Once in a while a work of art finds you, and embeds itself so deeply into your mind and heart it seems to travel with you as you go about your waking (and dreaming) life.
I am, by no means, the first reader to have this mesmerizing experience with Sarah Waters’ celebrated literary works, but by the time I finished Fingersmith, I was so riveted by her gasp-inducing story turns and moved by her epic tale of love, betrayal, and redemption that I was already envisioning Sue and Maud on a stage.
Bill Rauch and I had wanted to collaborate for many years. I am an avid fan of the extraordinary work coming out of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under his direction. Over dolmas and coffee, I pitched my vision for transforming Fingersmith into a play. Once Bill read the novel, he was entranced by Sarah Waters’ complex consideration of class, gender, and sexuality in late nineteenth-century London and was captivated by the narrative thrill-ride and ripping yarn of the story.
When I approached Sarah Waters about obtaining the rights to adapt her novel, she was graciously supportive and enthusiastic. Only sometime later when we both appeared on a panel did I learn of her initial reservation that an American might want to adapt a work so singularly British in nature. (Thank goodness I could reassure her it would not be a modern retelling with satiric references to Kardashians!) Sarah also sheepishly confessed to a generalized anxiety at the prospect of American actors grappling with cockney accents. Referring to the film Mary Poppins
(which apparently exemplifies how England regards the American capacity to reproduce an authentic cockney dialect) she said: “I have three words for you: Dick. Van. Dyke.”
Once we had Sarah Waters’ blessing, I set to work immersing myself in Victorian fiction. Already a dedicated fan (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”), it was easy to lose myself in authors who had inspired Ms. Waters such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Charles Reed. I am a writer who would rather research than write, so as much as I was enjoying The Lustful Turk, at a certain point I had to face the challenge of turning this 582-page book into a single evening of theater.
While a book is a private pleasure, the demands of the theater are urgent and communal. In divining the needs for a play, I wanted to be true to the dramatic heart of the novel, but knew I had to be completely free to move away from it as well. It was daunting work, but the love story between Sue and Maud and their complex entanglements with Mrs. Sucksby kept pulling me back in. I remember on a particularly tough writing day, I let my mind wander about how to define Mrs. Sucksby’s worldview in a way that could persuade Sue to accept Gentleman’s shifty proposal. Having just pored through a book about Victorian-era hangings, I had a notion that Mrs. Sucksby might equate free will (or the lack of it) with the nature of gravity. I explored the gravity metaphor and found it provided a unifying structure—both visual and emotional. It also gave me a way to talk about love. The next day, I chanced upon a quote by the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that so embodied what I wanted the play to say, I felt I had a clear path and the real work could begin at last:
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
Making theater is about collaboration. At this point in the journey of the play, virtually hundreds of people have given their talents and shared their love to bring this epic production to life. I am indebted to Sarah Waters for trusting me to adapt her work and so grateful to A.R.T. for giving us the opportunity to make the play better and share it with you.
Sarah Waters’ novel is a valentine to the gothic thriller, domestic drama, and Victorian sensation novel. It is historically accurate (with some intentional anachronisms) but could very well take its place alongside a novel by Dickens on the shelf in a Victorian library. But in centering the story around three active, assertive women, the novel flies in the face of traditional portrayals of what was considered appropriately “feminine” at the time. The result is that in addition to creating a sexy and delicious yarn, Waters has imaginatively created a history (and fiction) that never existed by exposing the blind spots of history and bringing marginalized women to the light. It is my fondest hope that we have done the same.
Alexa Junge is the playwright of Fingersmith. Her work for TV includes "Friends," “Grace and Frankie” (executive producer and writer), “The United States of Tara” (showrunner), “Big Love,” “The West Wing” (Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, WGA nomination for Best Episodic Drama), and “Sex and the City.”
This article appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.
Also in this guide about Fingersmith:
Director Bill Rauch (All the Way), Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, discusses his production of Fingersmith.
by Judith Rosen