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Rocket stages

So, Gentle Readers know that I think the Hugos and Worldcon should do something to recognize artists (as distinct from illustrators) who work in speculative fiction. Yes? Can I get some agreement on this? Or argument?

Anyway, that idea came back to mind when I was thinking about speculative fiction on stage. There just isn’t much, is there? I mean, leaving aside folk stories and children’s shows (which I have just arbitrarily decided to leave aside), can you think of five sf works? I have been trying, and I’ve come up with Caryl Churchill’s A Number, and the Rocky Horror Show, and the musical of Lord of the Rings. Oh, you could include some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, if you wanted to be a bit of a jerk about it, and sometimes I do (OK, fairly often). Has a play been nominated for the Hugo Dramatic? Not that it would win, what with nobody seeing it and all, but still.

I’d be curious to see what a really good adaptor would do with Never Let Me Go, although of course it would be totally different from the prose work. I suspect it would be one of those things where three characters do monologues, rather than attempt to create scenes and dialogue. Still, it might work. A stage adaptation of “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’, by Benjamin Rosenbaum” would be a hoot, and would very likely work as theater (with puppets!). I could image a play with some of the conceit of Spin, not an adaptation but a different exploration of some of the ideas.

There are certain aspects of speculative fiction that would be difficult on stage, true. When you think about it, though, it’s just as easy to build a stage set of a Mars colony mine as a Long Island mansion. You don’t have to go outside the dome, just as you don’t have to go outside the house. You do need a set of good characters, with a conflict that can be played out over a short evening.

Think of two plays that were successful recently: Copenhagen and ART. Copenhagen, which I loved, was three characters talking about a scientific breakthrough and the research surrounding it, and how that affected the characters’ relationships to each other as well as a war in which they played a part. It was historical rather than speculative, and that mattered to the play as it was written, which is highly specific and works on that level. Still, there’s no reason to believe a play involving a speculative breakthrough and a future war and the relationships between three characters involved in the research could not work.

ART is about (again) three characters responding to a work of art that one of them purchases, what their reactions to that purchase reveal about them to each other, and how that knowledge changes their relationships. It is set in (more or less) the present, and the work of art belongs to a specific art-historical movement, but other than that, it isn’t hugely specific. A similar play where the characters reacted to something speculative, something that does not now exist might well work. It would be nothing like ART (which I didn’t much like), but there’s no reason to rule it out.

Why doesn’t more specfic theater exist? It doesn’t seem to me that it’s because of a stodgy theater-going crowd. There’s a tremendous amount of irreal (or “irreal”) stuff being put on all the time, and there is clearly a tremendous appetite for it. It’s not because of a lack of interest in speculative fiction in the wider culture. Most of the popular movies and television shows are specfic. So I’m guessing that there’s an unsurprising reluctance among playwrights, producers and audiences to see something that is labeled SF. Matthew Cheney, in his review of A Number says that in the theatre world there are only such things as plays, and nobody much bothers worrying about what to call them or their writers. (How odd it would be to hear someone describe Churchill, or anyone else, as “the famous sci-fi playwright”!) Well, true in a way. But it’s also true that there are no famous sci-fi playwrights, Ms. Churchill notwithstanding.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Robert Lepage's "the far side of the moon" (space travel), some of Cirque du Soleil (fantasy, flight, aliens), Donnie Darko (hmm, 2 out of 3 so far at the ART), The Tempest and other Shakespeare (magic, sprites, fairies, ghosts), Proof (ghost), and of course Broadway's famous Superman musical (superhero).

Now on Broadway: Avenue Q, Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Xanadu, though those are all musicals.

"When you think about it, though, it’s just as easy to build a stage set of a Mars colony mine as a Long Island mansion."

Well, it might be just as easy to build (though there are lots of specfic settings that would be terribly difficult, if not impossible, to build), but it would be much more difficult to make the SF technology accessible to a theater audience without lots of the chunky exposition that is ridiculed but accepted in SF writing, and that would be deadly in the theater, I think. If you were to make the Mars colony mine setting ordinary enough to be comprehensible by visual means for the audience, what would be gained by making it a Mars colony mine rather than a mine on the planet Earth? There's probably a rule that playwrights learn about how many props you can actually have the characters explain in each act of a play, and a serious specfic setting would probably violate it.

Now, if the SF setting is one that everyone in the audience can be expected to know already (the bridge of the Enterprise, for example, or Middle Earth), many difficulties are removed. It seems like popular SF can be successfully adapted for the stage, but it would be much harder to write original SF for the stage, and it's hard for me to see what (other than a challenge) might attract a writer whose vision runs to speculative fiction to the theater. It's easier for me to see how a playwright might find in popular SF novels subjects that could be attractive for adaption to the theater. The musical of _Lord of the Rings_ exists because it can make money, but I can imagine a playwright wanting to write _The Tragedy of Denethor, Steward of Gondor_. A play, set entirely in Minas Tirith during the last year of Denethor's life, could be readily staged, and might be very powerful. It could be done more or less the way that Greek playwrights based their tragedies on myths. You can't stage the _Iliad_ (well, the Aquila Theatre Company is going to do it, but they specialize in the tour de force), but you can stage tragedies drawn from the _Iliad_. Would _The Tragedy of Denethor_ make money, if it were well written?

(Incidentally, Tolkien writes about why drama isn't really a suitable vehicle for fantasy in his "On Fairy Stories" essay. I don't agree with his argument, because I think it misunderstands what theater does, but I think his conclusion is mostly true anyway.)

