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A Riff on 'The Dead', by Kelli Shermeyer

Submitted by site_editor on Fri, 2017-09-15 10:17

Adaptation is inextricably linked with interpretation. At its core, producing all live theater is a process of interpretive transcoding, and therefore a form of adaptation.[i]  We must read a text, suss out its central concerns, and then imagine how the distinctive capabilities of various media used in the theater (such as bodies, sound, light, imagery, or video) can best tell its story. This process is not so different from the one taken by artists adapting short stories for musical compositions, novels for films, or folktales for dance performances. 

The immersive theater company Punchdrunk’s Macbeth adaptation, called Sleep No More, has been playing in a group of repurposed Manhattan warehouses since 2011[ii] and employs the power of multimodality. The event allows masked audience members to roam freely through locations spread over several floors in the performance venue (including an asylum, a hotel, a street full of shops, and a speakeasy), interact with characters (the Macbeths, the witches, figures associated with the Paisley witch trials of 1697), rifle through the objects on set, and follow whichever parts of the story seem most compelling. Sleep No More relies on the conventions of dance, environmental theater, and haunted houses to tell its version of Macbeth—a version just as indebted to Alfred Hitchcock as it is to William Shakespeare. It exemplifies the kind of glorious, intertextual palimpsest lauded in Linda Hutcheon’s influential theory of adaptation. For Hutcheon, there can be no literal adaptation, because texts are never entirely original; they are “mosaics of citations that are visible and invisible, heard and silent; they are always already written and read.”[iii]

Sleep No More is engineered so that attendees are forced into deciding which parts of the story to follow or which of the many environments to explore and in which order. As the action occurs simultaneously and it’s impossible to see it all, the performance really asks attendees to make interpretive decisions: in effect, you adapt the performance for yourself. This reminds us how audience members, too, engage in interpretive labor and further challenges the notion that authors can fix the meaning of their work. Thinking critically about the process of adapting literary texts to other media brings us into thorny territory filled with questions about authority, ownership, and interpretation.


If I were to make a list of writers who are particularly canny about multimodality and literature, Joyce would be near the top. Critics have noted how he uses sound (in the “Sirens”, the jingle-jangle of Boylan’s approach, the repeated “I” sound of “Cyclops”) and presents dramatic or filmic possibilities on the page (the virtually unstageable “Circe”).  As the many entries on “Joyce Today” demonstrate, others have shared my interest in the adaptive potential for Joyce’s fiction, and Ulysses and Dubliners have been particularly popular source texts for contemporary artists and writers. 

For example, “The Dead” has been adapted in a variety of ways; there’s the play by Frank McGuinness, an app developed by UCD, a chamber opera, and a short film by American film company Running Wild as part of a 52 films/52 weeks project. I want to use this particular piece, written and directed by Travis Mills in 2012, to think about translating “The Dead” to a performance medium. Where can we see the seams of the adaptation process? What’s lost or gained in new interpretations? How do we assess a version’s success if there’s no such thing as “literal” adaptation?

Joyce’s story takes place in Dublin during sisters Julia and Kate Morkan's annual holiday party which is filled with dancing, toasting, and spirited musical performances. Attendees include the sisters’ niece Mary Jane, nephew Gabriel and his wife Gretta, university instructor Molly Ivors, renowned tenor Bartell D’Arcy, festive drunkard Freddy Malins, and the Morkans' caretaker’s daughter, Lily.

Mills’ version is set in the present day at the Christmas party of an Irish-American family. This choice has several distinctive effects. For those of us who are familiar with “The Dead,” it suggests that many of the concerns and questions present in Joyce’s story are resonant beyond their original setting. However, this recontextualization also disconnects “The Dead” from Dublin and thus its place in the series of stories that is Dubliners.

Furthermore, Mills makes significant changes in the focalization of the story, somewhat reducing Gabriel’s role, instead focusing on Gretta, and, somewhat surprisingly, Freddy Malins. Both characters are portrayed as outsiders in the Morkans’ social circle. Gretta is an immigrant from Lithuania who has not been entirely enveloped into Gabriel’s family. Freddy’s alcoholism isolates him both from Gabriel (his boyhood friend) and Mary Jane, with whom he is in love. In this version, the famed “Irish hospitality” of Joyce’s story is tainted with disingenuousness and Freddy, despite his drunkenness, has the clearest insight into the social fabric of the party. In a conversation with Gretta, he characterizes the Morkan sisters as conniving and controlling, Gabriel as blind, Bartell as pretentious, Lily as cynical, Miss Ivors as zealous, and himself as lost.

