“Sylvia Gayne, my cousin thrice-removed, and myself had been quarelling once again.”
And so begins Castle Gillian, perhaps the least known of Maurice Walsh’s Irish novels? Still, with the possible exception of The Key Above The Door and The Small Dark Man, literary admirers worldwide of Walsh’s romance novels regard Castle Gillian (1948) as the author’s most sublime narrative achievement.
It is a novel without a single blemish of narrative construction or stylistic inconsistency. It is, simply put, a masterpiece in storytelling by Ireland’s most formidable storyteller from the first half of the 20th-Century. Ernest Hemingway supposedly, when on a visit to New York, remarked that he regarded Walsh as the best storyteller in the world.
Greater recognition for Castle Gillian and much of Walsh’s considerable literary output could be said to have been inadvertently thwarted by the remarkable and lasting success of John Ford’s 1952 film adaptation of The Quiet Man. The film adaptation immediately became eponymous with an idea of Ireland that, even today, is hard dissuade Americans ever really existed. Even today, The Quiet Man is still watched by hundreds of thousands of Irish Americans every year on St. Patrick’s Day as part of that unique festive ritual. Based on this legacy alone, it is sometimes hard to understand why more of Walsh’s stories have failed to materialize into cinematic adaptations?
The shadow of The Quiet Man looms large too from the perspective of stage adaptations of Walsh’s work. A Broadway musical of this story was produced in 1961. It was not a success and lasted only 68 performances. For a literary and cinematic property with such public awareness at the time, it seems remarkable that that the producers of the musical chose to not call it ‘The Quiet Man’, but Donnybrook.
Of particular relevance to us, and for which we are immensely grateful, the Estate of Maurice Walsh has not granted another underlying right for a musical stage adaptation to any of the author’s novels since 1961 – until now!
For all of the enduring success of The Quiet Man on film, Castle Gillian is the greater story. Inevitably it must be so, as The Quiet Man is only an episode (albeit a self-contained short story) from a dark and troubling novel entitled Green Rushes penned by Walsh in 1935 (although ‘The Quiet Man’ was first published separately as a short story in 1933).
Castle Gillian is a story of a once famous Irish racing stable fallen on hard times; it is about a lame horse named ‘Benbecula’ whose lameness is not terminal; about the travelers (we will not call them ‘Gypsies’) whose wisdom and countenance – as always in Walsh’s stories – is prescient. It is about some young people too, who, liking each other a lot, take an interminable time to come to this realization. Oh, yes, and then there is a drunk (a great, but fallen man if ever there was) an unlikeable, would-be, new owner of ‘Castle Gillian’ (a polite description) intent on both a horse and the fallen man’s daughter…and several equally important characters with whom to make your acquaintance.
It’s a commonly observed adage that new musicals take a long time to develop. For the uninitiated, this reality can be difficult to comprehend. “Surely, you just write some dialogue and a bunch of songs and you’re done. No?”
Unfortunately ‘no’ is the right answer.
The primary questions when setting out on such a creative venture start, ‘why turn a novel into a stage musical if the novel is already perfect?’ This question, in turn, is immediately followed by, ‘well, how to do we go about it?’
The first question is much each to answer. Musicals are written when language sings to an underlying dramatic impetus – absolutely a no-brainer when it comes to Castle Gillian. The second question is far trickier. And here’s why.
With a novel, you have a narrative that lasts as long as it takes to read and – most importantly – it is not a shared experience. But a musical has to be told in a theatre over about two hours (give or take) and is a shared experience. Whether the theatre seats an audience of 99 people or 2000 people, everyone in that space sees and hears what we tell them. So what we ‘tell’ audiences to focus on become big decisions on so many levels, not the least being that we can’t include everything that happens in the original story as this would take many more than two hours of stage running time to achieve.
It’s a challenge and one made more acute when distilling the main essence of a story by Maurice Walsh so rich in detail and subtlety. Or, put another way, what do we leave out? Perhaps better yet, what do we put in?
The answers to these questions are yet to come. Hopefully, you can stick around for the journey!
Take care for now,