Page to Opera Stage: Midcentury Psychological Horror in Graham’s & Muhly’s ‘Marnie’

By Carmen Paddock
(Credit: Ken Howard Metropolitan Opera)

“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatised to fit a new medium. This month, we head to the 20th and 21st century with Winston Graham’s quasi-Freudian psychological thriller “Marnie”, adapted into an opera by composer Nico Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright in 2017. 

Winston Graham is perhaps best known for the stormy romances and domestic strife of his “Poldark” novels, which have inspired significantly different adaptations than his most famous psychological thriller. Instead of heading to the Cornish past, his 1961 novel “Marnie” takes place in the 1950s among families still bearing the scars of World War II. Graham’s novel is a fascinating crime story of its time, as his antiheroine assumes numerous identities and steals large chunks of cash to support her mother and her beloved horse. She moves between jobs and cities in the bucolic English Southwest and Midlands one step ahead of anyone’s trail. Unsurprisingly a new employer – Mark Rutland – catches on to her ruse, forcing into a marriage, sexual relations, and psychotherapy.

Graham ostensibly based aspects of “Marnie” on three real-life cases: of a woman who turned to sex work during World War II, killed her child born out of wedlock, and was acquitted on grounds of insanity (mirroring the situation of Marnie’s mother); of a woman who moved from job to job stealing money and changing her identity; and of another young woman who compulsively lied, shunned men, and adored horse riding.

There is little known about these cases aside from Graham’s own anecdotes, and the author’s sympathy appears more with those affected by these “abnormalities” rather than the humans and traumas at their heart. He was writing in an era where Freudian psychology was very much in vogue. Marnie’s aversion to men and fondness for her horse Forio has inspired both heavy-handed “repression” interpretations as well as more nuanced gay and asexual readings of the novel. But ultimately, the text leans on the crime thriller angle. 

Hitchcock’s loose adaptation may be more famous (and will not be discussed here), but Nico Muhly’s and Nicholas Wright’s opera – which premiered at the English National Opera in 2017 and the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 – puts its own fascinating spin on the story. “Marnie” is an ambitious opera to produce, with large choruses, many set changes, and an action-packed fox hunt – complete with abstractified hounds and horses – depicted on stage. Muhly and Wright drew directly from the novel rather than Hitchcock’s famous reworking. The result is a largely faithful adaptation with a few tweaks for the stage medium, the most crucial of which are explored below. 

Compressed and contrasted characters

The entrapment of Marnie plays out through increased connections in the opera. The novel’s earliest identity switches, abrupt departures, and thefts are glanced over in favor of the two occasions in which Marnie meets Mark Rutland – first as customer, then as employer. Mark thus features far more prominently. When he catches on to Marnie’s schemes and coerces her into marriage, it comes as less of a shock but is no less stomach-churning.

Mark’s slimy cousin Terry has also had an upgrade in prominence, becoming Mark’s brother and Marnie’s eventual brother-in-law. His role in the plot remains largely unchanged, but another of Mark’s family members gets an upgrade to complete a family as messed up as Marnie’s own. In the novel, Mark’s mother is a proper, kind presence; in the opera, Mark’s (and now Terry’s) mother is involved in her sons’ business, demanding Mark assert himself as managing director and live up to the tough image she holds.

This added prominence and parental pressure, mirroring the shadow of neglect Marnie cannot escape with her own family, places the unhappy couple as foils to each other. Were their relationship more conventional, they would seem poised to continue this dysfunctional cycle on the next generation. 

Inside her head

Graham’s first-person narration captures much of Marnie’s psyche sentences that grow in length and lack of focus as her carefully constructed life falls apart. Below, she contemplates Mark’s proposal, strangely moved by the care he seems to show her but also aware of the ensuing disaster in unmatched desires.  

He said this in such a quiet voice that for a moment I felt touched and pleased. Perhaps this idea about the Chinese boxes was a good one for me to think of, because God knows a third of the time I was a bit flattered because he was so gone on me and a third of the time I hated him deeply, and a third of the time I was sorry for him, and all I could be sure of was that if I married him it would be the biggest mess alive for both of us and that I couldn’t stand the thought of it.

Muhly’s score and Wright’s libretto retain the centralization of Marnie’s perspectives, giving her the only arias in the opera. They further back up her inner monologue with a chorus of her past selves. These shadows echo the present Marnie’s musings and perform as personas she has adopted and discarded. This effect magnifies not only Marnie’s ability to slip between personas but also the baggage she carries from her childhood, as she cannot shake her ghosts.

The ending

Despite the coercive start to Marnie and Mark’s marriage, there is a glimmer of something – hope, recognition, possibly reconciliation – at the opera’s end. While attempted marital rape and suicide loom over their relationship (and should, by all rights, have ended the marriage), after Forio’s death and Mark’s serious injury in the fox hunt there seems an understanding. As she leaves her mother’s funeral – having learned the truth about her brother’s death – she is confronted by Mark, Terry, and the police. Her husband, mostly recovered, asks her if she will come back to him “when all this is over,” referring to her jail term. She does not confirm or deny, only singing that she is free – finally – when handcuffed. Their future is uncertain, but an almost-restorative sense of closure is reached. 

In the novel, Marnie is arrested while Mark remains in the hospital. She does not mention him as she sees her past catching up to her. Both endings remain more ambiguous, befitting the thriller genre if lacking the poetry of the opera. 

“Marnie” is a story of its time. Muhly’s lens is a 21st century one, subtly working in modern understandings of trauma to replace the “deviance” Graham revels in. It is a smart piece of theatre, retaining the noir aspects that make the novel work while emphasising the human. 

Winston’s Graham’s “Marnie” is widely available at libraries and booksellers. 


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