History

ON THE ADAPTATION

By Matthew Barber

I was first given the novel The Enchanted April by a theater director and friend proposing a stage adaptation. I was wary.  There were flowers on the book jacket — not a good sign.  The jacket copy, all about sisterhood under the Italian sun, didn’t strike me as anything anyone would even remotely connect with me.  And the name Elizabeth von Arnim, despite a bio claiming two dozen popular novels, drew a blank.  Still, I obligingly gave it a read — more out of courtesy than interest — and just like seven decades of readers before me, crumbled completely to the charms of both the tale told and its author’s captivating, stingingly witty voice.

The more I learned about “Elizabeth von Arnim,” the deeper the novel became.  Born Mary Annette Beauchamp in 1866 Australia, she had come of age in Victorian London, married the Prussian aristocrat Count Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthin (whom she’d met on an Italian holiday), and dutifully bore him three children in three years.  Left alone each spring and summer on her husband’s German country estate, however, Mary had quickly found country life, marriage, and motherhood exceedingly tedious, and in 1898 shockingly said as much in her bitingly humorous, anonymously published first novel, the autobiographical Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  The book was a sensation.  More novels followed, and European society embraced this new voice among them — known only as “Elizabeth” — the anonymous “proper wife” with the observant eye and acute opinions on a woman’s changing role at the start of a new century.

By the publication of her 14th novel, The Enchanted April, in 1922, Mary had been widowed, lost a child to illness, returned to London society a celebrity, had a notorious love affair with H.G. Wells, disastrously married and quickly separated from Frank Russell (brother of philosopher Bertrand), watched millions fall in “The Great War” and subsequent influenza pandemic, and witnessed the birth of the women’s suffrage movement, the motion picture and automobile industries, and the “Jazz Age.”

All of which, overtly or not, informs The Enchanted April.

A 1925 stage adaptation of the novel turned the tale into a drawing room comedy revolving not around the novel’s central characters of Lotty and Rose, the disillusioned London housewives, but rather the previously secondary character of Lady Caroline, the beautiful upper-class sophisticate.  An hour-long 1935 RKO film adaptation of the play took even more liberties.  In 1992, a BBC Films production more faithfully followed Lotty and Rose’s journey from stifling London to enchanted Italy, but emphasized sentiment and romance over the story’s darker subtexts of loss and unbalancing societal change.

I decided to write my adaptation of The Enchanted April with two intentions — to shape a true stage piece, utilizing the intrinsic abilities of theater to create a living audience journey; and to do full justice to the voice, concerns and life of Mary Beauchamp, a.k.a. “Elizabeth von Arnim” (as she ultimately became known), a remarkable artist whose vision, humor, and dramatic skill still resonate with readers today.

Being true to this author’s voice in the form of a stage play, however, presented a distinct challenge.  The foundation of The Enchanted April is that all of its characters are hiding their true thoughts and feelings from each other (and often from themselves).  The vast majority of the novel takes place within interior monologues, with characters thinking extravagantly for pages upon pages before choosing only to whisper “Please pass the sugar.” Invention was going to be necessary.  “What did they say?” had to give way to “What would they say?” and then to “How would ‘Elizabeth’ say it?”.  Both action and dialogue had to be constructed, externalizing the characters’ internal journeys for an audience without destroying the novel’s dramatic fabric.  If I’ve done my job, Enchanted April, the stage play, provides a graceful bridge between the theater audience and a truly unique author and the characters and themes she created with such delicate affection.