Owl Song (what for the owl?)
Owl Song is one of those creative works that wanders the desert for 40 days/years/winks until it finds perhaps something, perhaps nothing. Like most of life it lives without apparent purpose, but lives nonetheless, and is perhaps no less vital for its aimless parameters. So far it has got me a PhD, a gig at the Playwrights’ Conference (and an accompanying crop of brilliant contacts I’ve let rot on the vine) and a damn near major production that fell short of the necessary funding. That was theatre, but now it will be film. If anyone catches me in future adapting it for New Media please gently suggest I let it go.
But the thing which is rarely questioned, but hovers nonetheless is – the title? I love owls, I hear owls (Boobooks mostly, but also the magnificent Powerful Owl). Most people can’t say Owl (our? Al? Ow?), so not a good start perhaps, but why the title? It began with a legend which I now cannot find. In the early white occupation of Gippsland there was a story (rural myth?) about a White Woman who had been taken by the locals, a branch of the Kurnai. The story is well documented by academic Julie Carr and before her the novelist Liam Davison, but the bit I seem to have latched onto for the play does not feature in either book, and I cannot find it anywhere. There is a species of owl called the Barking Owl. This creature barks like a dog, cleverly enough to fool a dog into responding; but it is also known as the Screaming Woman. Its scream, legend would have it, was enough to send early settlers off into the bush in search of the ‘victim’. Somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that the owl was part of the explanation for the White Woman story. This may not be so. And this still doesn’t quite explain the title. In early drafts, or at least until the Playwrights’ Con presentation, the scream featured as a plot device, but once we tried it in performance it seemed a bit dumb. . So all that remained was the title…
What for the War?
The play is set at the end of the Great War. My attempt was to tap into the landscape of Tragedy. That is, one of the ways that tragedy as a form works is to recreate a recognition through the mythic field on which it works. So, the Greeks recognised the mythology and legend of Oedipus or the Oresteians; and Shakespeare really knew bugger all about Denmark or Italy, or even Scotland for that matter, but he knew that these places/storie etc resonated with his audience. I looked for what resonates for us in this way – that is, ahistorically, imagery that we all recognise even if we don’t know it. The Great War is it. We all recognise the horror, the futility, the suffering, even if we remember little of the context. The images – mud, bayonets, trenches, artillery etc are so strong. More to the point, we recognise now that a story in this setting is about the human condition, not a historical treatise. I think in that sense the play worked.
The adaptation to film has been more difficult than I thought. My first thought is that this is to do with the exigencies of film marketing, but I realise that there is actually an inherent weakness in the original play. This weakness is at the level of character. In the play, the characters were drawn in very Aristotelian broad strokes. The french director Arianne Mnouchkine describes the characters in Greek drama as ‘fragments of action’. This is why we are able to watch this stuff, of course. We might argue that the more you can convince the audience that they are watching real people, the less you can get away with inflicting on them. So I’m really saying that the ‘weakness’ of character is not inherent, but a question of translation. The characters work as tragedy for theatre, but struggle for film.
So, once you find yourself on the mythic plane, how do you create characters with the veracity to work on screen? The problem then perhaps becomes one of genre. The mythic setting works with a film such as Cold Mountain, but the characters risk becoming romantic cut-outs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). On a different note, the likes of Scorcese and Coppola have mined a productive vein of mobster stories as their mythic plane. They’re not making films about gangsters at all – they’re accessing the place of story we all recognise.
But now? I think I want to connect the Owl more closely to the world outside the text. I have a plan…