Some of these changes seem like natural results of the adaptation process. Moving from literary text to the stage or screen often involves reimagining the story as told from multiple perspectives; therefore, it does make some sense that Gabriel’s role would feel diminished as the story is no longer focalized solely through him. However, focusing on Gretta and Freddy is also a strong interpretive choice– one that, for some, risks distorting the story of “The Dead” in undesirable ways. Mills’ version may cause us to wonder: what historical (or political) insight is lost by changing the Dublin setting or de-emphasizing the Morkans’ musical ventures? Can we understand Gabriel’s final epiphany and its importance to the story without Joyce’s words? Questions like these are where adaptations start to get a bad rap from critics who see adapters as capitalizing on the prestige of an established canonical text to tell a story that’s not faithful to the spirit of the source.

Of course, not every element of a text always translates smoothly into an adaptation; for example, Mills’ reimagined conversation between Molly Ivors and Gabriel adds some texture to the story, but comes off a little strong. Molly takes Gabriel to task for not valuing his Irish-American culture, citing an article where Gabriel has written that “[w]e must throw away our histories in order to create new histories. We must forget the ships that brought us here, otherwise we’ll continue to live on them as ghosts instead of citizens.” However, Gabriel ironically remains out of touch with the difficulties (or debatable merit) of “forgetting” one’s history, even though he is married to a first-generation immigrant. For me, this was a scene where the seams of adaptation were highly visible. The issues surrounding nationalism that Joyce alludes to don’t translate smoothly to either a present-day or an American context.

Ultimately, Mills’ version of “The Dead” draws attention to the innerworkings of communities and the way that traditions, even Christmas parties, can be isolating. Towards the end, Gabriel stumbles in on Gretta and Lily singing a song from Gretta’s youth by themselves at the family piano. In that unguarded moment, we recognize the importance of music in forging necessary connections between the past and the present, ourselves and others. Art must be more than the bells and whistles of Mary Jane’s highly technical academy piece in Joyce’s story. It’s not the forgetting of history, but the sharing of song or story that is the antidote to the kind of “divided nationalism” that Gabriel tells Molly Ivors he was trying to critique. One reading of this choice would be that in its own way, Mills’ adaptation preserves the life-affirming heart of “The Dead.”


Many of Mills’ choices seem pragmatic for a 52 films/52 weeks project. Using out-of-copyright literary works as the basis of adaptation reduces production costs as they don’t require rights for performance. The modern-day setting reduces costume expenditures and makes it easier to find a place to film. Shifting the sophisticated and technically difficult musical pieces of the story to Christmas carols around the family piano (likely songs that the actors already knew) seems like a wise decision in such a short production process. The reality of these kinds of choices can cause people to think that adaptations are labors of expedience rather than intellect or the products of artists who want to capitalize on someone else’s creativity to increase their own coffers or reputation. But recognizing the constraints of producing a film or a play is no cause for cynicism. No production, even one with an extraordinary budget, is made in a vacuum. Interpretive choices are often influenced by material conditions.

But every design choice – whether made for style or pragmatism – is significant to how audiences interpret the performance before them. As a theater director myself, I can think about artistic choices my collaborators and I have made due to limited resources—setting Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the present day to make use of our stock costumes, for example—that then become a part of our storytelling and are incorporated into the ways the audience interprets our work.

Thinking critically about the processes of adaptation is a generative scholarly activity because doing so engages both the core of our literary methods the extra-literary forces that shape our ways of making meaning with texts. Adaptation is also at the very heart of creative production. As Joyce writes “drama is strife, evolution, movement in whatever way unfolded, it exists, before it takes form, independently.”[iv] This is the energy that we writers and practitioners condition and shape, giving the material of human life a new form.  We are all already adapters.


Kelli Shermeyer

Doctoral Candidate

University of Virginia


[i] However, not every playwright sees it this way. Edward Albee has famously expressed distaste for directors who deviate from his original stage directions, referring to them as "nothing but interpretive types that think they know our work better than we do." (See Noises Off: Playwrights vs. Directors? It’s a Matter of Interpretation in The Guardian, Wednesday 9 December, 2009.) As I am writing this, Albee’s estate is threatening to revoke performance rights from a theater unless they fire the black actor playing Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as this casting decision represents a deviation from Albee’s specific intentions for the role.  

[ii] The current incarnation of Sleep No More follows developmental versions staged in London and Brookline, Massachusetts.

[iii] See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, pg. 21.

[iv] See Joyce’s essay “Drama and Life” in the Oxford World Classics Occasional, Critical, and Political Writings edited by Kevin Barry, pg. 24.