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Conrad's Adaptation: Theatricality and CosmopolitanismI REBECCA L. WALKOWITZ h is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. - Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture ofDorian Gray Conrad's dramatic adaptation of his well-known novel The Secret Agent (1907) was first performed in 1922, that watershed year for literary modernism , and it is striking in its attempts to translate the narrative's innovative theatricality into the play's lileral theatre. That this translation is not quite successful is telling, for sure, about Conrad's limitations as a dramatist, but it is rather more telling about the incompatibility between modernist conceptions of culture, which are integral to Conrad's story, and a (mostly) realist dramatic form , with which Conrad tries to replicate the novel's work. Conrad 's modernist sensibility is most apparent in the play's few moments of address to its audience, in which Winnie Verlac, the secret agent's wife, looks out from the stage to affirm her spectators as participants and interlocutors. In these episodes, Winnie is reminding her audience that it knows what she knows: that it knows and she knows that her life incorporates habitual scripts and that she is conforming, against her wishes, to a melodramatic plot. From her wry comment in the first act, "Yes, I am lucky" (referring to her marriage, in which she knows she is not lucky), to her assertion late in the play, "No! That must never be!" (referring to prison or hanging), Winnie asks the audience to notice that the gestures and expectations of conventional fiction arc internal to the culture that Conrad's fiction represents (Three Plays 80, 168).' As Winnie looks to the audience for sympathy and recognition, Conrad forces his spectators to adopt his character's point of view and also reminds them that the play is invoking social roles and stereotypes with which they and Winnie - are very familiar. Conrad establishes the audience as a minor actor in his play: the audience serves to register Winnie's options as established social dramas, which may be invoked and recognized because they Modern Drama, 44:3 (2001) 318 Theatricality and Cosmopolitanism 3[9 have been acted out before. The play is a social drama about the production of social dramas: a story of a woman's attempt to predict and avoid habitual narrative outcomes and of a foreign embassy that stages a crime - the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory - whose sole purpose is to increase anxiety among the English about uncontrollable, purposeless crimes. Conrad has dramatized the production of literary and social effects, in which various characters play at social roles rather than merely inhabit them. By making his audience responsible in part for the story represented, Conrad seeks to disrupt the conventional separation between actors and audience. Conrad's play thus incorporates elements that we have come to associate with modernist theatre: breaking the frame between audience and actors, forcing the audience to consider its expectations about the experience of attending the theatre and about the kinds of stories that the theatre tends to display, prompting the audience to notice what has become habitual about its own role in the theatre dynamic. These formal elements of theatrical production, which are present in Conrad's drama, have analogues in Conrad's novel, from which the drama takes not only its story but its ruptured perspectives as well. In fact, the novel goes quite a bit further than the drama to fracture the spectatorl reader's attention and to keep the spectator/reader aware of changes in his or her point of view; in the earlier text, the reader is made to feel like onc more "agent" in a story about social and cultural pretenses - acting, deception, irony - at the heart of English life. For this reason, to say that the play's form is in some way analogous to the novel's is to say too little: the literal theatricality of the drama only begins to convey the complex theatricality of culture that the narrative proposes; in the drama, Conrad largely fails to reproduce the famous effects of his narration, in which he tells the reader, from the very first sentence, that habitual...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 318-336
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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