Hilary Mantel and the Respectable Face of Soap Opera

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647I spent a large part of last weekend in the company of Hilary Mantel as the RSC staged two events considering the phenomenon of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell in the public perception as a result of her novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and their subsequent stage adaptations.

On Saturday morning Mantel and the playwright, Mike Poulton, spoke about the challenges inherent in taking two such wordy novels and transferring them to the not quite two hour traffic of our stage, but nevertheless into a tight five hour schedule.  Unusually, as these events are normally chaired by someone from the RSC Events Department, this was headed up by the Associate Director, Greg Doran, whose first prompt was to ask just why we had all become so fascinated by the Tudors in recent years.  Mantel was quite definite about this.  The Tudors, she said, are the respectable face of soap opera and just as we are fascinated by the doings of current royalty and those to whom we afford celebrity status so to we have a fascination with those in similar positions in the past.  We are penny plain, they are twopenny coloured.

I think what interested me most about the discussion that then ensued was the extent to which Mantel had been involved in the staging of her books.  It certainly wasn’t simply a case of handing over her work and letting Poulton do his.  She appeared to have been there at every juncture, helping the cast understand the individuals they had been asked to play, working out which scenes were to be included, which to be omitted and how the decisions thus made could be moulded into an acceptable whole.

I can imagine that in many instances having such a hands-on author must be a playwright’s worst nightmare, but this partnership seems to have worked very well. Perhaps this was in part because Mantel doesn’t seem to be the least bit precious about her books.  “They are not holy writ,” she said.  “In every instance there were several ways in which the scenes I created could have gone onto the page.  Putting them on the stage is simply exploring another set of possibilities.”

And, those possibilities were many and varied.  Mike Poulton spoke about having to find the play in the novel and pointed out that there were many scripts, each with a slightly different focus, that could have come out of the books and his job was to find one that worked on the stage but was also true to the original.  And to history – apparently, version five left out the Reformation!  Even now, when the productions have just two more days to run in Stratford, the work of adapting goes on.  A theatre having unexpectedly become available, the company is moving down to London. (Get your tickets now! The box office took over a million pounds on the first day it opened.) However, the Swan is a thrust stage, whereas the audience at the Aldwych will be separated from the action by a proscenium arch.  This means that much of the play has had to be re-staged and parts of the script tinkered with.  No play ever stays the same throughout its run, but in this instance it seems to be even more of a growing entity than usual.

Inevitably, the question of the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came up.  When she was asked about this again in the Sunday morning session, where she led a discussion on the real Thomas Cromwell, Mantel was clear that we couldn’t expect it anytime in the very near future.  2015 was definitely ruled out.  But, that too is intended for the stage as well as the page.  In fact, given that she and Poulton were apparently working on the script for Bring Up The Bodies before the book was even published, it is likely that he will see it before anyone else.

The Sunday session, Cromwell’s Court was much more academic in nature and I’m not going to attempt to document all the discussions that took place.  Mantel gave the keynote speech and addressed the reasons why the reading public knew so little about Cromwell.  He’s not there in romantic fiction because in general such novels are not interested in politics and it was politics that interested Cromwell above everything else.  In terms of documentation he exists only in relation to the policies that he pushed through.  His private life is almost completely absent from the official record and it is the private lives of individuals that have tended to attract writers.  He has, in recent years, found his way into crime fiction, where politics can often be at the root of any motivation.  But even there he hasn’t been central.  “History deals the cards but the trivial makes the cut.”  For Mantel, however, it is the politics that is of real interest.  It is why she brought this man out of his relative fictional obscurity and subjected him to the light of public scrutiny, examining his policies and the manner in which he negotiated his way through the treacherous rapids of the Tudor Court.

I learnt a tremendous amount over the weekend about both Cromwell and Mantel’s relationship to him.  I was left wondering, however, about the nature of the third novel, The Mirror and the Light.  I’d assumed that it would take us through the years between the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own execution in 1540 but something Mantel said made me question whether it will be as simple as that or whether we might find ourselves covering old ground but seeing it from a different point of view.  In one sense I rather hope that is the case.  I don’t think I have the stomach to watch a man I have come to admire being brought down by those who despised him simply because of his lowly beginnings.  One of the things that most angered me, although it didn’t surprise me, was the statement made by one of the other speakers on Sunday that Cromwell’s rise would have been seen by many as against God’s natural order and his death therefore as a just act restoring that order. Mantel, thank goodness, has turned any such ideas completely on their head and brought into public prominence a politician I certainly wouldn’t mind having in government today.



