Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Real Love Triangle

Okay, here’s a real good one. The more I find out about Carson McCullers (author of the novella), the more I am extremely curious about her…because, after all, I am a curious person. As it turns out, this little love triangle between the woman, the criminal and the hunchback is a bit of a mirror held up to the life of the author. In the spring of 1941, Carson was temporarily reconciled with her husband, Reeves McCullers, and they both fell in love with a composer, David Diamond. Carson had no problem with her husband having an affair with a man; in fact, she encouraged it as she, herself, was bisexual and felt it could be a special kind of bond. However, when the man Reeves was with was also her object of affection, things changed. To put it mildly, it all got a bit complicated and ended with their second separation.

Ten years later, she was in a New York City bar, hanging out with W.H. Auden…as you do. She noticed a couple and proceeded to observe them: "a woman who was tall and strong as a giantess, and at her heels she had a little hunchback." Weeks later, an "illumination," as she calls it, struck her:

"I was still working on ‘Member of the Wedding’ when with a sudden voltage I remembered the hunchback and the giantess. There was a strong impulse to write that story, suspending ‘Member of the Wedding,’ so I went back to Georgia to write ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café.’ It was a torrid summer and I remember the sweat pouring off my face as I typed, worried that I’d broken faith with ‘Member of the Wedding,’ to write this short novel. When I finished the story I jerked it out of the typewriter and handed it to my parents. I walked for several miles while they read, and when I’d come back I could see from their faces that they’d liked it. It was always my father’s favorite work."

I can’t help but wonder if her folks knew her personal inspiration for the story. At the completion of the novella, she told Diamond, "Darling, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ is for you."

It’s safe to say that this connection wasn’t lost on Albee. After he had gotten the go ahead from McCullers to write the adaptation, he wrote to David Diamond about the idea, presumably feeling him out. Diamond wrote back to him saying that it was a fine idea and Albee was off.

Ah, the theatre.

Your humble dramaturg,


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Ballad of the What?

Despite and maybe because it was Edward Albee’s follow up to ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ usually elicits a blank stare from even theatre folk. In short, it was originally a novella written by Carson McCullers that was then adapted into a play by Edward Albee. Set in a small southern town, it tells the story of a love triangle between a woman, a convict and a hunchback. In long…

Okay, so you’re still reading, which means you’re interested. I’ll be posting here throughout our rehearsal process little bits of dramaturgical nerdery for those who subscribe to that sort of thing. With the help of my social savvy partners in crime, I’ll be throwing out some tweets and facebook messages as well. So, without further ado…


Albee once said, ‘I seem to lose my mind about every fifth play and do an adaptation.’ ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ (hereafter to be called simply Ballad for god’s sake) was his first and, according to many, his most successful adaptation (the flip side of that being ‘Lolita’ which was, to put it politely, a train wreck). In his own words, the idea sprung from “two reasons really…one of them is that I am interested in finding out what happens when people do adaptations of novels for the stage. Usually there is a tendency to cheapen—to lessen the work that’s adapted, but then again, I can’t think of very many good playwrights that have ever done adaptations. They’re usually second rate people who do adaptations. I’m not suggesting here that I’m a first-rate person, but I am interested in finding out if it’s possible to do an adaptation of somebody else’s work—to move it from the pages of the novel to the life of the stage—without cheapening or lessening the work. And then again, ten years ago—is it ten? Yes, probably eleven years now…when I first read Ballad of the Sad Cafe, I said to myself, ‘If I ever start writing plays I’d have to make this into a play.’”

Having achieved significant success with his own words in plays from ‘Zoo Story’ to ‘Virginia Woolf”, Albee sent McCullers a letter saying that he wanted to try his hand at an adaptation of Ballad and attached a sample scene. She replied southernly, “Whenever the spirit moves you, I would be most anxious to read the first scene…I have a feeling we are going to be really good friends.’ So, dear reader, to make this long story somewhat shorter, he did, she said ‘yes’ and they did indeed.

A couple of months before Ballad’s Broadway opening, McCullers and a lady friend spent part of the summer at Water Island with Albee and Terrance McNally. Albee would write for four hours each morning, followed by solitary walks on the beach (cue romantic music). Each evening, he would read aloud to his guests; among the plays were those by Beckett and himself, including new scenes from Ballad. McCullers would write, “Thank you for the sun, the hay, the suntan, not to mention Virginia Woffe (sic) and all the fun, Happy Days and our Ballad.”

The mutual admiration was evident by these ego-stroking quotes: McCullers: “This play, as luminous as its stars, is about the destruction of a dream. It has the passion of a Greek drama although the setting is in an eastern town. It shows malicious humiliation and love and tenderness and bitterness. It has in it compassion, the wildest humor and the dark brilliance that to me, is peculiar to the genius of Edward Albee. Albee: “a curious magician…both child and sage; pain and joy. She has mastered the card tricks of both art and life, and she has seen equally and clearly the sleight of hand of reality and the truth which resides in legerdemain.”
Of course, Albee could have stopped there, but didn’t: “I wouldn’t like to have had her as an enemy. She could be vicious and terribly selfish, but she was very bright and a good friend. I enjoyed her company.” Ah, Albee.

So, that’s a peek in at the beginning and a little on the two of them. I’ve got plenty more, so stay tuned…

Your humble dramaturg,