Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Watership Down

Of all the many, many books that were important to me as a child, and that have remained closely with me over the years--Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, The Phantom Tollbooth, Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone, The Hobbit--I'm not sure any occupies as high a place as Richard Adams's Watership Down. I read it in third grade, and had a nosebleed all over my father's copy. I read it again in fourth grade, and a couple more times in middle school and high school. Adams's great achievement--presenting characters who are believably complicated, interesting, and human-like, while at the same time never letting us forget that they're rabbits--is one that remains impressive even on adult reacquaintance with the book. If anything, it's a more astonishing novel, because the anthropomorphizing that is so much a part of childhood is farther away, our tolerance significantly lessened, yet Adams holds our interest, and convinces us, nonetheless.

At heart, it's a book about different ways of organizing a society, and as the rabbits encounter a number of warrens, each built around a different idea of what constitutes security, the book takes on a moral force akin to that found in The Once and Future King. Lest that make the novel sound crudely allegorical, I should say that it's nothing of the sort: the rabbits are rabbits, their society is their society, not ours, and while we can draw lessons from what they experience, within the novel it never feels as if they're experiencing it for our sake.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this post: if you're a Chicagoan and you love Watership Down, or loved it as a kid, you should go see the Lifeline Theatre's production of it that runs through this weekend. Rocketlass and I went Saturday, our confidence in Lifeline just barely balancing the inevitable doubts: How on earth can you put on aplay about bunnies without everyone on stage looking ridiculous? How, with the scrim of the mind's eye removed, would they be able to convince us that these actors, obviously people, were actually rabbits?

Well, they did it. The actors don't dress like rabbits, but they move with a deliberate, practiced strangeness that is taken from, and calls to mind, the twitchy fearfulness of rabbits. And within minutes of the curtain rising, rocketlass and I--and, it seems, the entire audience--bought it. By the time the first act drew to a close, coming out of the story was a lot like emerging from a dream.

The adaptation isn't perfect, if only because a long novel has been squeezed into a play of ordinary length. Each of the groups of other rabbits that the bunch meets is dealt with more glancingly in the play than in the novel, which causes the casual brutality of the first warren and the uncanny horrors of a later one to be muted. The complicated relationships among Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel are sketched rather than fully enacted, and while the play tries admirably, it can't ever quite convey as well as Adams the way that being thrust into leadership works on Hazel. Adams manages to perpetually locate him in the moment of decision, with no sense of authorial or readerly knowledge of what's to come, lets us see Hazel forced to learn, adapt, and be decisive, and the admiration those qualities elicit in his companions; the play does a good job of addressing the topic, but again, time constraints limit it.

Yet even having acknowledged those limitations, I'm amazed. For two and a half hours, I felt like we were watching, and caring about, rabbits, in the same way that Adams makes you feel like you're reading about rabbits. Their vulnerability makes you ache: they're forever in danger; like Cain, the whole world sets its hand against them. Watching, you feel what it is to be prey. It's an amazing achievement, and it brings to mind the terror of powerlessness that Philip Larkin captures in his poem about a disease that was deliberately introduced to control rabbit populations, "Myxomatosis":
Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
But unlike Larkin, Adams and the Lifeline crew, bring the rabbits out of it. Their enemies will never be fully vanquished, of course, but the rabbits are at least vouchsafed a bit of hard-earned peace. If you're a Watership Down fan, go see this play. If you've not read Watership Down, seek it out--then give a copy to your kids, your nieces and nephews.


  1. Thank you for the reminder of this wonderful book. Wish I lived close enough to see the stage version.

  2. I read Watership Down just after childhood, as a young teen. It's a wonderful book I wish I could have been introduced to as a child, but it was still plenty wonderful in the post-imagination age.

    I'm trying to imagine Watership Down as a play and it's not quite clicking. A shame I live on the wrong side of the globe... I'd love to see the production.