Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You
the story by M R James, adapted for small-scale tour by New Perspectives Theatre Company, Nottingham, to winter villages November-December 2016.
I suggested to New Perspectives a staging of Oh Whistle... to tour to local communities in the tradition of the scary story told on a winter night -- rather as its original author M R James, as Provost of King's College, Cambridge, would gather an audience of colleagues and pupils on a Christmas Eve to read to them a new ghost story written by himself. Montague Rhodes James, an austere academic, led a solitary and cloistered life. In his stories an alter ego character, scholarly and arid, will typically transgress a boundary from which James himself would back away: per contra, the James protagonist will obstinately disturb a relic or a resting-place -- and arouse from it a.ghastly Energy that thereafter he can never escape. Many a James story could well be subtitled A Warning to the Curious -- and one of them is called exactly that.
Those who know Oh Whistle... in the original will see in this version, on the space, some startling differences. But each can be traced back to one or other element in the text that James wrote (as long ago, in fact, as 1904). A descriptive detail, e.g. in our bachelor Professor's appearance, mannerisms, attitudes, will in performance be part of his continuing identity, thus informing his decisions and choices throughout. And when James introduces this Parkins as a 'Professor of Ontography', the reader accepts that fictitious subject as a narrative convention; but for our onstage Parkins this 'ontography' will be mentally present in him all the time, a governing intellectual vitality; and we will expect it to play some part in the story too. Thus, at a performance the spectator will need some sense of what it is. We expect it to connect in some way with the horror that Parkins will bring upon himself. 'Bring upon himself': that's the deep key to it. For by the laws of dramatic house-management, the horror must be empowered by an aspect of his character. (As it happens, during the half-century after James coined it, 'ontography' (it would mean a 'science of the description oif existence') will emerge as a major branch of modern philosophy: as Logical Positivism, it's the high philosophical fashion of the 1950s -- which is mainly why I re-situate our Parkins there.) -- Also, there's a character I totally invent. But even he has his roots in an individual the reader fleetingly encounters on the page.
Meanwhile, I've taken care that James's underestated disquieting details, that a heedless reader might not register, are given due presence in performance: outside the inn, below, the unidentified wanderer on the night road; the glimpse of a white wing at the window; the broken anchor half-buried above the shore...
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