Newman theatre director adapts ‘Dante’s Inferno’ for the stage

Feb 20, 2020

Likely its largest production to date, the Newman Theatre Department is taking on the beast of “Dante’s Inferno,” a verse adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s original story by Director of Theatre Mark Mannette.

Embarking on a journey through hell, the play will include many elements of spectacle, such as dance, film, puppets and an original soundtrack.

Virgil (Lucas Farney) and Dante (Matthew Clark) on film set.

“Dante had an obsession with threes. Satan is a three-faced beast, and Cerberus is a three-headed beast, so I keep saying that the whole project is a three-headed beast because it is huge,” Manette said. “I’m working with double the design team. Normally I might work with a set designer, a lighting designer and a costume designer; but this one’s different because I’ve got a whole film designer, I’ve got a mask and puppet designer, the sound designer is basically doing soundscape.”

For this production, Mannette is wearing not three but four hats, as director, producer, set designer and playwright. While all of those tasks together create a pressing challenge now, the true feat began 10 years ago, when Mannette began adapting the text for stage.

“It did take 10 years. It took approximately three years for the first draft, which was completely based on the (Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow translation. I feel akin to Longfellow naturally; we were both born in the same city, we’re natives of the same state. In the city I was born in, there’s a statue of Longfellow there. As a young man, I played Longfellow in a musical. He had mostly an academic career, which is an important part of my life.”

Longfellow completed the first American translation of Dante’s “Inferno.”

Just like Longfellow, Mannette took his own trip to Italy, which deeply inspired him, fueling the fire for his theatrical adaptation. 

“I lived abroad in Italy for three months. I stayed in a castle that was built in the mid-thirteenth century, and Dante was born in the mid-thirteenth century, so that castle was in effect during his lifetime. He references the Adige river valley, and that was the river valley that this castle was in.” 

The first draft was hardly the end of this dramatic adaptation as Mannette recognized the potential in translations other than Longfellow’s. 

“We staged a memorized version of cantos one and two (of Dante’s ‘Inferno’) and had some feedback, and through the discussion, it became obvious to me that there were other possibilities than Longfellow’s (translation). So I started amassing a collection of various translations.” 

At this, Mannette began presenting the copies of his collection, one-by-one, until he had produced a stack of six on his desk. 

“Not only are they on the desk in my office at work, but on the nightstand next to my bed at home. At any given moment in time, there were 12 active translations that I consulted on the second draft — the second draft took the additional seven years.”

Mark Mannette with an “Inferno” graphic, a variety of translations and a document of his translation comparisons.

Mannette wanted his adaptation to be in iambic pentameter and wanted to tell a clear story, resulting in his need to reference various translations.

“Every time I would work on a canto, I would line up the Longfellow translation with four or five other translations. And if I didn’t like what I had in those five, I had access to some of the other ones. I would also frequently double-check the Italian.”

With Mannette working in tandem with the English department and the theatre department collaborating with them for Newman’s Literary Festival, both departments agreed it was time for an Inferno-themed LitFest, during which Mannette was to premiere his theatrical adaptation.

By putting on this massive show, Mannette wishes to “illustrate my original thesis that ‘Dante’s Inferno’ can be put up on the stage, and I hope that it has life beyond Wichita, Kansas, and can play in major cities, and I can get it published. Those are my hopes for the future.”

“Dante’s Inferno” performances will be held at 7 p.m., March 5, 6 and 7 and 2 p.m. March 8 in Performance Hall of DeMattias Fine Arts Center.

Tickets may be purchased at the door starting one hour before show time. Prices are $15 for the general public, $10 for seniors and military and $5 for students.