I’m Julie Grossman, and I’m very pleased to speak with you about an article called “Shakespeare, Performance, and the Psychology of Adaptation in George Cukor's A Double Life (1947).” This essay was written by Laurence Raw, and it was published in Literature/Film Quarterly in 2016.
I was drawn to this article, first, because it is beautifully written, but mainly, really, because it is about adaptation as a set of values rather than just as a process of intermedial textual transformation. The 1947 noir classic A Double Life isn’t an adaptation of a previous source—it is based on an original script by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon—but as Raw’s title suggests, it adapts Shakespeare into a story about an actor, Tony John (played by Ronald Colman), who is performing Othello, who begins ominously to identify with Shakespeare’s character.
In the essay, Raw argues that the sociological value of change is embedded in adaptation studies and that this film highlights the necessity of being able to adjust to change. The film is about an actor who plays Othello on Broadway, who begins to obsess that his wife Brita (played by Signe Hasso), whom he is separated from, is having an affair with a mutual friend. Brita is playing Desdemona opposite Tony John, who is increasingly identifying with his role, eventually murdering a restaurant server Pat Kroll, played by Shelley Winters, whom he has become involved with. In Tony’s ideation, Pat is Desdemona. After killing Pat Kroll, Tony eventually becomes so unglued on stage that he nearly kills Brita playing Desdemona, and this culminates in Tony John’s suicide, on stage, as he performs Othello’s death.
As a case study of a failure to adapt—Tony John’s inability to move between fictional character and self—Raw says, the film “reminds us that adaptation is not solely an act of literary and/or media related transformation but concerns all of us as we try to deal with new phenomena around us” (49). For me, this failure to adapt to changing realities is a reflection of a more general danger of being unable to adapt, like Americans, as I wrote a little while back in an article about American politics and adaptation studies, who can’t accept change and cultural shifts so they cling desperately and sometimes violently to an older tradition that no longer obtains in the current world. Raw’s article values the dynamism of adaptation; its themes seem to me crucial from the perspective of teaching, practicing, and studying adaptations and from the point of view of civic-minded citizens of a changing world.
Raw’s article deals interestingly with star performance and the difficulties for Hollywood actors to adapt to their public image. Raw discusses Ronald Colman’s struggle with being a star, as well as George Cukor’s “double life” as a gay director in the Classic Hollywood era. The broader concern that Raw explores has to do with the dangers of narcissistic obsession and the difficulties of avoiding the pitfalls of over-identification with roles outside the self. The film is, for Raw, “[a critique of] the pressures of stardom…[for those] who are unable to distance themselves from the personae constructed for them by their industries, and subsequently reinforced through the media” (54). The vulnerability of the actor to excess, over-immersion, and narcissism, is played out in A Double Life, in which Tony John is “so wrapped up in his own performance that he [could not/cannot] separate the external world from the world onstage.” Moreover, Raw links the film, released during the dawning years of Method acting, to Strasberg, noting that screenwriters Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon, and producer Michael Kanin, were well versed in Broadway currencies and acting styles.
For Raw, that is, A Double Life is a veiled critique of the Method…, and its call for immersion holds relevance for our reception to adaptations, where readers, viewers, and audiences cannot always adapt to perceived changes to a text—to stories, to characters, to settings, or language, or tone. Readers who too closely invest or immerse themselves in texts cannot abide their becoming something different, even if that different thing is also similar. I am reminded of an online talk by Tom Leitch during the pandemic on “Immersion or Escape,” which explored a number of ways to theorize and evaluate immersion, raising questions about the extent to which immersion can be hostile to an openness to new ideas. Exploring a phenomenology of immersion, Leitch suggests that because “adaptation … requires a meta-awareness of frames and contextual occasions,” it may in some cases be counter to immersion, endorsing instead a movement between full absorption and analysis. Tony John’s dangerous immersion in his role results in his forgetting the playfulness Leitch finds potentially rewarding in experiences of immersion; instead, Tony John’s anxiety about taking on a new role combines with his obsessiveness and leads to the loss of a stable self. Tony engages in competing worlds that are in play at the same time—fictional and real-- but hasn’t enough flexibility in identity to toggle between them. This is akin to how we are challenged to keep both adaptations and their hypotexts, sources, and scripts in our minds and imaginations, too, as we think about them. Sometimes we flit among realms, allowing them to inform one another; other times these realms merge. They mash up in our minds in creative ways, like the way the Showtime’s series Penny Dreadful exists alongside and yet distinct from Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, but also myriad other scripts, sources, and “interpretants,” to use Lawrence Venuti’s term, that mediate between an adaptation and its intertexts.
I’ll end with the finale of Raw’s essay, which has continued to influence me in my pursuit of adaptations that teach us about the world we live in and the importance not only of embracing its dynamic qualities but the significance of connecting meaningfully with and adapting to and alongside our communities, a value so richly present in this terrific conception and realization of the celebration of LFQ’s anniversary: “For scholars preoccupied with adaptation studies and its future direction, the film [A Double Life] offers the chance to move away from text-based approaches and rethink ‘adaptation’ as a socialization process determining individual relationships to the communities they inhabit” (57). Thank you.
Grossman, Julie. “What Adaptations and Adaptation Studies Tell Us (and Sometimes Don't Tell Us) about Politics, Culture, and Social Change.” Adaptation 14.2 (2021): 274–288.
Leitch, Thomas, “Immersion or Escape: Twenty Ways of Talking about Immersive (or Is It Escapist?) Fiction.” Seminar delivered online at the Centre for Intermedial and Multimodal Studies, Linnaeus University (May 20, 2020).
Raw, Laurence. Shakespeare, Performance, and the Psychology of Adaptation in George Cukor's "A Double Life" (1947). Literature/Film Quarterly 44.1 (2016): 48-59.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Adaptation, Translation, Critique.” Journal of Visual Culture 6.1 (2007): 25-43.