Last night we saw two short plays at Pythagoras Theatre Works in West Stockbridge (http://www.pythagorastheatre.org/) , “The Promise” and “Roman Fever” with Corrinne May and David Joseph and Diane Prusky-- in the town hall! The plays are intimate chamber dramas, both based on Edith Wharton short stories, with excellent actors we know from Shakespeare & Company and other Berkshire theaters. The themes were familiar from Wharton and the ever estimable Henry James-- cultured gentlefolk using their social skills to make a living by marrying needy aristocrats to wealthy Americans (Portrait of a Lady), young women dying of fever after nights out at the Colosseum in Rome (Daisy Miller).
The second play was actually called “Roman Fever,” and last night I read the short story in a .pdf online (http://www2.mcpherson.edu/~claryb/en255/handouts/RomanFever-EdithWharton.pdf) . So the point of this is not the productions, which were excellent, or the plays, which were okay though a little static (and what I love best in the theater is always stages full of people running hither and yon), but rather the comparison with the narrative form. The immediate difference is easy: probably eighty per cent of the dialogue in the plays and maybe more came from narrative, and internal monologue in the story. Obviously the plays had to dramatize: without dramatizing, no drama.
What was more striking to me though, was that the theater pieces were of necessity more modern in that the conflicts were overt, Alida is told by Grace that she’s the kind of person who always says what she thinks, whereas in the story, she thinks it. The dialogue in the story, when it happens, is also more shocking, and, of course, by having everything said, we lose the cultural reticence, the ladylike silence on so many matters from the first quarter of the twentieth century. Thus the sense of the plays being more modern. Thus the sense of the story as more subtle, more revealing of a different world, than the play.
Edith Wharton is a master crafts woman and classic theme weaver.,,,I have discovered a litmus test for the perfection of narrative is to simply read it as Readers Theater.