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,