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,


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