Now the long letter that became a classic work of fiction has morphed again, landing on stage in Washington, where GALA Hispanic Theatre opened a production on Thursday.
Adapting art from one medium to another is risky business, often ending in disappointment. (See the 1993 film adaptation of “The House of the Spirits,” starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.) When playwright Caridad Svich and director Jose Zayas decided to make a play out of the venerated novel, Allende was privately dubious.
“I thought, okay, go ahead,” Allende, 70, recalls in a phone interview from her home in San Rafael, Calif. “I thought, this is impossible.”
The novelist kept her hands off the script and offered no dramaturgical advice before the premiere at Repertorio Espanol in New York in 2009. She says she believes that an artist from one medium should not meddle with the work of an artist in another.
Sitting in the audience in New York, watching this version of the novel unfold on stage, Allende had tears in her eyes.
“I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I realized Caridad had captured somehow the spirit of the book, which is the story of a country reflected through a family. What happens to the family in a way happens to the country, and somehow she got it. I love that.”
The question is, how do Svich and Zayas make it work on stage? The novel has almost no dialogue, three narrative voices, a time-span of about 50 years and more than a dozen characters drawn from four generations of two families.
A large part of the answer lies in the essence of the novel, informed by that original impulse of the letter drafted on the kitchen counter: Beneath the elaborations of plot, character and style, the story is about the healing power of storytelling, and the urgent human duty to rescue words from oblivion.
“I wrote it by instinct,” Allende says. “It was an exercise in nostalgia. . . . I missed my country terribly. I had lost everything I had. It was a crazy attempt to recover everything I had lost, in those pages.”
The point of adaptation
As Svich contemplated the daunting monument that is “The House of the Spirits,” she taped an index card to her computer monitor with a stern reminder: “Don’t go where the movie went!”