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Notes on Staging the Page: A Dramaturgical Approach to A Farewell to Arms

23rd July 2014 by Simon Wainwright

A Farewell to Arms presents numerous challenges when it comes to translating Hemingway’s highly individual and evocative prose style into dramatic text for the stage. First of all there is the length and scope of the novel that Hemingway breaks down into five books, which, if uncut, would result in a performance lasting over four hours. Then there are the number of characters, many of them Italian and the scenes that take place in hospitals, mountain top trenches, lake-side resorts, mountain chalets, billiard rooms, race tracks and numerous hotel rooms in Switzerland and Italy. And lastly, there is Hemingway’s unique writing style, which in turn is sparse, descriptive and highly romantic as it describes the doomed relationship between Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry in the final year of World War One. Like all great novels the writing’s energy and grip on the reader works via certain acts of repetition. Characters meet and gather together again in slightly different circumstances. The novel moves continuously between the world of men and the world of women, where different aspects of love and death are dealt with until both come together in the novel’s closing tragic scenes in the hospital in Switzerland. Then there are the highly descriptive scenes of landscape and weather that act as structural trope across all five books, pulling the reader back into the experience of a world that is never stable, always shifting in colour, noise, temperature and precipitation.

In facing how to stage this complex and evocative novel we have turned to the idea and act of reading as an enduring metaphor in our reworking of Hemingway’s writing. Our version opens when a group of ‘readers’, like archaeologists, break into a ruined building that once served as a hospital in the First World War. For us this space is like the book itself, a space that not only contains all the words that make up the novel, but also the elements of information that we now have that colours and effects our ‘reading’ of the novel: the films and literature of the conflict itself, our knowledge of Hemingway and his life, other books, poems, paintings, objects that somehow infiltrate our imaginations when we contemplate the book as a whole and the historical events that it re-enacts.

One useful quotation that we found when researching this project was from the French philosopher Michel de Certeau who wrote that, “Reading makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient.” This seemed so apposite when it came to thinking about how one might translate a novel into a performance, how actors, like transients, borrow the words and space of the writer and make a temporary home in their words. Each reading is different and like re-visiting a place we know well, changes with each occupation, explaining how re-reading novels can often feel like encountering them for the first time.

In this version of A Farewell to Arms we will attempt to stage the complex act of reading. This is not a dramatisation of reading with actors holding the novel and reading sections to the audience, a kind of Brechtian or post-dramatic rendering of Hemingway’s work. Rather, our dramaturgy is focused on reading as a metaphor, how our relationship to fiction shifts depending on what we bring to the act of reading itself. In this instance we will never tell you who these figures are that stage Hemingway’s text. You will never find out where they came from or where they go to when they turn off the lights and exit the space in the final scene after Frederic Henry disappears from the stage in a shower of real rain. This is not the point. We will be reading the novel along side you as an audience member, taking you on a journey that we imagine Hemingway was deeply focused on when he wrote the novel: a journey that allows you a certain room for speculation and imagination, where the black and white of words can momentarily bloom into colour, sensation and emotion, where the frailty of fiction can suddenly be transformed into the warmed flesh of experience and wonderment.

Andrew Quick, July 14

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