Writer Oren Jacoby discusses adapting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


In January 2012, Court Theatre will produce the world premiere adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century and a monumental work of African American literature. Set inside a Harlem basement strung up with 1,369 light bulbs, a nameless narrator recounts his journey from the Deep South to a prestigious black college to Harlem, where he achieves notoriety as a speechmaker and political organizer. The adaptation, directed by Christopher McElroen and written by Oren Jacoby, is nearing the end of a long period of development, and as the first rehearsal draws closer, Jacoby took a moment to speak with us about adapting Invisible Man.




Invisible Man has grown to become one of the most admired novels of the twentieth century, but when it was first published, Ralph Ellison himself predicted that interest in it wouldn’t last more than ten years. Why do you think Invisible Man has outlived its time?

I don’t really think this is a question I’m qualified to answer. Nor is it my place to do so. I think, however, that Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, comes close to answering when he quotes Ellison’s comments “on what was required for his or any novel to survive: ‘If you’re lucky… if you splice into one of the deeper currents of life, then you have a chance of having your work last a little longer’”  

Clearly, I think this is a brilliant, moving work that is timeless, for the very reason that “it splices into” the deepest currents of our lives in the 21st century, or I wouldn’t have undertaken the arduous (though also exhilarating) process of the adaptation. Let’s wait and see, in the production, how well it speaks to a contemporary audience. I will share one other reflection about its longevity. When Harvard University recently asked its faculty to name the one, indispensable book they would suggest to graduates heading into the world in 2011, history professor Charles Warren claimed that book is Invisible Man. He said, “The deathbed advice of the protagonist’s grandfather … seems to signal Ellison’s own refusal to reject the potential of American democracy, despite the nation’s failure to live up to its stated ideals of liberty and equality… That resistance to despair has earned widespread admiration from generations of readers, including a disaffected teenager named Barack Obama who devoured the book while growing up in Honolulu.” I hope, in this year leading up to Obama’s re-election campaign, the play will encourage audience members to revisit the novel for a more thorough consideration of Ellison’s understanding of the optimism needed to make the American experiment a success.