Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director Charles Newell sat down with Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn to discuss what drew him to Saul Bellow’s novel. The following discussion is curated from their conversation, detailing Auburn’s approach to adapting this towering American classic for the stage.
CHARLES NEWELL: When did you first encounter Saul Bellow’s work, particularly this novel, The Adventures of Augie March?
DAVID AUBURN: I think Seize the Day was the first Bellow I ever read. I read Herzog before Augie March, but Augie was the one I connected to most strongly, at least as a 20-something person. It’s an accessible novel for a young person; it’s a picaresque tale of a young kid coming-of-age in Chicago, and it traces his life until, very roughly, the time of the book’s publication, which is the early 50s. It’s Augie telling his story, and he encounters seemingly everyone in Chicago—it’s the great Chicago novel in many ways, and it’s a very easy book to sort of get lost in, to be swept up in. There’s this vast canvas, and it’s immensely likeable and loveable.
CN: Can you explain what it is about the novel that you first thought about when adapting it?
DA: Before I proposed it to you, I had a number of impulses. One, just love of the work, and also the feeling that it was overflowing with great roles for actors. There are hundreds of characters in the book, and they’re all indelible, and the language with which they speak is both realistic and earthy and sort of magical and poetic. I think that the idea of that language in actors’ mouths was what excited me.
CN: And you’ve chosen select characters from the hundreds that Augie encounters. How did you make the choice of which characters, and how does that help tell the story that you want to tell in the play?
DA: One of the hardest things about this has been having to forego using so much wonderful stuff, and I have a feeling that a lot of people will say “Why didn’t you include…?” because there are so many wonderful characters. It ultimately became a question of selecting the ones that I thought served the point of each individual episode with the most narrative or dramatic force, and occasionally combining characters in the book into single figures, elements of them into single figures, but I still lie awake at night wondering if I’ve made a mistake in leaving out this episode or wondering how we can get this other bit in, because there are so many wonderful pieces.
CN: Let’s talk about the Bellow language. You can spend so much time on a single page just digesting it and understanding it. How did you bring the heightened language into characters’ voices?
DA: There are a number of mute or semi- mute characters in the book. So I thought, let’s let these characters very occasionally and strategically voice the insights or the descriptions that Augie is coming to but doesn’t quite have the language to say himself, because he’s young, he’s still in formation. His brother Georgie, for example, who’s all but mute, can suddenly speak with the eloquence that Augie himself is kind of reaching for, aspiring to. It’s a device that I’m really excited about. I think it will be thrilling because you feel the complexity of the language, it incorporates it in a way that doesn’t make it a roadblock to the dramatic action, and it helps us see how Augie is understanding his circumstances.
CN: Going back to the early drafts that you first sent us, take us through a little bit of that journey. Were there moments when the adaptation seemed either unlocked or locked up?
DA: It was very hard to begin, because there are no scenes as such in the book. There are countless incidents, but you might have what amounts to a full scene or episode spread out across a hundred pages. If you go looking for a discreet scene that defines the relationship between Simon and Augie, for example, you’re not going to find one. It took a while, but I eventually got a sense of at least the kinds of pieces that should be in the play. I wanted a big piece about Augie’s childhood, a big piece that takes place when he’s in this sort of young adult period and hanging out with students, you want a big piece in Mexico, you want a big piece post-Mexico. At a certain point, having a mental map of what the play could become helped a lot.
CN: How about the journey you took to understand Bellow the man, and Bellow the writer?
DA: I saw Bellow occasionally when I was in school here, I would see him working around campus. There’s a new biography by Zachery Leader, which is very comprehensive. The material about his childhood is especially useful, since many of the characters in Augie are based at least in some part on people that he knew, and it’s illuminating to know a bit about the real people he supposedly drew from. The book keeps pitting Augie, who is a kind of searcher, against these people of great certainty, these characters who have these sort of monumental worldviews, and are convinced of the direction that their life and other people’s lives should take. Bellow’s real brother was the prototype for the character Simon. The energy in that figure, and Augie’s relationship to him, informs the dynamic of the whole book, and of the play—that dilemma of a questing, questioning person being drawn into and resisting, or not, the pull of a very powerful personality.
CN: If you could ask Bellow a question when adapting, what would you want to ask him?
DA: What does there have to be an eagle for? [Laughs] I’m joking. That’s a line from the book. I love the eagle, the outrageousness and craziness and power of that whole sequence. It’s key to the book and we wanted to make certain it was central to the play.
CN: How do you think Bellow would respond to the stage adaptation of his novel?
DA: Bellow did write a play and he liked the theatre, so my hope is he’d be receptive to what we’ve done. I’ve certainly done it with every intention of being true to his sensibility as I understand it.