America has always taken great pride in its literature, both in prose and dramatic form. The powerful influence of the country’s substantial men – and it is usually men – of letters can be seen in two dramatic renderings during this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises and the production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre aren’t being presented by some respectable rep company, however, but by two of the most significant proponents of post-modernism to have emanated from New York’s avant-garde scene over the last thirty years.
With their take on The Sun Also Rises, Elevator Repair Service look set to cement a burgeoning reputation built on the likes of a staging of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that saw the novel read out in full. Using Vieux Carre as their source, The Wooster Group add a smorgasbord of external influences which in this case date back to the films made by Paul Morrissey that documented Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd during the early 1970s.
“We were sitting about arguing about who was the best American playwright,” Wooster Group founder and artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte remembers, “and Tennessee Williams’ name obviously came up. Someone asked why we’d never done any of his work, and I said I couldn’t imagine how we’d do it. So I started reading his plays and watching films of his plays, and I still couldn’t find any way into it until our dramaturg suggested I read Vieux Carre.
“After I read it I thought it would be easy, because first of all, it was a big failure in America, although it was a success in London, which I could understand because there was a distance there. But I had to go towards where Tennessee was in the seventies to see where his head was at. Previously he’d never been comfortable about his homo-sexuality. He used a lot of metaphor, but was never explicit. But late in his career when he wrote Vieux Carre, it was late in his career, he wasn’t well, and he was on every kind of pill, and was attempting to try something new. I’m not sure it’s in the writing, but it left a lot of openings in the writing, unlike something like A Steetcar named Desire, where there’s nothing to be done because it’s a perfect play.”
The Sun Also Rises is the third in a trilogy of works by Elevator Repair Service that began with American novels from the 1920s. The first, Gatz, was an epic six hour reading of every word from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that was framed by an office worker finding a discarded copy which, as he read it, gradually subsumed the world around him into its fiction.
In contrast, The Sound and the Fury took only from the first chapter of William Faulkner’s novel of the same name that sees life through the eyes of a mute and mentally challenged boy who can’t distinguish between past and present. Elevator Repair Service have previously reimagined a lost screenplay written by Salvador Dali for the Marx Brothers in Marx Brothers in Horseback Salad, profiled the late comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman (who also performed The great Gatsby in its entirety) in Language Instruction: Love Family versus Andy Kaufman, and performed an ode to Mission Impossible in McGurk: A Cautionary Tale.
“We wanted to do a piece that focused on dialogue,” Elevator Repair Service director John Collins explains. “Hemingway’s dialogue had a lightness and wit, and there’s a whole lot buried beneath the surface. Doing this project of putting novels on the stage, we wanted to find the play inside the novel, and only use text that’s drawn directly from the page. This has been a lot of fun to do. In each project we’ve chosen a specific setting, and in The Sun Also Rises it’s a café, where by the end there ends up being bullfighting inside as the characters travel around Europe.”
Vieux Carre sounds like a typical deconstruction by the Wooster Group. The company have previously collaged works such as Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Brace Up!, Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and a segment of L.S.D. (…Just The High Points) inspired by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. On the company’s last Edinburgh visit, La Didone fused Cavalli’s seventeenth century opera with 1950s science-fiction B movies.
Where Hemingway’s first major novel charts the adventures of a group of American expatriates in post war Europe, Williams’ late piece throws open the doors on a New Orleans rooming house peopled by a cast of self-destructive decadents in more of an internal exile than Hemingway’s similarly troubled émigrés.
“Prose was something we hadn’t really taken on before,” Collins points out, “What was important about is that it didn’t feel like it was something being quoted from a long time ago, but could be said right at the moment it was onstage. We always start these projects from reading out loud, and that’s where the inspiration has to start.”
If The Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service sound like fellow travelers who’ve embarked on different routes, it should come as no surprise that Collins’ early theatrical adventures prior to forming Elevator Repair Service were with LeCompte’s company. Both outfits, however, have come home to roost with material that could be regarded as sacred cows.
“We come at the novels with respect,” Collins says, “but we also have to take a leap of faith and not do them in a boring way. But we also have to have an honest encounter with the book. What I learnt from The Wooster Group was the incredible courage they had in attempting to make something work. ”
LeCompte admits that her deconstructive approach isn’t always easy.
“Only experimentalists do that,’ she jokes. “It’s harder to go back and reinvent, because you have to do your own script. But we keep on doing it because I’m an idiot. In the best possible way, of course, but I’m still an idiot.”
The Sun Also Rises, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 14th-16th, 7.30pm, August 15th, 11am, August 17th, 2pm. Vieux Carre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 21st-24th, 7.30pm.
The Herald, August 10th 2010