An Interview with Henry Ong

We are deeply saddened by the news that playwright Henry Ong passed away on 29th September. Henry was a wonderful friend to the Trollope Society for many years and adapted Anthony Trollope’s Rachel Ray and Nina Balatka for the stage.

Henry had planned to join the Trollope Society’s Trip to Prague where he was to lead a reading of his adaptation of Nina Balatka. The reading will go ahead in Henry’s memory and members of the Society send their condolences to Henry’s husband Matthew and friends.

Henry was recently interviewed for the Society’s magazine, Trollopiana, the interview is reproduced here.

Henry Ong
Henry Ong at the Trollope Society play reading of Nina Balatka in London in 2017

An Interview with Henry Ong

Henry Ong is a playwright based in Los Angeles. He is also a fan of Anthony Trollope and has adapted two of his novels, Rachel Ray and Nina Balatka for the stage. He is a 16-time recipient of The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ Artist-in-Residence grants. A recipient of the Lee Melville award from Playwrights’ Arena for outstanding contribution to theatre in Los Angeles, Henry is an active member of the Dramatists Guild.

What was the first Trollope novel you read and what inspired you to read that and subsequent novels?

The first Trollope novel I read was Rachel Ray. I remember liking it—in particular the quality of the writing and the vividness of the characters (what I subsequently learned to describe as Trollopian) so much I decided I would read all 47 of his novels!

Reading his works gave me a great fondness for Anthony Trollope who, I think, is one of the greatest of Victorian writers. His writing exhibits a keen observation of human life. While many writers deal with absolutes, Trollope colors his characters in more complex shades of gray.

You adapted Rachel Ray for the stage. What was it about that novel which attracted you to the idea of adapting it?

Prior to Rachel Ray, I had not heard of Trollope! When I read it on a long trip high in the clouds, I kept seeing the story unfold as a stage adaptation. I loved the romance between Rachel and Luke and how these two characters interacted with each other. Luke, in particular; how he was so taken by this country girl, and the two in the churchyard looking at the sky and the clouds and the blood-red setting…it was enough to make one giddy. And then the secondary characters, Mrs. Prime, Mrs Ray, Reverend Prong…they were all so distinctive; such fun roles for actors! It had to be adapted!!! I was vain enough to think I could do it!

Describe the process you go through in adapting a novel or other pre-existing work for the stage.

Once I make a decision to adapt, I have to think of a structure in which to tell it. A play is different from a novel, so it has its own dramatic structure. Each story has to be told differently. In Rachel Ray, it has to take a leisurely approach, so I started with a scene between Rachel and her mother, in which the main conflicts are introduced. Dolly (Rachel’s sister, aka Mrs. Prime) appears in a quick light shift in which she demands that Rachel accompany her to the Dorcas Society, but Rachel refuses and decided to remain home with mamma. Mrs. Ray, burdened with a rumor Dolly told her, struggles to reconcile her distrust of young men on the prowl and to discover from Rachel the truth behind the gossip. And, of course, the subject of all this uneasiness—the man from the brewery, Luke Rowan, himself.

You more recently adapted Nina Balatka for the stage. What was it about that novel which made it attractive to you to adapt?

Instinctively, I found the novel, which is quite different from Trollope’s other works, both confronting and challenging due to its religious theme. My background is Catholic and, later in life, I married a Jewish man. Thus, inherently I was drawn to it. One difference between Nina Balatka and Trollope’s other novels is the setting. Nina takes place outside of England: Prague, in particular. Second, in most of Trollope’s novels, the lovers meet; they encounter numerous hurdles; in the end, they are happily united. In Nina, the hero and heroine are already in love and engaged to each other when the story begins. No details are given as to how they have fallen in love. But the third, and most significant difference, is succinctly stated by Trollope himself in the opening sentence which is as iconic and self-explanatory as any in English literature, and I knew I wanted to keep that in the play: “Nina Balatka was a maiden of Prague, born of Christian parent, and herself a Christian. But she loved a Jew, and this is her story.”

Also with Nina Balatka, when I read it, I was fascinated by the Victorian perspective of Jews. At first, I thought it was peculiar to the times, this obsession with Jews as “different.” Victorian England is different from contemporary England, and surely folks today are different. However, with other events happening in the world right now, I’m not so sure. What happened in Charlottesville here in the U.S. was a wakeup call for me. There’s a lot of racism and hatred that surfaced, and I’m sure throughout the world as well. All of which makes Nina Balatka quite relevant for modern contemplation. Also, my husband is Jewish (although non-practicing), so I have a personal connection to the topic.

I also found it interesting that, although Trollope was already a renowned and established novelist in 1866, Nina Balatka was initially published anonymously. Trollope claimed that it was because he wanted to test his work without the advantage of his fame. Still, the question remains, why test it with this particular work? Could it be because of its controversial subject? Marriages between Christians and Jews were considered taboo in the 19th century and anti-Semitism was certainly not uncommon. Trollope, however, was not known to shy away from controversial subjects. In discussing Nina Balatka, the question of whether or not Trollope himself was anti-Semitic is a likely consideration. The contrasting ways in which the families of Nina and Anton react to the issue of inter-faith marriage may provide a clue into Trollope’s own thinking and I wanted to explore this on the stage.

