- Walter Novak
- Schmiedl vs. the Jabberwock: Is the pen mightier than the sword?
When Cleveland playwright Eric Schmiedl was asked to adapt Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There for the Cleveland Play House's children's theater, he didn't shy away from the challenge. He dove in headfirst, grabbed his "vorpal sword," and attacked Carroll's fantasy right at its heart: the "Jabberwocky" poem.
"We're using that as her first experience in the looking-glass world," says Schmiedl -- pointing out that, in the book, it was her second experience after discovering a chess game with living figures. "It seems like that's a neat way for us to get the wackiness of the land across to the audience early on. The challenge with it is to make it theatrical and not just reciting poetry."
In fact, the same was true throughout the whole adaptation. Schmiedl, who is also directing the production, admits that the danger was simply to allow narrators to stand and repeat Carroll's signature wordplay instead of letting the actors perform the action. "You want to describe everything, when it should actually be coming out of the dramatic moment," he admits. "Our approach is very presentational. The actors literally set the stage for Alice using some of Lewis Carroll's words, but these little tidbits of narrative should just be giving a little bit of seasoning to what's happening."
What made the adaptation easier than that of Alice in Wonderland, which Schmiedl tackled two years ago, is that Looking-Glass is a more "mature" book, with a clearer plot that depicts Alice trying to become the queen in a chess game. "If you have 50 minutes of nonsensicalness, it's easy for kids to tune out because it's so nonsensical," Schmiedl says. "The one thing that becomes easier with Looking-Glass is that, real early in the story, we learn that Alice wants to be queen, so there's a through-line built in."
At the same time, the more concise plot and Carroll's commentary on the society of adults, full of silly rules and regulations, lure many writers into forgetting it is primarily a children's story. "As adults, we want to explore some of the darker natures of Alice's growth," Schmiedl admits. "So we have to make sure it maintains that wacky, wild energy. Children will let you know immediately if they're not tuned in to what you're doing."
Keeping the actors engaged was another trick for Schmiedl, who points out that the silliness of the story tends to drive them to overplay their parts. "There's no subtlety in any of it," he says. "It's a very fun thing for the actors, because the characters are purely saturated -- they can play all kinds of crazy, wild emotions, which sometimes you have to rein in."
But Schmiedl tried not to overthink things either, taking a cue from Carroll himself. "In both of these stories, the adults don't make a lot of sense," Schmiedl reminds us. "Carroll just loved being able to dabble and play in that child's world."