How many times have you read Bliss?

It’s a useful question because you could argue that I should’ve read it more! I read it perhaps three times before I was asked to write the adaptation. In hindsight, I wish I’d read it six. So, although I knew the novel well going into adapting it, I didn’t know it intimately. I learnt a lot about it once I started adapting it though.

I read it the first time not long after the film came out and then again when I was at Uni in the late 1980s. Then I re-read it about six years ago and felt like the book had changed. The metaphysical fable had opened into a tall story of the cultural cringe, consumerism, identity, and the question of who gets to tell the stories.

Why did you decide to adapt Bliss into a play?

Adapting Bliss into a play came out of Malthouse and Matt Lutton. I said yes because of a working relationship with the artists in question; the director Matthew, the designer Marg Horwell, the lighting designer Paul Jackson and Stef Gregory the sound designer and composer – all of those people I really enjoy working with. But then when I sat down to start the business of adapting a Peter Carey novel… It’s his first novel and up until then he’d been a short-story writer and an advertising copyist, and you can feel the archaeology of a short-story writer within the novel. It feels like seven or eight stories which have been fairly deliberately stitched together into novel form.

One of the problems with Bliss, and it’s a good problem, is that Peter Carey self-dramatises. Harry Joy isn’t a self-portrait but it does seem to reflect a certain time in Peter’s life when he made a decision: do I continue in advertising or do I (metaphorically) disappear into the bush? But for him, of course, the bush was actually New York; he moved closer to the centre of western culture not further away from it. So that’s where he and Harry Joy diverge. I found all of that quite interesting but the question kept nagging; Whose story is this?

Enclosure and freedom are contrasting concepts in many of Peter Carey’s novels, including Bliss. How are ‘captivity’ and ‘escape’ dramatised in the play?

It’s a story of privileged people. One of those privileges being that you can always leave, you always have a choice. But not everyone in this world has a choice. The idea of entrapment isn’t so much about being contained by big social structures, they’re contained or curtailed by ideologies that are absorbed within the body.

I was really interested in the character of Bettina. On one level, she is completely free to do what she wants – she’s not going to be imprisoned or impoverished necessarily by her choices. But by the same token, she feels herself completely constrained by her role going back to her early childhood. All of them are, in the words of the novel, in hells of their own making. There’s also this question of what actually is liberty? What is liberation from this continuous image-making? The novel’s clearly interested in an Australian (male) tradition of raconteur-ship, the storytelling-round-the-campfire invention of reality that goes back to Tom Collins’ Such is Life and Henry Lawson. It has sort of metastasised into advertising copy, Mojo jingles, and so on, by the time we hit the world of Bliss. So the question for Harry Joy is: how do you make the stories real again; how do you make them rich again; how do you stop them just being bullshit and propaganda to sell products we don’t need; how do you make them speak to us again? Or do you kill them? And that’s where Carey’s romantic faux-naiveté comes in. In the end, Harry is imagined as some sort of priest-like figure somewhere out the back of Byron Bay, whose role is to plant trees and tell interesting stories at funerals. I don’t think it’s a sustainable vision. Not everyone can do this. So that’s one of the tensions within the book: it doesn’t really posit any practical solutions. The characters have a kind of tin ear for alternate experiences.

What’s the actual process of writing the play? What do you do? Do you map out certain pivotal scenes and then fill in around them?

I’ve tried that in the past with other adaptations of books. I’ve tried to map out a structure and ‘fill it in’. But that only works so far. What I find useful is to go through the book and colour-code it thematically, according to certain themes you want to bring out onto the stage. So, in the case of Bliss, orange for cancer, pink for female experience, blue for New York (as a metonym for advertising and western culture). So you’ve got this multi-coloured book. Then you go through it and look for the sections which are dialogue heavy, because if the original writer imagines them dialogue-heavy then it’s more theatricalised, in the sense that it resembles a script, as opposed to things which are more narrative-driven. They require different idioms in the act of adaptation. You might want to turn the internalised, non-dialogue stuff into dialogue and you might want to turn the dialogue into monologues or something like that. But you’ve got to be very conscious of it. So that’s my equivalent of a structure.

