29 October 2012

The Naming of The Tigers of Wrath

Playwright Dean Parker talks to drama on the waterfront about the challenge of choosing a  title.

"There’s a famous disaster movie entitled Krakatoa, East of Java. A sea-borne salvage expedition heads to recover a cargo of rare pearls. It anchors close to the rumbling volcanic island of Krakatoa. The volcano blows. The captain’s mistress has a child on the island. The child has to be rescued. The crew becomes mutinous. So forth.

Krakatoa is actually west of Java. But “west”, the producers decided, was not really a saleable geographic garnish. “Krakatoa, West of Java”… didn’t have that ring.

Sometime ago I wrote a play about the post-war New Zealand diplomatic legation in Moscow. I gave it what I thought a reasonable enough title: The Moscow Legation. When I circulated the play I found theatres asking, “Who knows what a legation is?”

I came up with a list of pretty limpish alternatives, then, getting into the swing of things, suggested we call it after a Kenny Ball pop hit. It became Midnight In Moscow.

There was a TV series I worked on with Greg McGee, a series commissioned by TVNZ and set against the 19th century land wars and which we wrote without a settled title, thinking we’d leave that to the TVNZ head honcho so he’d bond with the show. This head honch was a fairly typical TVNZ import, “a big, booming Australian”—in the words of one media sleuth—“who said what he liked and liked what he said”. Greg showed him our list of possible titles, all of them taken from blood-thirsty lines in Macbeth, said we couldn’t make up our minds, suggested he choose one.  The CEO ignored all these and came up instead with “Greenstone” (he was an Aussie; to be fair, I imagine any Kiwi in a similar position in Australia would have come up with “Koala” or something). Greg then went and did a re-write job, inserting a totemic greenstone comb into the plot as he felt—ludicrously—a sense of accountability.

I felt no such tug of conscience with Midnight In Moscow—none of the scenes occurred at midnight, or referred to midnight, but Midnight In Moscow it became and everyone was happy. (And so they should have been. Recently I was watching a TV doco series on Woody Allen which ended with the unexpected success of Midnight In Paris. “I think it was the title,” said one of the participants.)

Round about the same time as the Moscow play I wrote another, set in Afghanistan, which I called Hindu Kush. I thought this had an exotic East-of-Java ring to it but I was wrong. “Are we going to need a geography lesson for this?” I was asked.  It became The Perfumed Garden—nudge nudge, wink wink.

A play that began with the honest and unadorned working title Muldoon ended up—at my own venal instigation—Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Later I saw the title intriguingly mis-spelled as Sloughing Toward Bethlehem.

With adaptations I’ve generally stuck to the original title. There’s an obligation. More important is the producer argument—“it brings its own market segment”. I do remember a Monty Python sketch about a movie adapted from a book. The movie was titled The Black Flag. Beneath the title was: “Based on the novel, Le Drapeau Bleu.”

A new play I’ve written, The Tigers of Wrath, which starts off in Red China in the 1970s, had China Reconstructs as a working title. Now this adequately enough described an important element of the play and was also the title of a well-known Peking English-language magazine of the time. But I knew it wouldn’t last; too, too, too prosaic.

I carried on writing and was well into the first act, in which a young kiwi Maoist touring China on a student trip declares his love for a fellow traveller, when I finally came up with the title it now bears.
During breaks in the writing I had been reading some journal or biography—I have a feeling it might have been to do with Dame Edith Sitwell—and in it someone recollected dreams in which they were talked to by horses, by a whole lot of Mister Eds. A terrifying thought.

But I figured it could be quite a sweet image, too, and I was at a stage in the script when I needed my fellow traveller to draw closer to her suitor by revealing something personal. So I had her confiding that at night she dreamt of horses that whispered to her. Upon waking she could never remember what they had said.

A short time after this I came across a mention of the tigers of wrath. I knew the reference. William Blake: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Already I had the horses of instruction in the script. Why not add the tigers of wrath? As the title?

It had resonance. My fellow traveller later becomes a Labour politician, while another of her comrades from the China trip remains a rank-and-file union stirrer. And a rank-and-file union stirrer is the place to be. Everyone knows a half-decent strike is worth a dozen pieces of handed-down Labour Party legislation. The confidence and lessons learnt during a strike are more important than anything to be gained from parliamentary politics: the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And thus did I realise what the horses were trying to tell my dreamer. It was the title of the play she was in."

The Tigers of Wrath opens on 3 November in Circa Two and runs until 1 December. There are $25 ticket specials on Friday, 2 November and Sunday, 4 November. To book, visit www.circa.co.nz.

No comments:

Post a Comment