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A CurtainUp Feature
Making a Case For Really Long Books and Plays
By Elyse Sommer
With epic productions making something of a comeback in this age of short attention span 90-minute plays (Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia a couple of seasons ago, and this season Horton Foote's 3-part, 9-play the Orphans' Home Cycle), I recently decided to revisit The Jewel in the Crown, the masterful Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels .
Why the Jewel is still a Jewel. . .
Once you get re-accustomed to a diet of really substantial, if time consuming entertainment, your appetite for more of the same grows. My re-visit to The Jewel in the Crown was prompted by the fairly long "intermission" between the first two parts and the third part of the Foote cycle. I figured, that since it was a second viewing, I'd do quite a bit of fast forwarding on the DVD, but the time just flew by without pushing that forward button.
I'd forgotten that Geraldine James, most recently seen on Broadway as Hamlet's mother, was the likeable Sarah Layton who played a major role in the series., and that it's the same Tim Pigott-Smith now playing Kenneth Lay in the London hit Enron (soon coming to Broadway) was magnificent as the complicated English officer Ronald Merrick. Oh, and who would dare fast forward Peggy Ashcroft, another jewel in this epic.
Of course, one thing always leads to another and so, since The Jewel in the Crown held up so powerfully I decided to read the books on which they were based. Like the Foote plays which make up The Orphans Home Cycle, the novels didn't come out all at once. Readers of the Scott books had to wait years rather than weeks in between "installments." (The Jewel in the Crown came out in 1966, The Day of the Scorpion in 1968, The Towers of Silence in 1971 and A Division of the Spoils in 1975). While the books like the nine Foote Plays were written to be free standing the merging of the plays into an epic cycle and packaging the books as a single unit have made them more powerful.
Another effect of the Raj books. . .
Reading the book after watching the terrific Masterpiece adaptation again prompted me to reconsider my long held opinion that it's preferable to read the book before seeing either a stage or film adaptation. Having seen the filmed version of this epic first, made reading the thousand-plus pages a richer and easier to read (without skipping) experience. In fact, it encouraged me to tackle another door stopper: Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. This brilliant, often hilariously funny satire (1488 pages and 591,552 words) about four Indian families in the 1950s (following the last of the Raj period of Scott's quartet) is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language. However, it too consists of individual stories and its 19 parts, each with a different focus on various members of the four inter-connected familes, can be consumed in short bites.
Why the Scott and Seth novels are of special interest to theater goers. . .
Both the Scott and Seth novels are also of special interest to theater goers since stage plays figure importantly in each. Scott draws on G.B. Shaw's The Importance of Being Earnest's 'Bunbury, the imaginary invalid used by Algernon and Ernest to escape from their city and country life obligations. In the 4th book of Scott's quartet, Guy Perrone, uses Bunbury as a code for his Aunt in England to extricate him from his service in the army when his situation becomes too untenable.
While A Suitable Boy is quite different from The Raj Quartet, a playwright also figured importantly in Seth's novel, in this case William Shakespeare. Lata, the young woman whose mother's quest for a suitable husband for her is the narrative framing device ( Gypsy's Mama Rose has nothing on Mrs. Rupa Mehra's pushy, controlling determination) is a 19-year-old college student majoring in literature. Her star-crossed romance with a young Muslim includes a school production of Twelfth Night, in which she is cast as Olivia and the boy she loves as Malvolio. The Twelfth Night scenes are among the book's most entertaining.
Both these books, the DVD and The Orphans' Home Cycle are proof positive that a mediocre short book, play or film can be more of an endurance test than seemingly daunting but memorable and fascinating offerings. Naturally, it's up to a director to keep the pace moving when a story is performed. When reading a book, you can always be your own director by skimming sections which strike you as slow-- and if you skimmed too much, you can always go back.
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