The Circles in the Squares: Analogical Thinking in Salomé and Pelléas & Mélisande by P. Craig Russell
Author: Shiamin Kwa
Source: The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade, LSU Press
Publication Type: Chapter in a book
Abstract: P. Craig Russell’s “opera adaptation” comics, Salomé and Pelléas and Mélisande, are referred to as opera adaptations, but it would be perhaps more accurate to describe them as adaptations of the same source texts that were set to music by Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, operas for which they are now best known. But before they were operas, Salomé and Pelléas and Mélisande were famous plays. Richard Strauss used Wilde’s play as his “book” (libretto) to compose his opera Salomé, and Debussy set Maeterlinck’s dialogue to music. Russell’s comics use the play texts as the libretto for his own original creations, comic books that use visual imagery rather than music to emphasize the text and draw attention to the patterns inherent in those plays. Leitmotifs are evoked with the carefully orchestrated use of color and recurring shapes instead of chords and harmonies, complementing the structures of these two stories. In Russell’s visual language the reader is drawn to the repetitions, symbolism, and strict rules of plots that are fairytale-like in structure. Yet, while comics may share some formal characteristics with music, as they share formal characteristics with other art forms, they evoke a practice that is discreet to the comics form itself. Russell’s works articulate the theatrical event as medium-specific adaptations, not as representations of musical form, but as performances of these libretti in comics form. These opera comics convey the themes inherent in Wilde’s and Maeterlinck’s plays, but not with musical devices. Instead, they accomplish the imperfections of communication with the juxtaposition of incompatible shapes. Both plays are about the very ineffectiveness of language to broach the distances between people. Shapes are manipulated in both of these adaptations to the same effect: within the regular frames of the rectangular panels, Russell employs circular shapes (wells, cisterns, pools, pupils of the eye) as visual reminders of more metaphorical ideas of voids that are central to both Salomé and Pélleas and Mélisande. At the heart of each of these plays is a fundamental distrust of the communicative power of language in shaping what and how we know: in both Salomé and Pelléas and Melisande, characters exchange words, often exhaustively, yet they are as incapable of understanding the other as they are of conveying their own thoughts. Russell’s comics, like the operas inspired by the same plays, use his chosen medium to contemplate this fundamental question of the troubled ways that we use to try to know each other.