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The Times (28/Aug/1972) - Jay Allen: the art of adaptability

(c) The Times (28/Aug/1972)

Jay Allen: the art of adaptability

Jay Allen started writing because she needed money for a divorce when she was 23. "I was feeling rather guilty because no-one had been cruel to me, and I felt the least I could do was to pay for my own dereliction. It wasn't that I thought I could write. But I'm an omnivorous reader and always have been. Obviously people were being paid to write perfectly dreadful things, so I thought maybe I could be paid for writing something perfectly dreadful. And so I was."

Now, 27 years later, she has written the book for the musical I and Albert which is not an adaptation. She also wrote the script for Hitchcock's Marnie, but her play Forty Carats, which had a two year run on Broadway, followed by two years on the road, was a re-working of a French boulevard comedy, and over here she is best known for adapting Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first as a play and then as a film.

"It was a magnificent role. Every actress who's played it has won whatever prize was available — Vanessa here, Zoe Caldwell in New York and Maggie Smith won an Academy Award for the film. I knew it was a great star part but it isn't an easy book to do. I was advised on all sides not to have a go at that one. The only one who gave a positive assessment of the possibilities of adapting it was Lillian Hellman, who's a very good friend of mine. But the leading character was so extraordinarily dramatic, and I loved the book. I found it very difficult indeed to do what you have to do in any adaptation, and that's rape and dismember it. The more you like a book the harder it is. It's easier to take something that's fragmented or that you like a part of or that you think you. can improve on. But it's painful to take a novel you really admire and to do what has to be done with a novel — to remove a great amount of the subtlety and make it a much more direct and obvious thing."

She never met Muriel Spark till afterwards. "I try not to have any contact at all, ever, with anyone whose wprk I'm trying to do. It's horribly inhibiting — bad for them and bad for me. I met her here at the Royal Command Performance of the film. That's all.

"Believe it or not, it's easier to write an original than an adaptation. Fitting one's style to someone else's work is a very tricky business. It's quite challenging. I've found myself in this slot because it's so enormously well paid. What one can command depends on what kind of reputation you enjoy currently, and by currently I mean that month. Because it changes so fast. How hot you are, how recently your latest thing was on, how successful it was and how badly they want you. Occasionally they want one very badly indeed. And as I don't like to work that much, I have a decided tendency to go where the money is."

She wrote the screenplay of Cabaret, but I and Albert is the first musical she has written for the stage, though she had her first experience of them as an actress when she was 17. "I had 18 weeks of musical stock, which is a new musical done each week, rehearsed all day, while you're doing another one each night. That breaks you in. I wasn't temperamentally suited to be an actress, but I've been around the production of musicals a great deal. A sizable percentage of my boy-friends were on the management side, I feel as if I've been in it all my life. If you're going to ruin your health, that's the most interesting way to do it. I find the imbalance of temperament fascinating. I like to do everything I can to make things work. Probably a very female trait. It's a kind of housekeeping instinct, a thing of making all the family work together. What I like most of all in the musical theatre are the dancers. They're marvellous people — absolutely gung-ho. They'll try anything. They're disciplined and good-natured. We call them gypsies because they move constantly from show to show.

"Musicals are a cottage industry in a technological age. You're in the kettle. You're under steam pressure all the time. Very cosy for neurotics, and the classic neurotic position is one of heightened functional ability in times of crisis. They just can't stand daily life. My husband and I are both 50 and we frequently discuss what we're going to be when we grow up."

Her husband, Lewis Allen, produced The Connection on Broadway, The Physicists, A Time to Laugh and the films Lord of the Flies, The Balcony and Fahrenheit 451. Together with Si Litvinoff he is producing I and Albert, but this is the first time husband and wife have worked together. "We've avoided it assiduously over the years, very fearful of marital disharmony. But actually we work very well together, and we'll do it again."

She is not one of the playwrights who regard their dialogue as sacrosanct. "There's no such thing as a word that can't be rewritten. What people really go to see in the theatre is other people — the heightened emotion that actors provide. I don't think a writer should go into theatrical writing if he's not of a nature to collaborate. Take about 20 per cent and give about 80 per cent — that's the level of compromise one's usually called on to make. I've seen a lot of good writers bite the dust because they couldn't take the heat. What most fatigues you is having your work thrown out day after day after day. It's painful, it's arduous and it's hard on the ego, but if you can't take that, you should go into another business. I was in bed one night, far too tired to cry. My husband had a quasi-sympathetic look on his face, and I said 'You know, it's really not the work for which you're so highly paid. It's the endurance'."