Monday, June 16, 2014

Dorian's Descent: All Art is Quite Useless

Dorian's Descent is a new stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Dorian's Descent is a musical that has added an element to the story: the Devil. In this article, I wish to explore the narrative elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray through Walter Fisher's narrative probability and narrative fidelity, the Faust trope, and how the character of the Devil is a narrative disaster. Although I did enjoy the show and thought the singing was quite impressive, the actual lyrics, words, and acting were sub-par, especially compared to a few other musicals and adaptations I have seen in Los Angeles. I will be discussing the play and the book in detail (i.e., spoiler alert!), so I encourage readers to read the book or acquaint themselves with the story.
Poster for Dorian's Descent
The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young man, Dorian Gray, who becomes obsessed with a portrait that Basil Hallward has painted of him. It shows him in his youth and his prime, characteristics that he realizes, once prompted by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, will fade. In a state of hopelessness, Dorian wishes that the painting might age instead of him, for in its current stage it only serves as a reminder of what he would lose. Without explanation, the painting does begin to change as Dorian becomes involved in the hedonism of Lord Henry's lifestyle. Dorian scorns Basil, engages in illicit sexual activity, murders, and experiments with various vices. The picture ages, its face is marred by a snarl, and the brow is furrowed in perpetual anger and disdain. Eventually disgraced by the harm he has caused, Dorian attempts to absolve himself by stabbing the picture. The two reverse, leaving Dorian himself dead, aged, and hideous and the portrait returned to the beauty which Basil painted.

The picture and Dorian from the movie adaptation
Dorian's Descent infuses a rock opera theme onto the story, which pairs nicely with the descent into hedonism and sin. The element of the Devil, however, removes a very powerful and meaningful part of the play: Dorian's agency, choice, and self-mortification. In the play, the Devil appears and makes an explicit Faustian deal with Dorian so that he may stay young and the portrait may age. The character is doubly unnecessary. First, Lord Henry already serves as the Faustian Devil, the foil to Basil between which Dorian must decide. Having the Devil character undermines Lord Henry's role as the tempting, evil character that lives a sinful, yet seemingly fulfilling life. His presence mirrors the Devil, instead of captivating Dorian's attention in his own right. Furthermore, the Devil as a mystical, magical character removes the potential for Dorian's choice. The supernatural can seem to constrain the choices and available actions of humans, making Dorian's descent into hedonism part of the Devil's plan instead of a meaningful choice of evil over good, Sir Henry over Basil, self over others.

The Devil makes a deal
The beauty of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the unspoken Faust trope. Any one might utter an "I wish . . . " or make selfish requests, placing oneself squarely in the shoes of Dorian, connecting and identifying with him in finding himself in a peculiar situation. Walter Fisher described two elements of narrative rationality (or the logic of stories): narrative fidelity and narrative probability. Narrative fidelity is the perception of how faithful a story is to reality (or the audience's world). Although one might think that this would preclude fantasy, science fiction, or non-fiction from having fidelity. On the contrary, stories such as Harry Potter have high narrative fidelity because they seem real and possible, despite their fantasy elements. We could imagine, though we may not have seen or experienced it, a secret world hidden within our own (thus justifying its lack of presence). Though we may not have experienced or believed possible a changing portrait, we can faithfully imagine our lives as confronting something wholly un-explainable and what our reactions to it might be. The element of the Devil fully violates this type of realismo mรกgico (think Guillermo del Toro) where it could be possible, and makes the subtle Faust trope seem more like a cliche.

Sibyl Vane's forgotten lyrics
Perhaps most disappointing for me was the changes to the Sibyl Vane character, Dorian's brief love. Before his shift into full hedonism, Dorian fell in love with an actress. Her devotion to her art and her skill in bringing love to life in her performances captivates him. In his courtship of her, however, Dorian destroys Sibyl's ability to act. I have copied her confession after a particularly terrible performance of Romeo & Juliet below, which is one of the more beautiful passages in the book.

"Dorian, Dorian," she cried, "before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also. I believed in everything. The common people who acted with me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came -- oh, my beautiful love! -- and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played. To-night, for the first time, I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, and that the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life! I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can ever be. What have I to do with the puppets of a play?"

Sibyl has so greatly fallen for Dorian that she cannot pretend to love as she once did. This confession is made all the more beautiful when she takes her life after Dorian rejects her love. In the play version, Sibyl is a singer whose voices makes Dorian fall in love. Substituting singing for acting makes sense in the musical, but it is the other change that ruins it for me. Instead of falling out of love, causing Sibyl to ruin her craft, the Devil character makes Sibyl forget her lines before a show. The audience loses this beautiful insight into Sibyl's innocence and thus undermines her death as the tipping point in Dorian's sanity. This change further supports my comments below about Dorian's actions being orchestrated and not of his own choice.

Retrieved from this site
Dorian's Descent is an interesting adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but its creative changes served only to undermine the beauty, simplicity, and complicity of the book in an attempt to be unique. Without our ability to empathize with Dorian's decisions, which we believe are of his own accord, the audience can only observe and cannot be active participants in the narrative. We are not convinced that this could happen to us, that we would make such a deal with the Devil, or that we are only a few steps away from falling into sin ourselves.

Although this is not the shining review that I'm sure the fledgling play is hoping for, I hope that they take to heart the immortal words of Lord Henry: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Certainly this adaptation has given me and I hope any readers some food for thought about how narratives are updated, adapted, and changed in the pursuit of artistic creativity and to teach us about issues that plague society.

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