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Adapting Balzac for the Friday Play

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Adrian Penketh Adrian Penketh 10:07, Friday, 21 January 2011

Detail from an illustration on the title page of Honoré de Balzac's Le Peu de Chagrin (1831).

Editor's note: Adrian Penketh is an actor and playwright. He's adapted a novel by Honoré de Balzac for The Friday Play - SB.

In the introductory note to my first copy of The Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de Chagrin), the word 'allegorical' was used in the first paragraph. It's a welcome word for a writer searching for an adaptation, because, crudely speaking, it suggests that the physical setting, while providing a prism, is not the be-all-and-end-all. In this case, 1830s Paris was the prism through which a young, uncompromising Honoré de Balzac was able to produce one of the greatest antidotes to human self-adoration that exists in literature.

The Wild Ass's Skin took me back to playing those old adventure books, plotting my map, encountering strange characters, unreal settings. It has passages in Sanskrit, strange wiggly lines mid sentence. What is this thing? Is he laughing at us? Then it sideswipes you with its astonishing detail, slays you with its arid humour. It drips with the hot political debates of the era, and contains unashamed new-fangled scientific ideas that even Balzac himself renounced later in his career. It was precisely this experimental spirit which captured my imagination. It seemed a shame to allow our lack of knowledge on the subject of Charles the Tenth of France get in the way of this. After all, there's that word: 'allegorical'.

And then there's the sublimely simple hook: The Skin. A concept which, in varying forms, has been well used since, from Dorian Gray to Aladdin. A concept that touches something in every person who's ever asked a friend what they would do if time stood still, or if they found a million pounds in a suitcase... The Skin would therefore be the anchor. If I didn't deviate from that, and didn't take my eye off the clear modern parallels, I could depart from the book while still staying faithful to its ideology.

And the parallels to today are potent: we have the fall of a massive institution; a political shift accompanied by the inevitable apathy and cynicism; and a philosophical choice: serve yourself, for spectacular but short term gain, or everyone else, for the good of the world. For the similarities between the 19th century's aristocracy and our own, the investment bankers, you only have to look at the splendour in which they both lived and for which they were once admired, and the subsequent disdain and revulsion to which they were subjected, more, probably, to deflect our own corruption than theirs.

The first idea was kind of crude: In the book, Raphael spins his last Napoleon on the roulette wheel before leaving to throw himself in the Seine. In the play, Rupert throws his 'last' fifty quid at a stripper before heading off to the Thames. It helped to see these two men almost as brothers. The key difference was that in the book Raphael is broke, in the play Rupert decides to give his money away. Raphael believes he is faceless because he has no money; Rupert believes that his money has made him faceless, and passes on his whole being, contained inside a wallet, to a perfect stranger, heightening Balzac's notion that if you're looking for happiness, your bank account is not an ideal place to start.

The biggest decision I made early was to use no narration, thus making it impossible to get too ponderous. My personal tastes, being more anchored in the economy of 20th century dialogue, allowed me to make pretty sweeping, unapologetic changes relatively free from literary guilt, the most dramatic of which being the whole of Part Two, in which Raphael details his love for and betrayal by "The woman without a heart" - Foedora. In the book, Foedora represents High Society turning its back on Raphael. In the play, she is the world of Finance itself, seducing and rejecting Rupert in equal measure. And in any case, I decided one love story was enough for a 57-minute play.

Balzac's book was opulent and full of colour; my play is claustrophobic and dark; his book targeted the wealthy classes, mine attempts to reflect today's scattergun approach to moral responsibility. I also have a sneaking suspicion I've been more generous in my helpings of hope than Balzac would have approved of, particularly perhaps with regard to the end. The most famous line of the book reads something like: "All the happiness of the world can be contained in one hour of love". But where Balzac turns this idea on its head by bringing the book to a literal climax in a rushed and passionate sex scene, I chose the other kind of love. Besides, I could only think of one way Balzac's ending could be done, and who needs to hear that coming out the radio?

Adrian Penketh adapted The Wild Ass's Skin for BBC Radio 4


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