Pitching Mad Boy: How Paratextuality Mediates the Distance Between Spectators, Adaptations, and Source Texts.
A popular anecdote used to introduce students and spectators to King Lear tells how, for 150
years, the stage was dominated by Nahum Tate’s adaptation, in which Lear and Cordelia are
happily reconciled, and Cordelia is married off to Edgar. Here is what N.H. Hudson had to say
This shameless, this execrable piece of demendation. Tate improve
Lear? Set a tailor at work, rather, to improve Niagara! Withered be the
hand, palsied be the arm, that ever dares to touch one of Shakespeare’s
plays again. (quoted in Massai 247)
Of course, such sophisticated and erudite commentators as are assembled here today will be
quick to point out a couple of ironies about Hudson’s condemnation of Shakespeare adaptation.
First, Shakespeare himself was an adaptor. Most if not all of his plays are adapted from
extant plays, renaissance romance novels, or even, as in the case I will be discussing today, old
Norse sagas. King Lear was adapted from an earlier play, which was itself based on Holinshed’s
Second, popular adaptations by Tate and Colley Cibber, among others, by making
Shakespeare accessible and tasteful to Restoration and Enlightenment audiences, played no small
part in establishing Shakespeare at the centre of the literary canon (Massai 247). And as an
afterthought, it might be worth noting that Tate’s adaptation does not so much ruin the original
King Lear as restore it – Tate’s happy ending is more “faithful” than Shakespeare to
Shakespeare’s sources, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Holinshed’s Chronicles.
I mention this by way of introducing Michael O’Brien’s Mad Boy Chronicle, which, like
Tate’s Lear, takes on Hamlet by going back to Shakespeare’s sources. Unlike Tate, however,
O’Brien has thus far escaped the scorn of Bardolaters, and when I last saw him, his arm appeared
steady and his hand un-withered. How has Mad Boy Chronicle been able to avoid the kind of
derision so often heaped on adaptations? Inspired by O’Brien’s enlightened vandalism (or
Vikingism?) and by Linda Hutcheon’s recent address about the cultural prejudices against
adaptation, I want to show how Mad Boy Chronicle, which was a Governor-General’s Award
finalist in 1996, has successfully avoided being targeted by these prejudices, and has even taken
advantage of them.
In order to show how Mad Boy Chronicle negotiates anti-adaptation prejudices, I will
focus on what Robert Stam, adapting Gérard Genette, calls “paratextuality.” Genette, in
Palimpsestes re-formulates intertextuality as several different categories of what he calls
“transtextuality.” Transtextuality is “all that which puts one text in relation, whether manifest or
secret, with other texts” (Stam 27). The first and most obvious category identified by Genette is
“intertextuality,” or “the ‘effective co-presence of two texts’ in the form of...