I hadn't heard of Robert LePage (ignorant American), so I'll add that to my list. Cirque du Soleil I'll claim for my examples of how SF is popular in other genres, and so shouldn't be impossible in the lee-gitamate theeyater. I don't count straight-ahead ghost stories as SF as a completely arbitrary line, as I may have discussed before. I don't know why. Also, I'm not certain that Proof is a ghost story. Mary Poppins and Little Mermaid are children's shows, which I said I was (completely arbitrarily) excluding, and there are plenty of children's shows with fantasy elements. I'll grant you Young Frankenstein, Wicked and Xanadu as specfic, too. Not sure about Avenue Q, which has imaginative elements, but not really speculative elements, he says without having seen the thing. I've just remembered a play, too: Twilight of the Golds, by Jonathan Tolins.

All of which to some extent counters Chris Cobb's argument about the inherent difficulty of sf drama. I think that at this point we aren't just familiar with the bridge of the Enterprise, but the bridge of a starship, generally. Perhaps not with Mars Mines, but with space colonies generally. We are as familiar with those as we are with fishing shacks on Irish islands, or with Scandanavian lighthouses, or the trenches of WWI.

Oh, Prelude to a Kiss. Also maybe some John Guare. Have to think about that.

I would love to see The Tragedy of Denethor, if it were, you know, good. I'm thinking Derek Jacobi, aren't you? But I think that a good play that dealt with a King of a city, under increasing pressure to use his prophetic powers, such powers as he knows can be manipulated by his enemy but which seem to him his only hope anyway ... you know, I don't think it needs to be Minis Tirith. I think the use of certain high-fantasy elements might well help the show (and I'm thinking of a serious play). Our familiarity with Middle-Earth would mean that we wouldn't have to have some of the elements explained, but by not setting it in Middle-Earth, the author could explore his or her own issues of leadership, prophecy, ambition, evil, etc, etc. There is a play ready to be written, there, I think.


I think you've overlooked a field here. I can name a bunch of science-fiction operas.

Leos Janacek's The Makropoulos Case (16 year old Elina Makropulos was used as a guinea pig by her father, court physician to Emperor Rudolf II, who forced him to test an elixir of eternal life on his daughter. That was back in 1601, since which time Elina fled Prague, changing her name every generation through Eugenia Montez, Elsa Müller, Ellian MacGregor, always "E. M.". Now in the 20th century the serum's effects finally appear to be running out...) may be the most famous example (it's based on a Capek novel), while Philip Glass's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Tod Machover's Valis and Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale are based on more recent works (by Doris Lessing, Philip K. Dick, and Margaret Atwood, respectively). I think Karl-Birger Blomdahl's Aniara, A Space Opera is based on an original text, and I believe Gian-Carlo Menotti wrote an sf-themed opera as well, though I didn't find it in 10SoR...

Anyway, it's an area to consider.

D'oh, goofed up the formatting and forgot to preview. Blame the hour. Oh, and I stuck in one Poul Ruders too many.

Got your back, Jim. Unsurprisingly, I hadn't heard of any of those (although I think I read something about the Glass/Lessing). It makes sense, though, that opera artists and audiences would be comfortable with some of the aspects, particularly the visual aspects, of spectacular specfic that would trouble the non-musical play. And, of course, it seems silly of me not to have mentioned Capek in the first place. So, I'm up to half-a-dozen plays, yes? R.U.R., Twilight of the Golds, A Number, Prelude to a Kiss, um, are all the rest musicals? Oh, the LePage thing.


And A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. I don't think I count the Scottish play, and I certainly don't count Hamlet, and I don't think I count Cymbaline. But Dream and Tempest are grown-up fantasy plays. Dream, in particular, does something that I think would be a fruitful field in drama as well as fiction, taking a previously known trope and getting at it from a different angle.


Well, until you belittled anyone who would bring up Beckett as a jerk, I'd have suggested Beckett. Fuck it. I'll be that jerk. How about Beckett?

I have to admit that I think of a lot of theater as specfic-like. Some of Sam Shepard's short stuff, for instance, feels specfic-like to me. But on the other hand, I tend to include the irreal and even the surreal under the umbrella of specfic, and I acknowledge that our umbrellas are different from one another, and that's what makes life interesting and fun, right?

So, in the narrower definition of SF that you're using here, you're correct, I think, that not so much, no.

Oh, how about Welcome to the Monkey House? That count? I'm inclined to mention Our Town, but that's the jerk in me, again. Anyway, the third act is largely a conversation between an outside-the-fourth-wall entity (the narrator) and a ghost...

Oh, and Pirandello. Italians may not count, though. I mean, is Calvino specfic? How about Eco?

Also, there's the whole Director's-vision-versus-Author's-vision thing. If you set Richard II in space (which would be totally easy), is it SF?

Interesting topic, though.

A propos of nothing, have you read Thirteenth Hour, the first of a detective series starring Feste? Well written, interesting premise, rife with obscure references, and good, clean fun for the whole family. Dig it. Can't think of the author's name, off-hand...


I don't think Italians do count. I have no idea why.

Pirandello, like Beckett, counts by definitions of specfic that tend to include things that are in that boundary area, but not by those that tend to exclude things in that boundary area. Without getting into a SlapfightTM about genre, I was looking more for things that aren't in that boundary area, that both the big-genre people and small-genre people can agree on. Which is not to say that the small-genre people are right, just that that's the working definition for this question. So an adaptation of Sirens of Titan, yes, no question about it. Slaughterhouse Five, unless they take out the aliens for no good reason. I seem to have been unaware that there were stage adaptations, although I vaguely remember reading something original for the stage? Or maybe that wasn't him.

And I have read Thirteenth Night. In fact, I've read it twice, most recently about a month ago.

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