Three Books on Stage

This essay was written in response to a conversation on our website about the future of reading and writing. The conversation started with essays by Benjamin Kunkel and Marco Roth, and continued with responses from the editors on our news page and an essay by Nicholas Dames.


Several recent productions make me think we may be seeing the rise of the novel in an unlikely place: the theater.  Granted, seeing a book is not reading a book, but by the criteria that literature “transforms the world into an illustration of the text” these productions certainly qualify:

1. Elevator Repair Service, The Sun Also Rises (The Select)

A few weeks ago, the Edinburgh International Festival hosted Elevator Repair Service’s  The Sun Also Rises (The Select). In this four-hour production, the actors spoke almost all of the novel, including the narration by Jake Barnes (played by Mike Iveson). As the play began, Iveson recited the start of Hemingway’s novel verbatim from a seat in a realistic looking French brasserie. I cringed at the thought of spending four hours with a Hemingway narrator, but the piece quickly gathered momentum. It turned out that the bar top concealed a sound board and at any given time one actor would stand behind it controlling the play’s fantastic sound design (a running joke of sound effects not completely correlated to the staged action). The brasserie props and furniture served to tell every episode of the novel: the two tables became trout in one scene, bulls in another. Instead of the set transforming the novel through the heavy machinery of scene changes and sounds from above, the novel transformed the set. Barnes acted as both narrator and character: at one point he stood up and screamed “Why did you do that?!” then suddenly dropped his voice, “. . . I started to say, but held back.”

The Sun Also Rises
is the third in a series of productions by Elevator Repair Service based on American novels from the 1920s, including The Sound and the Fury and The Great Gatsby. The six-and-a-half hour Great Gatsby production, called Gatz, includes the novel’s entire text. Elevator Repair Service emphasizes that it is “not a retelling of the Gatsby story but an enactment of the novel itself.” In Gatz, unlike The Sun Also Rises, there is an actual book on stage: its premise is that an office worker finds a copy of The Great Gatsby in his desk and starts reading it aloud. Although Gatz has been touring internationally since its premiere, copyright issues have prevented it from playing in the US until now: in September the New York premiere will take place at the Public Theater.

2. Group Theory, Bartleby

On a smaller scale, this past winter I attended a “literary-theatrical hybrid” performance of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” conceived and directed by Ben Vershbow with the ensemble Group Theory. Throughout the performance, the three actors alternated between reading the roles of the narrator and the characters. There were multiple copies of the novella on stage and a rectangular backdrop made up of printed pages of the work. Despite the actors reading from the text, the performance felt fully staged.  Although much of the time they sat around a scrivener’s desk, they also enacted shifts in scene and created lighting effects themselves. One actor read the final lines of the novella from the backdrop.

Group Theory didn’t stop at reading: after the performance they distributed copies of the novella they had scanned and bound themselves (the paperback is now available for purchase through Lulu). The production was first performed at iRt Theater in Greenwich Village, and later remounted at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy and Triple Canopy at 177 Livingston Street.

3.  Peter Stein, The Demons

Of course not every book is suited for the stage. While Hemingway and Melville (at least the shorter works) seem tailored for such readings, the thicker of the 19th century Russian novels are not. Last month, the Lincoln Center Festival premiered Peter Stein’s production of The Demons, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel. Stein did not cut a single scene of the novel for this twelve-hour production on Governor’s Island (performed in Italian).  Despite the hype, I couldn’t bring myself to go. In 2007, I went to Stein’s stultifying ten-hour production of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy in Berlin. The one redeeming element was that I got to sit next to Robert Wilson and his identically dressed but much shorter assistant for eight of the ten hours (they arrived two hours late). Wilson slept most of the time but jolted awake at the second intermission. Unfolding his limbs, he said: “This is awful. Let’s burn down the theater.” During the intermissions they served red bean chili. Judging from Elif Batuman’s account, the food in New York was better thought out, but not the staging: “10:15 PM He’s been dying for ten minutes now. What if I die before he does?”

The interlacing of novel and theater may seem like old news, but the relationship between theater and text hasn’t always been cozy. Foregrounding text went out of style in theater in the mid-1960s as directors propagated new forms in which words became merely one element of the staging alongside an independent visual language. Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, and later Robert Wilson were among the many directors who looked to traditions such as Noh theatre, commedia del arte, and mime, all based more on iconography than on prose. For many performance studies academics, the text/performance divide is a political one: they  have spent decades arguing for a shift in scholarly focus from the dominating literary text to the subversive possibilities of embodied performance.

If indeed these productions prove to be part of a growing trend, it would mean a reversal of fifty years of theater practice that has come to prize the body, the image, the non-signifying voice, and even sensory assaults on the audience over the word. Of course, this doesn’t imply that all is well with the book. Elevator Repair Service and Group Theory were so effective because they tapped into nostalgia: for childhood bedtime stories, the great American novels of the canon, and perhaps—preemptively—for the physical book itself. If the book is indeed on its way out, we can take solace that it is already coming back in.

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