In the case of Bliss, I think I sat down and started with the third act, and the third act in this case is when Harry is admitted into the insane asylum. I just started writing dialogue from there, lifted from the book, let the tone of the author come out. And this is the important distinction, because I’m dealing with a living writer and not with Cervantes or someone like that who has been dead for four hundred years. You have to, to a certain extent, follow the structure. This text hasn’t reached a point yet where it’s a free-for-all. It’s Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted by Tom Wright, not Bliss by Tom Wright based on Peter Carey’s book. That would be a very different play.

How involved has Peter Carey been in the process?

He has to give permission at all points. So in order to even get permission to start we needed to send a rough treatment of a scene which was about ten to 12 pages long. He came back saying, “that reads ok”, so we had permission to go ahead. But at any point, he could’ve pulled the plug. As I say, it’s still Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted by Tom Wright. Were it the other way around, it would’ve been a set of ruminations and we’d be seeking to comment on Bliss. But I don’t feel entitled, in this exercise, to comment on Bliss; I have to present it and I’ve pushed it as far as I feel I can. An example of that is, and I wrote this rather late in the piece, when Bettina first comes on to the stage. I have her talk to the audience and comment on what Harry Joy is like. I felt like I had license to do that because in the first chapter of Peter’s book, Bettina is written as thinking out loud about what she calls “this conspiracy of men, this almighty brotherhood of frauds”. So we do get to see Bettina thinking about and commenting on this kind of masculine conspiracy against her pursuit of excellence. I turned that into a monologue. But even with that, I thought I’ve got to be careful: I felt comfortable with putting words into Peter’s characters’ mouths but I didn’t want to put ideas into their heads.

How often were you meeting with Director Matthew Lutton while you were working on the script?

Constantly. It was a constant process. But every director-writer relationship is very different. When I worked with Kip Williams on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui late last year and early this year, I only did two drafts and he provided about two pages of notes. We met, we briefly discussed casting but fundamentally, it was along the lines of “I’ll tell you if something’s not working”. Whereas in the case of something like Bliss, because it had a difficult genesis, a difficult birth, the draft we took to rehearsals was the 12th, and every one of the previous 11 emanations had multiple pages of notes from Matt. He functioned as a dramaturg but he also functioned very much as the prospective director of the piece, and he was directing me as well as the actors. He’d say “I want more…” or “I want a scene where this happens” or “I think we need to lose or shorten that scene”. So by the time it got to the seventh or eighth draft, me as writer, him as dramaturg/director, we got it towards being ready for rehearsal.

What’s the time frame for this process? How long does it take to get from that first draft to the 12th?

One year. Well, actually 13 months. When we did Picnic at Hanging Rock it was a year; when we did The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man that was nine months. In an ideal world I reckon you need to develop a play over a bit longer time. But Australian theatre practice means that season by season there are only so many projects on which you can work, so you tend to work within a year’s timeframe.

Bliss is set in the 1980s. Did you think about introducing any devices to place it more in the now, especially with the world in its current state?

This was a bit of a difference of emphasis between Matt and me. I was interested in viewing Bliss as a work of the 1980s; although Matt wasn’t against that, he wasn’t as interested in seeing it specifically as a 1980s text. For me it functions very interestingly as a text of that time, partly because all of us are (in the world of the play) the children of Harry Joy and Honey Barbara. The narrative voice in the novel speaks from the future as the children look back on Harry and Honey. The action’s all in the past. So in a sense, it’s written in 2018, looking back at the 1980s. And for me that’s important because the 1980s represent a kind of fulcrum moment where Australia left, to a certain extent, protectionism behind – a sense of being a protected species that had to enter the big world of nature or the big world of the marketplace or the big world of capitalism. So for me, time mattered. But for Matt, he was more interested in the character drive and what the characters were searching for. But that’s the kind of interesting business about collaboration. Matt’s understanding of character is very sophisticated, and I trust it a great deal.

I didn’t see this play as speaking a great deal about something specifically 2018. There are many things in our theatre that do. For instance when I was doing Arturo Ui, I felt like that was an adaptation of Brecht which was designed to sit only now and only in this city. Whereas Bliss is, at least in my mind, about the past and as a result it doesn’t have much to say directly about Malcolm Turnbull or about Donald Trump or about where contemporary markets are working.

To read the second part of this interview, click here.