Shifting Periods

masks1The research that went into writing The Annotated Carmilla led me to a very specific belief about the time period in which LeFanu’s story takes place. A character mentions a certain Grand Duke, who can only be one historical person, and then Laura talks about visiting Italy from Austria, which narrows it down further. Bottom line–it cannot take place later than 1846.

I set my theatrical adaptation in 1938.

Why?

Excellent question and I’m glad to explain. Begin by considering this–Carmilla had a specific impact, one we can presume the author intended. But that impact is dependent upon the context of his times, circa 1870. A very different time in many ways from our own! One particularly obvious one, at least to even amateur historians like myself, must be how readers react to the setting…

“In Styria…” With those words Laura begins her report of events. And where is Styria? Austria–a nation in the 19th century known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a land without a Parliament or Congress, without trial-by-jury, and held together by a secret police and threats of brutal military suppression. We do not think of Austria that way. Not anymore. Yet if Carmilla is hunted down by forces of a tyranny–as she is in the original–it adds something. A nuance. An ambiguity. Something a little less straightforward.

How to fix this? How to get the same reaction?

Quite simply, there seem two options available. First, shift the locale in place from Austria to a location a modern audience would think of the same way in that era. Germany might well work. Tsarist Russia might work even better! Or not. That does rather depend on the viewers’ knowledge of 19th century history. Or–shift the time period, to within a modern and well-known dictatorship. The makers of the new motion picture Styria did precisely that, setting their version behind the Iron Curtain! I decided on a different tyranny, hence my shifting to the year 1938. The year of the anschluss when Austria became part of the Greater German Reich, and in the process came under the authority of Germany’s dreaded Gestapo.

Other advantages pop up in moving the story forward as well. For example, an audience naturally finds it easier to slip into a story when the clothes, music, furniture etc. feel more recognizable. Consider Lawrence Olivier‘s Richard III against (or along side) Ian McKlellan‘s! Both contain great power, with top-notch casts performing very well. Yet the former feels more antique, a little less accessible, a fact Olivier realized and pulled many a trick to get around. The latter needn’t work so hard, for the simple reason on some level we understand many tiny details better. In Olivier’s film, to give one subtle but pervasive example, the costumes show men as society’s peacocks. They wear the elaborate hats, show off their hosed legs, are seen in splendid colors. Women remain covered virtually head-to-toe, with flirting a profoundly private thing. Not like our time at all! Now look at the McKlellan film, in which women don a elaborate array of outfits, show off some leg, while men garb themselves in business suits, tuxedos or uniforms. We recognize one pattern as that of our world, the other as someplace other.

Translating this to Carmilla, when Colonel Spielsdorf shows up sheathed in the black uniform of Himmler’s SS, that in and of itself tells us much.

More, it allows (or insists, really) the characters to behave in a more open way given the time period, decades closer to what we call “the present.” Any kind of intimate contact or hint of same ended up circumspect in the extreme by our standards, at least in LeFanu’s original text. By putting the story in the era of the radio and phonograph, I found an opportunity for Laura and Carmilla to dance! More, not the constrained minuets of the 19th century but a tango!

Decision about period made, opportunities opened up nicely as well. Remember, a play is not a novella. If one simply copies one to the other it rarely works. The two media remain fundamentally different experiences. Books we read, at our own rhythm and leisure. Plays we see and hear, at the pace and energy set by the production! So I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to let the radio intrude upon Laura and Carmilla, reminding them (and us) of the outside world  tightening its web.

Better yet, it allowed me to give a further context, bringing into sharp relief what remains almost hidden in the book. Laura in the text recounts her story to someone, someone who remains mysterious. This play gives that person a name, a voice, and most importantly an agenda. Someone to ask Laura questions, to doubt her word and motivations, to seek the truth.

And to be deceived by Laura, as we see the difference between what she says and what actually took place.

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