Adapting -what is it?

The verb adapt came into English in 1794, alongside other formations from Latin, with the meaning of significant alterations of original materials to fit or suit present need.

Across the 19th Century, adapt, and its derivative’s adjectives and nouns adaptive, adaptable, and adaptation all benefited from the centrality of the concept of adaptability in Darwin’s 1859 treatise, The Origin of Species.

This was assisted in 1849 with the importation of the word into English–alongside bourgeoise French Comedy predicated on classical models– with the meaning applied specifically to stage adaptations of literary originals.

There’s no preference for the stage, of course. Any medium can be adapted, any material. The stage was the exciting, newly available medium of its day –much as film and television have served that function. Or rock-n-roll and hip hop. They all have a way of reviving useful cultural artifacts.

Any material can be adapted, to most any purpose, though it is surely possible that some prove more suitable and even complimentary to each other.

The point about the word adapt being linked to the stage may be pushing a conjectural point prematurely, but it is possible that our understanding about how to adapt -which we clearly need to do- is inextricably linked to BOTH senses of the word, which adhered to it in the rapidly shifting, tumultuous 19th Century.

Adapting is something which, in a Darwinian sense, we thrive and are defined by as species Sapiens, and quite clearly need to undertake now. The stakes now are apparent: no back-to-normal, no period of adjustment, no slow social or cultural adaptation, no evolution. Catastrophe. And either extant adaptations or rapidly evolved ones will survive.

But Darwinian adaptation is risky business. Natural selection usually prefers extant adaptations to extant environments. Sudden adaptations which may prove non-adaptive are not likely to survive, nor are adaptations with changes that are not immediately advantageous.

But diversity is important (again, in Darwinian terms) precisely because it allows for these harmless diversions from the evolutionary mainstream. For when catastrophic change occurs, it can suddenly favor these traits –even those that might formerly have been maladaptive now prove adaptive. It is the history of life on earth, and our response to it is the key to our own evolution, past and present.

Now, back to the stage. Not so fast, though. Let’s not rush back to the bourgeoisie stage of the 19th Century. Nor the 20th, for that matter.

Let’s use this crisis to move forward into the 21st Century –by looking at the art form unhitched to particular milieu. Let’s meld the two views: Let’s look at the protypical stage, the Ur-stage: one Joseph Campbell understands.

The people are not doing well. Hunger, disease… There is a need to change. Change location. Change the way we hunt and gather, come together… But how can we know? How can we know what is right?

We act it out. Magic: that is, we act out what we want. We imagine something different, and then adapt reality to the image.

In a ‘safe space,’ we rehearse. All the more necessary when the world is no longer safe. Before we act, we try things out. We assume roles that are unfamiliar to us, and practice them until we make them familiar to us.

We use ourselves and our practices as the material that needs to be adapted.

TW 6/2/2020

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