Ultimately, it is hard for me to pin-point one exact reason why I decide to adapt a piece of work; with me, it comes from the gut. If I’m moved by the story (or by a particular character), I make an impulsive choice.

How does dialogue on the page of a novel differ from dialogue for a scene on stage?

A playwright has to be much more concise than a novelist, and be able to convey the essence of a scene succinctly, or the play will be interminable. In a novel, the author is able to interrupt dialogue with a description of the character’s internal thoughts. In a play, this can be achieved through asides, but frequently, a look or a gesture on the part of the character can say it all.

How do you adapt dialogue from a novel to a stage production?

I personally try to get the gist of what the dialogue is from the main source. Often, I will transcribe the whole conversation, then edit. Or, if memory serves me, I will just write what I remember of the scene, then return to the source material to see if it matches with the original. There are times when, for continuity, I make up some of my own dialogue to allow the conversation to run more smoothly. It varies from playwright to playwright, but a play has its own structure, so to try and transplant the book to the stage is not a good idea. A play has to have its own rhythm.

How do you balance being true to the author’s original with your interpretation for the stage?

I suppose an adaptor cannot help but bring his or her own interpretation to any adaptation. I am careful, however, to ensure that the actions and the words of the characters that should come across as the author intended.

Can you give examples from your plays Rachel Ray and Nina Balatka?

In Rachel Ray, for instance, Rachel is a young woman, very inexperienced in the ways of the world. Her confusion and her first flush of romance must be captured as Trollope wrote it, or I would have failed as a playwright. Luke Rowan is a brash young man; yet, there is a tender side to him, despite his stubbornness. I hope I have conveyed that throughout the play.

I also remember being struck by one particular exchange between Dolly (Mrs. Prime) and Reverend Prong— when he proposed to her. The language was so wonderful that if I could, I would have transcribed the entire exchange! But I wrote the scene from memory and had to pick what was especially remarkable to me (as the adaptor). When I consulted the novel, I was happy to see that I did indeed include what I thought was the essence of that exchange. Ditto, the break-up scene –the whole argument about women being able to have an opinion and the Jewish prejudice that surfaced on the part of Dolly—it was the one time that I thought Prong showed some compassion; unlike Dolly, he didn’t condemn Jews because of their faith.

Nina Balatka was completely a different ball game (or different ball of wax, as the English would probably say) for me. I was engrossed by the Jewish element. The fact that Nina fell in love with a Jew is the main theme of the story. Therefore, that informed the rest of the play. Some readers (as noted in our Big Read) found Anton Trendellsohn a rather unsympathetic and unlikeable character, not because he’s a Jew, but because he seems very unbending. He is raised quite differently from Nina, and has had distinctly separate life experiences. While I didn’t want to change his character, I had to find some “softness” in Anton. I may have added additional dialogue (or a monologue) to show his internal conflict.

Many of your plays seem to focus on the issues faced by outsiders of society. Is this a deliberate choice and what responsibilities does this place on you as a playwright to express the outsiders’ perspectives?

That is true. I do not only write adaptations. I am also motivated by injustice and the plight of oppressed people, collectively or individually. For instance, when I read about a group of Thai garment workers locked up in an apartment building, held captive, some for as many as seven years, I was moved to write Fabric. My most recent play, Ascent,is based on the story of a Chinese aeronautical scientist involved in the Space program in its early development. He was charged with being a Communist during the McCarthy era without any shred of evidence and deported back to his native China. It was a monumental blunder of the United States, one that gave rise to China as a nuclear power. Irony also intrigues me; hence Sweet Karma about a Cambodian refugee, a doctor who fled the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, only to be fatally gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles. By the way, this doctor, Dr. Haing S. Ngo, was plucked out of obscurity to star in the movie, The Killing Fields, and it won him an Oscar as best supporting actor.

Deliberate? I guess it has to be deliberate, if it’s something I’m willing to commit months, even years in the development of the work. I do feel a responsibility to be as accurate as I can in telling stories of others. Hence, I do an inordinate amount of research in the topic to uncover the underlying truth behind the stories.

In your own life, living in the USA as a person who is not White, Anglo-Saxon, Straight Protestant, do you bring anything of your own experiences to the plays you write?

Every writer brings something of himself/herself in the story-telling. Especially in the choice of the work. But once one starts telling the tale, one has to be as objective as possible. There are other perspectives involved in a drama, and the closer one can get to express that differing perspectives, the more successful would be the playwright. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with those perspectives, but you have to show that others, besides the protagonist, also have views, and those views are as valid because they come from the person’s history. I never think of myself as non-White, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-straight Protestant; I think of myself as a human being and a person of the world. While I may carry a U.S. passport, I am really a citizen of the world. What I can say is, I believe, I have my own voice and perspective, but I hope that my experiences contribute to the overall understanding of the human condition.