The Politics of Adapting Behn's Oroonoko.
Comparative Drama 2003, Summer, 37, 2
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Biyi Bandele's 1999 adaptation of Aphra Behn's novel, Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1688), commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, proved to be an interesting play theatrically. Bandele and the RSC director, Gregory Doran, were particularly successful in evoking the African culture of Coramantien through song, dance, and mythology. As reviewers of the production noted, Bandele's Oroonoko was visually stimulating and emotionally arresting. However, some critics noticed that the second half seemed lackluster in comparison with the African first half. Jane Edwards, for instance, remarked that "the originality of the African scenes only serves to show up the more predictable scenario in the West Indies"; Patrick Marmion wrote, "One moment it [the first half, set in Coramantien] is bright and breezy and the next it blazes with incandescent choreography before the descent into darkness. Perhaps the second half loses dramatic focus as the plot diversifies into melodrama, but its momentum is sustained by the memory of paradise lost"; and Susanah Clapp observed that "the second half of the play cracks under the weight of melodramatic events." (1) What these critics instinctively realized is that Bandele's writing in the first half is much different from what he has stolen in the second half from two earlier dramatic adaptations of Behn's novel, Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko: A Tragedy (1695) and John Hawkesworth's Oroonoko (1759). That the half in which Southerne's hand is most evident is viewed as less effective dramatically makes one wonder why Bandele stole from Southerne or Hawkesworth at all. Clearly, he is more attuned to contemporary audiences' tastes and has a keen instinct for dramatic pacing and ironically paired incidents in the two parts. The borrowings that we find in Bandele's adaptation may suggest that the meaning of the term plagiarism as it was established for unacknowledged literary theft in the seventeenth century may no longer matter. Yet, though the use of literary material in the public domain is legally not a crime, the adaptation in this case needs to be redressed since it is certainly morally and ethically unfair to three authors, not only Behn but also the two playwrights who previously adapted her work and from which he takes a great deal of material. Of particular concern are his changes that affect the way in which contemporary audiences are led to view her work. Bandele's adaptation revises Behn to make her appear more interested in the native culture of her African slave prince than she really was, but this has the unfortunate effect of erasing the troubling similarities between Oroonoko and the white slave owners (and, in particular, the white female narrator) which the novel emphasizes. Her novel is not the easily assimilated tale about politically correct "good" and "bad" characters that Bandele's adaptation makes it appear to be, for it concerns characters whose actions cannot be characterized with such broad strokes. On the other hand, Southerne and Hawkesworth are not given the credit they deserve for the segments that are lifted from their work.