense it to find what’s at its heart. If you listen to the words as they are, if you read them without the histrionics of the characters, without judgement, then the discrimination is not funny. Some of the words, as they are, are quite chilling; the power-imbalance, overwhelming. I am struck by aspects of the script that persist now in our age, but not the tone, nor some of the intricacies of the plot.

Greed, materialism, inherited wealth and privilege.

In the original, Harpagon’s actions force the hand of others because he’s a miser. Characters react to his greed and hogging of cash. To waste this opportunity in our current, decadent state of late-capitalism is to make light of it—like the original does. To remove Harpagon physically, but maintain his attitudes and morality, he is no longer the comedic scapegoat that absolves us.   

In this work I’ve kept 6 of the characters, whose relationships to one another remain the same or have close ties to the original text. I’ve changed their names, though they start with the same letter as their original counterpart. Some plot points remain the same as the original, and some that were quashed in Molière’s text come to fruition in mine: allowing the consequences to play out and differ from the original. Again, so that we cannot be so easily absolved as an audience. For example, in the original, the two patriarchs from the two families want to marry each other’s daughter. Written 350 years ago, it’s completely normalised in the script. Anselme’s lip-service to consent is that he doesn’t want to marry anyone ‘by force’, but he does not consider the notion of an arranged marriage to a woman young enough to be his daughter a problem per se.

Which is to get to the core of it: in a comedy-of-manners nothing can be too nasty or critical. The problematic elements of those wielding the power are softened by their incompetence, bumbling nature or lack of self-awareness. Because comedy. Really, we’re chuckling at tyrants, abusers; normalising them, excusing them and their behaviour. Sound familiar?

If Harpagon is married to Mariane in my version, how does he favour money over her? (As he does in the original—it’s what makes it ‘funny’ in the original—that at his age, he could marry this young beautiful woman, and he’s still penny-pinching where he can, demanding dowry even though she is poor…) Is it the way he treats her? (But in my version he’s not onstage…) Is his view of her transferred through his son’s behaviour towards her? Cléante who is supposedly in love with Mariane? Does Cléante’s jealousy take over? He allows himself to embody his father’s attitudes towards her because she is no longer his. He loses respect for her; his love for her was conditional.

What are the actions and what do they mean? If actions are foiled, why? And what if they instead come to fruition? How does this change the tone? Is it really funny anymore? If the old men do marry the women young enough to be their daughters, what does it mean? How does it play out? Do we still laugh? What is changed? What does it mean to be a refugee today? And lose your family in a shipwreck? Where are you from? What is at stake? Who is deterring you from entering a country? Why do you have to change your identity? If you’re an heir to a vast fortune but have been cut off, how do you make money to continue the facade, maintain your lifestyle? How do you treat women? People of colour? Do you still live in the family home and all its opulence? Who do you employ? What do they do for you? How do you treat your employees? What do you pay them? What do they think of you? What is their loyalty? What do you expect their loyalty to you is? What is your loyalty to your employer in the marketplace? How can you get ahead?    

Standing on the Steps of Private Planes is an adaptation of Molière’s The Miser. It is a deviation, a departure of the original text. It is not a comedy-of-manners—though there is humour in it. And it became very, very un-fun to write. SO UN-FUN.

I believe it’s a version of the original text that exists in the original text if you look hard enough.

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