- Dramatic Revisions of Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends: Essays on Recent Plays Edited by Verna A. Foster
This collection is an ambitious attempt to bring together a group of essays that represent several disparate approaches to the study of dramatic adaptation. The use of “Dramatic Revisions” is accurate, as the essays are squarely focused on the dramatic material and how it is conveyed in different versions. There are many plot summaries here, as the old and revised narratives are literally retold so that we as audience understand the similarities and differences. The value of this breadth eventually becomes apparent, as the collection provides an opportunity to see a number of approaches to analyzing drama and its relationships to myth, fairy tales, and legends. While some of the approaches are stronger and more convincing than others, the collection provides new ideas and possibilities through several compelling overlaps and surprisingly connected analyses.
Foster’s introduction sets out definitions of myth, fairy tale, and legend and argues that the continued resonances of the stories make them the basic cultural material from which new revisions of those stories are made. Miriam Chirico furthers this perspective in the first chapter, defining “mythic revision” as “the act of creatively re-writing a myth in order to move closer to the myth’s essential meaning” (16). Using Claude Lévi-Strauss’s metaphor of “the room,” she explicates the adaptation of myth as looking through various windows and mirrors into a room in which the myth resides; through this framework, dramatic adaptation gives us more glimpses of the myth inside the room, and thus more perspectives on its “essential meaning.” Chirico also provides a summary of different approaches to analyzing adaptation (thematic, comparative, and structuralist) and proposes an extended structuralist methodology that would also include “dramaturgical adoption” (20) as a gesture to the significance of the performative in dramatic adaptations. The rest of Chirico’s chapter, and of the anthology, offers some illuminating readings of dramatic adaptations while only occasionally hinting at their effect as theatrical productions. Unfortunately, as [End Page 256] many of the essays remain mostly thematic and/or comparative, they often rely upon overarching statements that compare the ancient Athenian dramas and context to the contemporary ones with some variation of Karelisa Hartigan’s observation that “tragedy today is not defined by the universal but by the individual” (47).
Elizabeth Scharffenberger’s chapter analyzing Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen and Saviana Stanescu and Richard Schechner’s YokastaS is the strongest essay in the book, connecting myth with theatrical practice by examining the way these pieces function for their contemporary audiences. Scharffenberger addresses the “unmaking” of the narrative of the McLaughlin Helen, with its frustrating refusal to get rid of one of the Helens. She productively compares this to the multiple Yokastas that exist concurrently and in conflict in Stanescu and Schechner’s piece, which attempts to “set the record straight” (52) by taking the narrative out of the hands of men, giving the character of Yokasta agency and psychological depth beyond the shallower archetypes of Sophocles and Seneca (and Freud).
Kevin Wetmore’s chapter on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays demonstrates how the playwright revises Yoruba myths and their American adaptations to create space for a new myth, one that is inclusive of homosexuality. As Wetmore argues, this occurs through the use of Eshu, a trickster god who is able to transform and create, just as McCraney himself does. For an audience that does not know the Yoruba myths, McCraney’s revisions exist as new myths, with as much legitimacy as other myths. This use of the trickster is also emphasized in Christy Stanlake’s analysis of Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and Amelia Howe Kritzer’s discussion of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker. In each case the trickster character guides the story and transforms the myths to suit the ideological tendencies of the more contemporary time and place: for Highway to subvert the...