What could be better than a play written by one of the English language’s best known children’s authors based on the book by one of the others. A A Milne whilst famous for his tales of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh and all his friends in The Hundred Acre Wood was also a prolific playwright and in 1929 he adapted Kenneth Grahame’s famous 1908 tale The Wind in the Willows for the stage. This year marks ninety years since the first production and the copy I have is the first American edition also from 1929 printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The introduction is particularly interesting as Milne deals with the problems of adapting a book, particularly one as well known as The Wind in the Willows.
There are two well-known ways in which to make a play out of a book. You may insist on being faithful to the author, which means that the scene in the aeroplane on page 673 must be got in somehow, however impossible dramatically, or, with somebody else’s idea in your pocket, you may insist on being faithful to yourself, which means that by the middle of act III everybody will realise how right the original author was to have made a book of it. There may be a third way, in which case I have tried to follow it. If, as is more likely, there isn’t, then I have not made a play of The Wind in the Willows. But I have, I hope, made some sort of entertainment, with enough of Kenneth Grahame in it to appease his many admirers, and enough of me in it to justify my name on the title page.
Milne’s solution to condensing the book is to focus on the parts that feature Mr Toad. this means that a consistent central cast is established although Toad is actually only in roughly half of the original book. He also gets round the problem of just how big is everyone, after all Toad drives cars and owns a horse drawn caravan but is definitely smaller than Badger whom we know lives under a tree in the Wild Wood so must be ‘normal sized’ at least most of the time. by having the start of the first act and also the epilogue make it clear that all the action is actually the dream of a young girl called Marigold sitting with her nursemaid on the banks of the river on a warm spring morning, neither of which are in the original story.
In reading the book, it is necessary to think of Mole, for instance, sometimes as an actual mole, sometimes as such a mole in human clothes, sometimes as a mole grown to human size, sometimes as walking on two legs, sometimes on four. He is a mole, he isn’t a mole. What is he? I don’t know. And, not being a matter of fact person, I don’t mind. At least I do know, and still I don’t mind
This quote, also from the introduction, gets to the heart of the ‘problem’ with The Wind in the Willows. But the reason why I put the word problem in quotes is because it isn’t a problem and never has been to readers of the book who are just swept up in the story. But put it on a stage, with humans playing the characters, and the stage director definitely has a potential problem. This is solved by the dream concept and allows the tale to unfold seamlessly with everyone being human sized yet still being Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad et al.
For all of Milne’s protestations above the play is actually remarkably faithful to the parts of the book being dramatised and the humour is wonderful. Especially for my mind those lines given to Alfred, the sarcastic, and feeling much put upon, horse pulling Toad’s caravan. Anyone who loves Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories will love Alfred, he was created by Milne as the horse isn’t named and is only a bit and indeed silent player in the book but here he really comes alive…
Enter a horse pulling a gaily painted wooden caravan
ALFRED Oh, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere
TOAD (excitedly) Now isn’t this lucky? Just at the psycho – psycho – what’s the word?
ALFRED (hopefully) Encyclopaedia, That is, if you ask me
TOAD I didn’t ask you. Ratty you know the word–
ALFRED Introduce me to your friends, won’t you? I do get so frightfully left out of it
TOAD My friends Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole this is Alfred
ALFRED Pleased to meet you. If you are coming my way, you must let me take you. Only I do like a little conversation (To Toad) Encyclopaedia, that was the word you wanted
RAT (Sadly) So this is the latest?
TOAD (Eagerly) Absolutely the very latest. There isn’t a more beautiful one, a more compact one, a more – what’s the word?
TOAD A more up to date one, a more –
RAT So this is the latest craze! I understand. Boating is played out. He’s tired of it, and done with it
ALFRED Don’t blame me. I wasn’t consulted about this at all; but if I had been, I should have said boats. Stick to boats.
TOAD My dear old Ratty, you don’t understand. Boating – well – a pleasant amusement for the young. I say nothing against it. But there’s real life for you (he waves a paw at the van) – in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs!
ALFRED And the ups. However nobody consults me. Nobody minds what I think.
The play starts with Marigold on the phone (actually a daffodil) pretending to call Mr. Rat who she eventually gets through to and sets the basis of the play as her fantasy as regards the main characters. Suddenly we hear elfin music, the stage goes dark, Marigold and her nurse vanish and the magic of the story unfolds with Mole appearing out of his hole and meeting Ratty for the first time. We are soon afterwards introduced to Badger and then Toad and the tale continues with the arrival of Alfred so they can go on a caravanning trip. Sensibly Badger declines to be involved. Caravanning doesn’t last long however, they are forced off the road by a furiously driven car and the only thing Toad can think of after that is having one of those; “Poop Poop” is all they can get out of him for quite a while. And so ends the first act.
Act two is set entirely within the Wild Wood home of the dangerous Stoats and Weasels. Initially with Mole getting lost whilst exploring in the snow and scared of the woods inhabitants before being rescued by Ratty. Then the two of them stumble over Badger’s house and decide to take refuge from the bad weather and the ever present danger from attack when wandering at night in the wood. Inside Badgers home all is comfortable and settled as you would expect from the residence of an older gentleman content in his own company. The three friends start talking about Toad and his motoring exploits, apparently he has already owned (and crashed) seven cars, they are just discussing what they should do to save him from himself when Toad himself arrives. He has crashed car number eight… Badger decides to keep Toad at his house until this current craze has passed but after a few weeks Toad manages to trick Ratty into leaving him alone and the act closes with Toad running off singing about how clever he is.
Act three starts in a courthouse with Toad on trial for stealing a car and then calling a policeman fat-face. Sentenced to twenty years for these heinous crimes, especially the being cheeky to a policeman we then find him in a cell. He makes his escape with the help of the jailers daughter and her washerwoman aunt who they bribe to let him wear her clothes and after a series of adventures, including stealing a bargee’s horse he heads for the river.
The final act starts with Toad at Ratty’s home where he is informed that during the four weeks he was incarcerated the Stoats and Weasels have taken over Toad Hall and a daring plan is formed by Badger to take it back. The final scene of the battle and aftermath is actually the only time Toad Hall appears in the play despite being in the title. Finally the short epilogue as mentioned earlier has Marigold asleep amongst the daffodils as her nurse wakes her to go home.
As can be seen from the above précis the play follows the book pretty well, and it is sometimes difficult to spot which author is responsible for what. Indeed I will leave the last word to the summary on the dust wrapper of the first US edition and a photo of the front of the dust wrapper which is a paler version of the book cover shown at the top of the blog
we in turn, might ask ourselves after reading this play: “Is it Kenneth Grahame? Is it A. A. Milne?” We don’t know, but it doesn’t at all matter, for it is perfect