Bliss as a novel luxuriated in surrealist commentary on the hellishness of capitalism – excess and the hallucinations of ego-success. Was it difficult to translate the surrealism of the novel for the stage?
Yes. With adaptations, it’s often what you omit and not what you include that defines the nature of the text. I had long conversations with Matt about whether or not we told the back story (or rather the fore story) of David and what happens to him in his future life. There’s this long section in the book where David is revealed to be a gun-runner and drug-runner in South America, and ends up dying heroically. He becomes one of his father’s and grandfather’s stories. It’s actually quite beautiful. The film version chose to not explore this storyline. And likewise, for similar reasons, we found ourselves having to omit it as well. Already adapting a novel pushes into three hours, four hours and you cannot do everything. But the radical question is then what do you choose to omit? A lot of the characters in Peter’s novel are ciphers, including members of Harry’s own family. In terms of real, fully-rounded characters, there are only four or five of them. And even then I struggled to fit them onto the stage. You have this kind of tedious male protagonist, then you have these two quite interesting female characters who are big drivers in the piece. And then after that, you’ve got this slightly odd character of Joel, who in the novel is somewhat under-developed. And again, I had to cut a great deal of Joel simply to keep the story going. You find yourself caught in that quandary all the time of choosing what you’re going to excise and not what you’re choosing to include.
What are the original readers of the novel, the audience that was reading the book at the time when it first came out going to take away from this adaptation? Some of them probably saw the movie too, perhaps not as many the opera…
There are two questions that work here. One’s going back to your point about the form. There’s a surrealistic form to the book. When it came out in the early 1980s, magic realism was kind of a fashionable style that came out of Latin America. It’s the third world reaching its imagination into first-world minds, and Peter’s getting onto that, coming into New York from the fringes of the world. The whole surrealist thing was kind of international and globalised, but it was also coming out of an Australian tall story tradition, the kind of yarn-spinning I was talking about earlier. None of those things have quite the same direct equivalent on stage. But in the film, Ray [Lawler] was able to find an equivalent style for the filmic world which was kind of an Australian surrealism. Theatre doesn’t quite work that way, because that’s what we do anyway. Theatre is already theatrical; it’s already a magic place. It takes place in the form of language. An elephant can’t sit on a car on stage, not an actual elephant. So the whole thing becomes an exercise in who’s telling the story and whose voice is being privileged at that point. And it changes a bit in terms of its visual style – it becomes a question of who’s telling the tall story, not taking them on face value.
In terms of how it’s going to speak to audiences? What I’d really like people to think about is that period – from the surprise re-election of Malcolm Fraser in 1980 to 1988 and the hideous excrescences of the bicentenary celebrations. That period of eight years when a lot happened: Keating’s banana republic statements, the floating of the dollar, the winning of the America’s Cup, the launching of the new kind of Australian nationalism, Bob Hawke, the convivial, essential good bloke becoming prime minister. A whole lot was going on back then, and I’d like the contemporary audience to look back and ask that biblical question that I put in the program note: what does it mean if you gain the world but lose your soul? For me that’s a key question. But not as an individual, not like some advantaged advertising executive asking that question. Our society: what actually did we do? What Faustian deal did we make in the 1980s?
We’re clearly more materially wealthy than we were then. But our cities are burgeoning and bulging. Our environment is increasingly under stress. Our civil liberties are being subtly but progressively more encroached upon. We’re increasingly culturally fragile but not in a particularly healthy way. Did we sell a great deal of potential long-term diversity and richness in exchange for cheaper whitegoods and airfares? That kind of stuff, for me, is really present. So while you’re in it, actually watching a man who thinks he’s losing his sense of self and finding redemption by planting trees for bees, there are actually conversations taking place behind that about what we all could’ve done and could do when we hit our bliss moments. For me there’s a kind of pivotal moment where Honey Barbara says to Harry, “You keep talking about how you died. You didn’t die. People who die actually change. You haven’t changed. All that’s happened to you is that you thought you died. You’ve had an experience but you haven’t learnt from it.” And for me it’s kind of analogous to what happens to our society all the time. We get these scares but then it’s too difficult for us or it’s paradigmatically impossible for us to know how to really change.
In the play, the character Adrian Clunes (a pharmaceuticals executive), talks about us as a species walking around with eye masks and ear plugs, hardwired not to catastrophise. So the more people tell us that there’s some environmental crisis coming, the less we believe it. Our minds, our systems, and our entire ideologies won’t allow us to absorb the idea that radical change is vital. The natural conservatism of the human species kicks in at that point. In the novel, they’re talking about the fact that half the things you buy in the supermarket are carcinogenic. Whereas now, that speech functions as a kind of climate change speech. So when Adrian talks about how human beings find it impossible to catastrophise, I imagine most people in the audience will think, well yes, that’s why it’s so hard to get genuine climate change policy happening, because everybody’s fine about any form of environmental initiative until it hits their share price.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I’ve actually heard people say that if it’s such a problem, the market will fix it. That’s magical thinking. The market and nature, those two things function really heavily in Bliss. The market and nature do fix things, but they don’t have any necessary ideology. They don’t necessarily work for human good. Neither of them are particularly invested in the idea that individual humans or even the human species has to live. They’re just things that look for the most efficient way of fixing the problem. The marketplace’s solution to environmental degradation or rising sea levels might not be something that the vast majority of human beings are very happy with. It might involve a very rich elite living in glass towers while the rest of the human species drowns. That might be the market’s best solution. I don’t know. Determinism versus fatalism is a really strong theme in Peter’s work, particularly in Bliss. Do you just go with the flow or at what point do you have to make choices? And if you can make a choice, what about the people who aren’t in a position to make a choice? Those kind of moral questions sit underneath. And that’s the key thing for me. You don’t see a lot of that in the action.
What I said before is you see a man who has a near-death experience and suddenly goes through a sequence of unlocked realisations that he is a lot more precarious than he thought he was. He thought he was eternal. He thought he was the blessed Australian male, what Carey describes as “relentlessly complacent”. The key word is complacent. The complacency of the Australian male as opposed to the deep frustration of the Australian female. That’s what you’re watching. And some of it is quite comic, like when Harry goes into the insane asylum and realises that even his own name is something he doesn’t own anymore. Actually, all of us, in some circumstances, are liable to be colonised. That’s what you see. But what’s going on underneath, that’s where the bigger questions lie.
To read the first part of this interview, click here.