“The course of true love never did run smooth” [Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (Lysander speaking)]
Ford’s 1920s tetralogy (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, Last Post [also known as The Last Post]) paints a vivid picture of war and love in Britain in the second decade of the 20th century. The novels give the reader descriptions, summaries, dialogues and internal monologues: the monologues, essential to the nature of the novels, are hard to realise in an adaptation.
Ford was a prolific novelist and writer of memoirs. Stoppard is a famous playwright. How did the latter tackle the tetralogy, with a view to transferring it to the tv screen? Stoppard himself comments on the process in his Introduction to the published script and in his interview included in the dvd. But here I wish to examine significant similarities and differences between the approaches of the two writers, on my own account.
The tv series was first shown in 2012; and Stoppard’s script was published by Faber & Faber (London) in 2012 too (ISBN 978-0-751-29913-3).
The shaping of the material
Stoppard draws mainly on the first three novels. He generally straightens out the chronology. He feels free, though, to modify the sequence, to suit his purposes. He streamlines scenes created by Ford and writes many new ones of his own. The finished work is very much a collaboration between the two writers.
Stoppard takes three episodes of the tv series to cover the first novel, Some Do Not… Episode 1 corresponds to Part I of SMD; and Episodes 2 and 3 correspond to Part II. This disproportion may have to do with the greater length of SMD and the abundance of dialogue in it, compared with the increased use of interior monologue in the later novels; but it creates an imbalance.
Episode 4 covers No More Parades; and Episode 5 covers A Man Could Stand Up (especially the war scenes in Part II).
Too little use is made of the fast moving and vivid passages in A Man Could Stand Up, Part I and III, largely centring on Valentine Wannop, her thoughts and her decisions: the substituted scenes (eg those set in the school where Valentine works) are fine but they fall short of the original.
Most of Last Post is ignored; but scattered references (a) to what the principal characters do on Armistice Day 1918 and (b) the later cutting down of Groby Tree form the basis of scenes that are inserted into Episode 5. Indeed, Stoppard makes Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens separate twice in quick succession here.
I wish to make two related points here:
- A Man Could Stand Up provides its own satisfactory conclusion to the story: the war ends and Valentine and Christopher finally get together.
- AMCSU contains the strong implication that Sylvia has left Christopher for good: Valentine catches sight of a letter from Sylvia’s solicitor to Christopher saying as much [III.i].
Stoppard probably inserted the additional confrontations between husband and wife in Episode 5 for dramatic effect.
As mentioned above, Stoppard adds a number of scenes (and, indeed, characters). Some of the extra scenes are based on fleeting references in the novels, while others are freely invented by the dramatist. Examples follow below:
- The viewer sees something of Christopher’s mother and father as well as his brother Mark
- We see young Michael Tietjens at various stages of his growing up (Christopher expresses more fondness for him than Sylvia does but spends more time away)
- There are several scenes that involve two or three members of the Wannop family (Valentine, her mother and her brother)
- There are numerous scenes of Groby Tree, to the extent that in the tv series it comes to symbolise the Tietjens family and their fortunes
- Though Valentine is absent from No More Parades, apart from appearing in Christopher’s own thoughts, Stoppard inserts scenes involving her in his Episode 4 – presumably to remind us of her existence
- Though Sylvia is absent from A Man Could Stand Up, Stoppard brings her into Episode 5, drawing upon material in Last Post and matter of his own invention
- ‘Society’ scenes are added, showing how upper class civilians carry on while soldiers are suffering at the Front
- In Episode 2, Valentine witnesses the damaging of Velázquez’s Venus in the National Gallery (London) by the suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914
- In Episode 5, Valentine comes across a copy of Marie Stopes’s Married Love (first published in 1918).
In the tv series, there are numerous cases where Stoppard makes actions, only referred to in the novels, explicit, dramatic, theatrical; the characters are given many opportunities to express their strong emotions and to confront one another; their words are in part borrowed from Ford and in part newly minted by Stoppard himself.
On the screen, Stoppard’s script is brought to life on the screen by the sets, the costumes and the high standards of acting.
The visual images conjured up in the tv series are vivid. Some involve partial nudity:
- In (Episode 2), Sylvia is seen taking a bath (and Christopher averts his eyes from her naked torso); in Episode 3, Valentine briefly sees herself totally nude, in her own imagination, in a pose modelled on that of Velázquez’s Venus (see above); and in Episode 5 we finally see Valentine and Christopher in bed together.
- There are, indeed, several scenes of sexual intimacy in the tv series: contrast the one brief mention of sex by Ford, in a passage where Christopher is thinking about his relationship with Sylvia:
[H]e had had physical contact with this woman before he married her; in a railway carriage coming down from the Dukeries. An extravagantly beautiful girl! [Some Do Not…, I.vi].
The dialogues between the principal characters run the gamut of seduction, pleading, enquiring, polite conversation – and disagreement and falling out. Some incidents of conflict are based on passages in Ford’s novels; others are derived from hints in the text and expanded by Stoppard. (Notable examples follow.)
- Sylvia’s harsh rejection of Christopher, with her disparagement of Valentine, at the end of Episode 3, is based (a) on Christopher’s aide-memoire to himself about his life with Sylvia [No More Parades, I.iii] and (b) on a reconstruction of the original (suppressed) ending of Some Do Not…:
“Oh God! How could you be such a skunk! The girl was waiting to drop into your mouth like a grape. Couldn’t you bring yourself to seduce a — a little kitchen maid? Are they so rare?” [M Saunders, editor, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2010, page 414].
- Edith Ethel’s unfounded accusation that Valentine has had a baby by Christopher, in Episode 3, is based on the text of Some Do Not…, II.iv:
“For God’s sake hold your tongue, you shameless thing! You’ve had a child by the man, haven’t you?”
- Valentine’s exasperated verbal assault on Sylvia in Episode 5 (created by Stoppard) is derived from a brief passage in Last Post, I.vii, where Marie Léonie recalls Sylvia’s untimely irruption into Valentine and Christopher’s privacy:
Christopher’s wife had turned up at Christopher’s empty house….They [Valentine and Christopher] had gone back late at night probably for purposes of love and had found her there….Then, at the top of the stairs in the house in the Inn they had perceived Sylvia, all in white!…
The lark and the nightingale
Stoppard adapts one scene, in particular, with great skill. In Episode 1, we see Christopher and Valentine driving through the night. In the source material, Some Do Not…, I.vii, they discuss a variety of topics, including female suffrage and Latin poetry. (They disagree with each other, outwardly, while inwardly drawing ever more closely together.) Stoppard cuts most of their conversation, but he hits on a bright idea: as day is dawning, they quote lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 5) to each other:
Christopher: A lark.
Valentine: Not that. It was a nightingale.
Christopher: “It was the lark, the herald of the morn, no nightingale.”
Valentine: “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”
This is most fitting: falling in love, but facing great obstacles, Christopher and Valentine resemble Shakespeare’s lovers.
In his Introduction to the 1977 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of the collaborative play, The New Noble Kinsmen, N W Bawcutt (editor) compares the respective contributions of Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and he says of the latter:
“Instead of ceremony and ritual he (Fletcher) gives us drama and excitement….His characters debate and argue, but seem more concerned with making effects and scoring points than with exploring their inner feelings”. [page 28]
In his Parade’s End script, Stoppard adds much “drama and excitement” to the original; and he provides many occasions for the actors to “debate and argue”. The actors also have the task of conveying something of their characters’ “inner feelings”: in the event, one could ask no more of the performances that they give us.