Tristram Shandy (Radio 4) Back

The subject of spurious fakes, amendments, additions, alternatives, and forgeries in the decades after it was published, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman also appears in less literary and more familiar, personal homages that continued long after Sterne’s death –Lord Bolingbroke’s racehorse, ‘Tristram Shandy’, later immortalized by George Stubbs, is an oddly fitting homage to the novel: what is a horse race, after all, but a hobby involving horses for gentlemen?[i] As for adaptations, Sterne’s narrative was adapted early on as a stage play (1783, McNally), and more recently as an opera (Michael Nyman, 1981 and ongoing), a film (Winterbottom, 2005), a graphic novel (Rowson, 1996), and a one-man show (Oxley, 2013). Graham White’s adaptation, originally broadcast in ten 15-minute segments on BBC Radio 4 in 2005, could briefly be heard again in April 2018 – a year that marks the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and of the author’s death. White’s radio play, directed by Mary Peate, manages to (just about) condense the ‘crack-brained’ novel from nine volumes of text into two hours and 20 minutes, while carving a straighter line from the narrative than Sterne, or Shandy, could (or perhaps wished). White’s adaptation preserves the controlled chaos of the novel admirably and if some characters and digressions are left out, careful editing and dynamic performances mean that the play has its own presence and coherence.

Graham White’s Tristram Shandy is to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman what Uncle Toby’s model is to the Battle of Namur. It serves specific purposes: in both, we follow Shandy along digressions, backwards and forwards in time, observing with him as well as observing him. Whether the listener gains any ground on the reader in White’s play depends wholly on the intention behind the question they want answered: where were you wounded, Toby? Who are you, ‘Tristram Shandy’? The radio play brings specific aspects of the text into focus and allows an overview of the whole; like Toby’s model, it makes the narrative manageable. While this might be faint praise for such a gargantuan task, White’s adaptation achieves some remarkable effects through such condensation as well as through the intelligent and playful use of its medium. It’s difficult, given the reputation of Sterne’s novel (particularly this year), not to approach this adaptation as somehow inferior to the original. But then, if our hobby-horse is a slavish adherence to ‘originality’, we had best, as Tristram might suggest, go directly to the devil before we’ve begun.

The first four episodes deal with the events leading to Tristram’s birth and introduce his family and extended community. Neil Dudgeon’s ‘Tristram’ combines peevishness and self-awareness in good measure; the brashness of the character in the opening episodes gives way to moments of genuine pathos as the futility of his project becomes more obvious. Sterne’s novel develops friendship and affection between the narrator and the reader through duration; White’s adaptation emphasizes awkward extremes and seems to delight in highlighting unconventional comparisons – the effect of both is an uneasy familiarity with both the narrator and the narrative. Walter Shandy’s anxieties about the future (in episode 1) anticipate Tristram’s obsession with baroque and unachievable projects (including his ‘life and opinions’); the ‘bridge’ is associated first with music (Tristram’s playing out of tune) and instruments (the violin) both conceptually and physically, later turned to comic effect when Toby’s delight bubbles over in his misunderstanding of Dr Slop’s efforts at ‘bridge building’ after Tristram’s birth. Fortifications abound – both literally in Toby’s expanding models and in Tristram’s narrative preparations for his ‘life and opinions’. By bringing these elements of Sterne’s novel into closer proximity, White’s adaptation makes a virtue out of the need for condensation. Shandy also contributes to the necessary editing, cutting short long passages in the first episode with an emphatic ‘STOP!’ and noting repeatedly the quick passage of time. Every episode, in fact, begins by lamenting or at least noticing the time and the theme song seems to cut in earlier each episode until Shandy’s story is interrupted and hurried to a conclusion in episode 7.

Sound effects punctuate White’s play, providing a depth to the narrative that is otherwise deliberately stretched out in the novel. Where Sterne plays with surfaces, the Peate’s direction uses sound to layer the narrative. The noises that bodies make, which Shandy delights in observing, provide an almost constant soundscape throughout the play, from deep breaths that punctate Toby and Walter Shandy’s conversations, to the footsteps, doors closing, clocks ticking, tears and nose-blowing, sighing, and (of course) the squeaking of bed springs that inaugurates Shandy’s existence. The cough that plagues the narrator becomes more and more violent, affecting Shandy’s speech at points and serving to keep his voice distinctly embodied.

Sterne’s brilliance with visual effects presents no little challenge to adaptors and White’s play surmounts most of these with varying levels of success. A swanee whistle that blares to cover ‘indecent’ language takes the place of Shandy’s asterisks, serving both to censor speech and to shock the listener. As the narrative develops, Shandy begins using the whistle in place of, rather than to interrupt, speech – this is a lovely nod to the blankness of the page under the type: the asterisks are, after all, what was written, rather than later amendments. Turning the Motley Page into a blast of sound captures the outrageous energy of the page beautifully and the Blank Page is accompanied by Shandy whistling ‘Lillabullero’, explicitly reminding the listener-turned-artist that the figure imagined is the Widow Wadman, Toby’s amour. Less convincing are Shandy’s efforts to aurally illustrate a straight line and Trim’s ‘flouish’. At these points, Shandy’s task again pushes at the limits of the medium.

While Sterne’s Tristram leads Death on a merry dance in volume 7 of the novel, in White’s adaptation, Death is not so easily stalled. The concluding episode returns – and it is not a digression – to Death’s inexorable presence in Shandy’s ‘life and opinions’.  White’s decision to conclude with volume seven and Tristram’s attempt to outrun death leaves the listener in a quite different situation than the novel. The famous punchline about cocks and bulls is nearly lost in the play, which returns to the narrator-Tristram, now with a hacking cough, bidding the listener farewell, and setting out to escape Death. As a contrast to the unfolding narrative of Toby and the Widow Wadman, a comic and lighthearted narrative, Shandy’s dalliance with Death, who is given a voice in the play, leaves the narrator and listener both more and less confident of a satisfactory conclusion: Death (and Shandy’s hacking cough) catches up and spoils the laughter and only the end-credits allow Shandy the same ambiguity as was provided for his birth.

The adaptations that have attracted the most popular attention recently demonstrate an attraction to Shandy’s anxieties about authorship, identity, and masculinity. Sterne’s female characters are rarely given much space in these adaptations (Widow Wadman’s scenes, played by Gillian Anderson, are largely cut in Michael Winterbottom’s film). In the radio play, however, Shandy’s compulsive control of his ‘life and opinions’ loosens. Without the backing matrix of the text, in which Shandy is absolutely omnipresent through asides, interjections, and directions to the reader, Mrs Shandy, Susannah, Bridget, and the Widow Wadman are more independent and engaging characters. Julia Ford, as Elizabeth Shandy, conveys wonderfully exasperation and affection for Walter Shandy, and her relationship with Toby illustrates a real affection between these two characters, making more of Tristram’s comment that Toby’s only real connection with a woman is through his sister-in-law. Susannah (Helen Longworth), Widow Wadman (Deborah Findlay), and Bridget make the most of their scenes, perhaps inspired by the example of Aunt Dinah – the only woman Tristram admits to have ‘character’.

Parson Yorick is a notable absence from this adaptation. This character, from the entire motley bunch, is the one Sterne took for himself. White and Peate’s innovations on the Motley Page and the Blank Page suggest an understanding of the text that might have produced an insightful adaptation of the Black Page, Yorick’s monument in print.

[i]  Mary-Céline Newbould, Adaptations of Laurence Sterne’s Fiction: Sterneana, 1760-1840. CUP, 2013. p. 2.

Radio 4’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy, directed by Mary Peate, was first broadcast in 2005, and more recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra in April 2018.