16 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel and the Respectable Face of Soap Opera

  1. What a fascinating weekend you had! I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for that last book! Especially since you’ve got me even more excited and curious about it. I expected it would go through Cromwell’s death too, but now, maybe not? I want to tell Mantel to hurry it up, but also to take her time and make it good.

    1. I got the impression that she has all the pieces she wants but hasn’t yet decided on how she is going to fit them altogether, Stefanie. Part of me really wishes that she had left dramatising them until all three were out and then maybe “The Mirror and the Light’ would have come out in novel form sooner. I think I feel rather more aggrieved because she has been one of my favourite writers since long before ‘Wolf Hall’ came out and I would automatically read anything she writer as soon as it was available. Now I feel I am being made to sufferer her wider success 🙂

  2. I am not one of those fascinated by royalty; I could care less about them to be honest, but I think Mantel is right about the Tudors as respectable soap opera. I did watch and enjoyed the HBO (Showtime?) series on The Tudors, but it was simply soap opera as far as I’m concerned. I may read Wolf Hall someday–I have enjoyed Mantels other novels.

    1. I would wait until the third book is at least ready for publication otherwise you’ll be caught in the same frustration as the rest of us over having to wait for the last instalment.

  3. Fascinating, Alex! At roughly the same time as I was reading, I think, Bring Up the Bodies, I read John Guy’s history of Thomas Becket, and he made much the same point about Becket’s humble origins being at the root of his treatment and eventual downfall. There were so many parallels in fact that the two stories became kind of blended in my mind in the end. I’ll be intrigued to see what she does with book 3, though personally I would want it to be a continuation of the the story up to Cromwell’s death…

    1. I’ve been listening to the story of Kim Philby on the radio this week and recognising yet again just how alive the old boy network still is in our society. However much we might like to think that those from humble beginnings will always find their way to the top, I’m not sure that we’ve really made that much progress from the sixteenth century.

      1. Indeed not! You only have to look at the make-up of the Cabinet – and Shadow Cabinet – to see how important that old school tie still is, and of course it’s still mainly boys who wear the ties…

  4. Thanks, Alex for this post – the next best thing to actually being there myself. I was particularly interested in Mantel’s involvement and her approach to the staging of her books. It contrasts, I think, with Ian Rankin’s experience with the TV dramatisations of his Rebus books, in which, he said in one of his talks, he had no hand in their adaptations and he wasn’t too happy with them. Whereas Ann Cleeves has said that is happy with the TV Shetland series, viewing them as another interpretation of her books – she liked that because once she has written the books they have passed out of her hands and each reader has their own individual interpretation. She cannot see what is in the minds of readers, but she can see the director’s interpretation in the TV version of her book. I think for Mantel’s books it must help that it is history that is being dramatised rather than crime fiction, but even so it must be the best thing for an author to be so involved in the production and for both the author and the playwright to be able to work together in this way.

    Needless to say I’m looking forward immensely to the third book.

    1. I was tempted to say that Mantel was nearer Cleeves but then I don’t think that goes far enough. My feeling was that not only was she happy to see another interpretation of her books but was actually happy to be involved in creating another interpretation. And I also got the feeling that being involved in the act of staging the first two plays was substantially influencing the way she was approaching the third.

  5. How very interesting. I’m really not sure if I’d want to see the plays, though I’d be very curious to see how they came out. But the whole discussion sounds fascinating. Unlike the rest of the world I am not generally a fan of the Tudors, but Mantel is in such a class by herself. Lucky you to have been able to enjoy all this and thanks for sharing it.

    1. Isn’t she just, Harriet. I can’t remember when I first ‘found’ her but long ago enough for me to not be able to remember when I first knew that the moment she published something new I had to have a copy of it. I haven’t seen any of the television representations of the Tudors – at least not since “The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, which really dates me. And, I don’t think I shall be watching the televised version of Mantel’s work either. Although that has more to do with not appreciating Mark Rylance as a performer. I certainly don’t want a vision of him as Cromwell in my head.

  6. I think I’m going to have to move to your part of the UK or become insanely jealous of all the superb events you get to attend. The hint about the nature of book three is now going to make the wait even more tortuous. I had also assumed it would be a chronological approach but maybe because she knows this book will come with huge expectations (booker title number three maybe??) she wants to do something completely unexpected.
    I’m one of those fascinated by the Tudor period but couldn’t sustain more than 15 mins with the HBO series. Dreadful.

    1. I’m sorry Karen, I’m just about to make you even more envious. You really should have been at the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ day yesterday. It was superb. Blog post to come.

  7. In addition to enjoying soap opera-type plots without having to hide it, I think a lot of Americans are fascinated by British class society right now–that’s how I explain the popularity of Downton Abbey over here, anyway.

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