T S Eliot: the sequel: First that film, now this Waste Land opera based on a comic. No wonder lawyers acting for the Eliot estate are so busy

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The Independent Culture
May is the cruellest month. At least, pedantic admirers of T S Eliot could be forgiven for thinking so, since the blow they took to their collective solar plexus in April, with the cinema release of Tom & Viv, is about to be followed up by a knockout punch to their corporate jaw - the premiere of an unconventional (to put it soothingly) opera version of The Waste Land. This particular Waste Land begins with an assassin's bullet in the night and ends with the gibberish of a drunken old dame and the Bourbon-steeped stoicism of a cheap private detective, name of Chris Marlowe: 'And maybe it was just tough that life isn't like that. Not in this town. On five dollars a day. Plus expenses.' Whatever happened to the Upanishads?

Someone has to be behind all this, and like Marlowe says, it wouldn't take Father Brown the Vatican Dick to figure out who it is: Martin Rowson, regular cartoonist for the Independent on Sunday and other journals, creator of the immortal canine litterateur Pete the Dog in Logorrhoea (RIP?), who is presently busy crunching the masterworks of Western Literature into a single frame for his new IoS series Pantheon. For before Waste Land the opera - music by Stephen McNeff, libretto by Andy Rashleigh, directed by Caroline Sharman for the Modern Music Theatre Troupe - there was Rowson's Waste Land the comic strip, which was published by Penguin in 1990 (and is now, alas, out of print).

Far from being a kind of exercise in High-Modernism-for-Illiterates, Rowson's Waste Land was a dazzlingly executed and gleefully sustained joke about the poem and its cultural milieu - part erudite spoof, part visual shaggy-dog story, part loud and juicy raspberry at a literary monolith. Rowson had previously been toying with the notion of a Waste Land colouring book ('Colour this rock red . . .') and Waste Land activities book, and then inspiration struck him:

'It's a detective story] The way it's taught, certainly at A-level, is as a detective story where you rummage through the quotations and allusions and try to find what all of them mean . . . it's presented as a kind of mystery which you have to delve into, and at the end there's no real conclusion. Moreover, it matches brilliantly with the Chandleresque detective story where there are red herrings and McGuffins all over the place and you're never quite sure what's going on.

'And then an image came into my head, which was of Phlebas the Phoenician (from Book IV, 'Death by Water'), but which was also the scene from The Big Sleep where they dredge the Packard out of the bay. After that, these curious coincidences started arising. I discovered that Chandler and Eliot were both celebrating their centenaries in the year I started doing it, and then, re-reading The Long Goodbye in order to gen up on the genre, I discovered these wonderful quotations, such as: 'She is very languid and very shadowy and you can't lay a finger on her because in the first place you don't want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original . . .' '

After 18 months of painstaking labour - the frames of this comic are crammed with so many verbal and visual puns and stunts that it can still yield surprises and laughs after half-a-dozen re- readings - Rowson had recast the poem into a kind of cross between The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, with Eliot's Mr Eugenides being played by Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr as the Young Man Carbuncular and Dame Edith Sitwell as Tiresias. Without spoiling the film noir parallels, he had also incorporated a full gallery of art-historical quotations to rival the poem's literary allusiveness: Goya, Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, Escher, Magritte, Caravaggio, Simeon Solomon, Millais, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Whistler, Tenniel, Seurat . . .

At which point, enter the lawyers from the Eliot estate, contesting Rowson's right to lampoon just about every last line, phrase and comma of the poem, from the throbbing of the taxi to the title of Jessie L Weston's From Ritual to Romance. In America, where copyright laws recognise the parody defence, Rowson's comic was published intact. In Britain, a lengthy period of horse-trading between Penguin and the lawyers resulted in a version which was more or less intact pictorially but in which many of the wittiest verbal gags (this is a strip in which the Sanskrit word DA is transformed into the local DA) were at best muffled, at worst ruined. Phlebas the Phoenician had to become Mike the Minoan, Stetson became Idaho Ez and the nightingale from 'The Fire Sermon' now says 'Quack]'.

As a further consequence, Andy Rashleigh's libretto for the Waste Land opera draws largely on Rowson's words and only in the remotest way on Eliot's. In the opera, Marlowe's gaudy patter ('You know that line from The Maltese Falcon - 'the gaudier the patter, the cheaper the hood,' ' Rowson footnotes) is spoken, but all the other characters, from Madame Sosostris to the Vice Squad cops Burbank and Bleistein, sing.

McNeff and Rashleigh intended the opera to be a shade or two more serious than the comic, as well as more tightly plotted than its hard-boiled sources. 'Chandler could never quite explain his plots,' Rashleigh says. 'They start off quite coherently but end up in a series of non sequiturs and leave bits of thread dangling, so that you're just carried along by the style and the charm.' Rashleigh therefore beefed up Rowson's Holy Grail caper (the sacred chalice as Maltese falcon) with a little help from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and, though he could not hope to rival the comic's range of scholarly gags in his scant hour and a half of stage time, added a few jokes of his own.

The cockneys in the pub scene from Book II, for example, have become 'Prufrockneys', whose sordid banter is made up of tags from 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock':

Heard about the holiday Auntie Lou

Met a matelot on the beach.

He took her to a hammock and played a tune

In her oyster shell with his coffee spoon

She heard mermaids sing that afternoon.

Anyone want MY peach?

But the biggest surprise about the new opera is how smoothly it has transferred to the stage. Just as the comic strip had any number of serious as well as funny insights into the poem - one Cambridge don said it was the best critical essay on Eliot for years - so the opera catches something of the atmosphere of menace and squalor by which Eliot was possessed in the Sweeney poems or in prose pieces such as 'Eeldrop and Appleplex', not to mention invoking the music hall turns of which the Possum was so fond. It would probably look very well on television, too.

And as for the criminal mastermind himself: well, having fought off the barmy suggestion that he should do a page-by-page comic strip version of Joyce's Ulysses, Rowson is now at work on a cartoon of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, a novel which opens with the conception of its hero. 'The cartoon begins with a group of characters walking through a Piranesian prison, getting into a boat and floating off down a canal, and it becomes clear that they're making a baroque journey through Walter Shandy's epididymis.' In the opera version, they'll probably be singing a shantih.

'The Waste Land' plays at the Donmar Warehouse (071-867 1150) from 9-14 May as part of the Covent Garden Festival, then goes on tour to the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, where Martin Rowson will be giving a talk, on 23 May, to Middlesbrough (25 May), Hexham (26 May) and Berwick-Upon-Tweed (27 May)

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