Archive for November, 2010

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The Play’s the Thing

November 1, 2010

On October 24th, the Irish Repertory officially debuted the staged version of “Banished Children of Eve,” which it commissioned playwright Kelly Younger to write. Back in 1994, when the novel was first published, several people whose opinion I respect said that it had real cinemagraphic possibilities. They suggested I take a crack at turning it into a screenplay. Though I’d never attempted to write a screenplay, I was working at Time Warner at that point and asked a friend at Warner Bros. Studios to send me a shooting script a recent film. She sent me the script for “The Fugitive.” It took me about five minutes to come to the conclusion that I was a novelist, not a scriptwriter. (My involvement with Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” will have to wait some future blog.) I’d started out wanting to a poet. But the form was so constricted and required such compression that I turned to short stories. Over the course of two years, I wrote two short stories. Here again, I felt boxed in, confined to a narrow space. When it comes to writing, I decided, I’m a prodigal and a profligate. I’m like the character from the Dixie Chick’s song who “needs wide open spaces/Room to make her big mistakes.” I found my wide open spaces and room to make big mistakes in the novel. It took me ten years to research and write “Banished Children of Eve.” There were plenty of frustrations and tortured moments. But I never felt confined or closed in. For me, novel writing was to poems and short stories what Jackson Pollack’s riotous, bucket-splashed, supersized canvases were to George Seurat’s pointillism, with its precise and careful accumulation of small, distinct dots. When Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore first approached me about making “Banished Children of Eve” into a play, I was (no surprise) thrilled. I also never entertained for a moment the illusion I could write it myself. The notion of wrestling a six-hundred-page novel into a ninety-minute stage production struck me as akin to fitting a zeppelin into a zip-lock sandwich bag. Fortunately, in Kelly Younger, Ciarán and Charlotte found a talented writer who understood the limits and possibilities in staying true to the substance of the novel without trying to replicate the form. We had a brief conversation in L.A. about what was at the heart of the book and agreed it was two love stories—one between two Irish people, which could succeed, and the other a black-white relationship that American society at that time wouldn’t permit. Thanks to Ciarán and Charlotte, and a grant from the NEA, Kelly went off and wrote the play. I went my way and wrote another novel. In the spring of 2009, I was invited to an initial stage reading at the Irish Repertory Theatre. I was aware that Kelly and Ciarán and Charlotte had been back and forth with several revisions but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect. The moment the actors stepped on stage, I was stunned. Even before they spoke a line, I recognized each one of them—Eliza, Jack, Euphemia Blanchard, Stephen Foster. Characters who’d first come alive in my head two decades before, were standing there, skin and bone and hair, alive, and I didn’t need a program to identify them. They were as I imagined them. I fought back tears. It was the closest I’d come to experiencing a sense of awe since my children were born. I know there are novelists who are also playwrights and scriptwriters. (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy who’s also written plays and screenplays springs immediately to mind.) But I’m not among them. The play that Kelly Younger has written is different from my novel. It’s an adaptation, not a reproduction. But it gets to the heart of the matter. Watching the transformation of novel into play and the labor-intensive interaction of playwright, actors and director—so very different from the isolation and solitude of novel writing—has been a revelation. I asked William Kennedy to come with me to see the play because I know that as well as incapable of adding water or sugar to his opinions on any/all pieces of writing, he’s a big fan of the stage. He said that he couldn’t imagine it getting panned—which didn’t mean it wouldn’t —but that if writers depend on reviews to keep then writing, they won’t be in the business very long. He reiterated a phrase he’d used with me many years ago, when I met him in Albany while I was laboring in the salt mines of speechwriting and he was an obscure (soon-to-be-famous) novelist. “The trick is,” he said, “to renew your vulnerability.” You can be a critic, he said, and most of them are voyeurs and eunuchs—they observe, supervise, commentate, but are incapable of participating or creating—or you can be an working artist. All creative works are crapshoots, he insisted. (He included our conversation in his collection of nonfiction pieces, “Riding the Yellow Trolley Car.”) There are no sure things. But it seems to me, when it comes to effort, collectivity, concentration, coordination, and sheer guts, theater is the biggest crapshoot of all. (Cliché though it has become, the old Irving Berlin lyric is sometimes gloriously/sometimes painfully true: “There’s no business like show business.”) I am indebted beyond words to director Ciarán O’Reilly for this leap of faith in believing my long novel could be adapted to the stage, to Kelly Younger for his skill as a playwright in carrying it off, to choreographic genius Barry McNabb, to set designer Charlie Corcoran for his miraculous ingenuity, and to the wonderful troupe of players for turning words into flesh and blood. There’s no people like show people.

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