Published in 1873, Around the World in 80 Days was an instant success and it would become the best-selling novel in Jules Verne's collection of international bestsellers. Unlike his other major hits, such as From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Around the World in 80 Days is rather terrestrial. That is, there is little that is fantastical about Phileas Fogg's voyage around the world. He achieves his goal by way of train, boat, steamship, and elephant, which were all within the realm of what was possible in the late nineteenth century.
Indeed, the visits that Fogg and his French valet Passepartout string along to the Suez Canal, India, Hong Kong, China, and the American West were for the first time in history feasible due to two historic technological developments: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the British railway system across India in 1870. With the corners of the world more accessible than ever, Fogg is less of an intrepid explore and more of a world-wide consumer. The popularity of the Verne’s novel owed much to the new European demand for the exotic both in the form of goods (dyes, spices, decorations, etc.) and cultural curiosities (customs, religious beliefs, practices, and peoples).
One of the deep ironies of the text is that Fogg carries with him such a self-possessed disinterest in other lands and customs that he rarely takes the time to engage with the world passing by him. Only Aouda, the Indian Princess rescued from sacrificial immolation, makes a lasting impact on Fogg. Her stubborn fidelity to Fogg eventually pierces his calloused exterior and sense of superiority. So, though the story is about adventure, loyalty, and even love, it also is about colonialism and the depiction (and consumption) of non-European others.
One may note that the book's author is French, so even his depiction of the calculating, precise, and disinterested Fogg is a stereotype in itself. The French experienced Fogg's Englishness through the eyes of the book's comic relief, Passepartout. Yet, when Fogg and Passepartout voyage together in the book, their differences are eclipsed by the foreignness of those characters from India, China, and Japan. Verne essentializes these cultures and plays up the outlandish stereotypes that most tantalized European readers as excitingly bizarre: elephants, rituals, opium and, in North America, Native American savagery. It's worthy to note that in the two major film adaptations in the United States, Passepartout is cast with international stars, the Mexican comedian Catinflas in Mike Todd's 1956 film and the Hongkonger stuntman Jackie Chan in Frank Coraci's 2004 adaptation. Though Passepartout served as a passport to the French audience, the character in a U.S. context has served as another foreign accessory.
Theatreworks and director Lavina Jadhwani have selected Laura Eason's spirited and economical stage adaptation of Verne's classic that accepts these themes and challenges head on. While it is thrilling to see if Fogg can indeed keep his bet to circumnavigate the globe despite all manner of set-back, it is just as exciting to watch the journey spill across the limited confines of a single stage. Unlike the film adaptations which spared little expense traveling hither and yon, our company is tethered to the here and now. They create the journey through wit and ingenuity in front of us, testing the bounds of the stage and the boundless limits of our imaginations.
Similarly, Eason's adaptation engages with the Eurocentric gaze of the source material. If Verne's book is a story of two white men whisking across the globe and colliding with unfamiliar cultures, Eason's open text creates an opportunity for greater inclusivity. We are not watching two men as they encounter people from all over the world, but a diverse set of eight actors who embody dozens and dozens of characters. To a certain extent, the production asks, “How do you tell the story of different people, while honoring their depth of cultural difference, heritage, and individuality?” Rather than portray these characters as mere tokens of cultural difference, our actors put these questions front and center as they juggle multiple roles (and identities) before our very eyes. The play asks us to celebrate human ingenuity and the magic of storytelling as it is consciously bounded to a single place in time with a single group of people. As the Theatreworks holiday show, the performance also invites us to be more like the open-minded Passepartout and less like Fogg, to revel in the vast adventure the world offers in its diversity of people and places.
Thank you to Matt McMahan, PhD, freelance dramaturg and the Assistant Director of the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College