Playwright David Auburn, AB’91, slouches on a couch in director Charles Newell’s office at Court Theatre, trying to decide if there’s a way to get a talking eagle on stage.
“I don’t know how to theatricalize it,” Newell says.
It’s July 2017, and the question of how to stage the unstageable is one Auburn and Newell have faced repeatedly since deciding more than a year ago to adapt Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. This month, the play opened at Court as the first theatrical adaptation of any work by Bellow, EX’39.
Auburn didn’t choose an easy way to start. The 1953 picaresque novel sprawls over years and countries; there are characters and episodes, but no traditional plot. What holds Augie March together is Bellow’s winding, allusive language. It’s one thing to read long descriptive passages on the page, but another to translate them into dialogue.
In a memorable sequence in the novel, Augie’s lover Thea decides to adopt an eagle, which they name Caligula, and train it to capture giant iguanas in Mexico. When Caligula flops as a hunter, Augie and Thea’s relationship falters too. The eagle scenes are important to Auburn—it’s “such a powerful and complex symbol in the book”—and he’s raised the stakes by adding a scene where the eagle (or at least, an abstracted, metaphorical version of the eagle) speaks to Augie. So, how exactly do you pull that off?
Auburn and Newell consider ideas. Could you do something that suggests an eagle, Newell muses, without actually showing it?
Auburn balks. “Don’t wimp out on the eagle, Charlie,” he teases.