Staging the unstageable: Alum gives Saul Bellow novel its theatrical debut

Playwright David Auburn, AB’91, returns to Court Theatre to debut Augie March

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.

The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright first read The Adventures of Augie March shortly after graduating from UChicago. The references to Hyde Park gave him a sense of kinship with the novel, and he found himself returning to it often. “It was one of those books I kept by my bedside,” he says.

In 2016, Auburn came back to UChicago to direct Long Day’s Journey into Night at Court and proposed the idea of an Augie March play to Newell, the theater’s Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director. Newell was enthusiastic and set to work acquiring the rights to the novel.

“I sort of thought, ‘Oh Christ, what have I done?’” Auburn recalls. The very things he loved about the novel—its capaciousness and meandering structure—made the task of adaptation feel impossible. Halfway through the first draft, he wasn’t sure he could finish the project.

Gradually, solutions emerged. Auburn knew early on that most actors in the production would play multiple characters, allowing him to populate the world of the play without hiring a Cats-sized company. And he gave himself permission to be idiosyncratic about which characters and episodes to keep and which to discard.

Auburn and Newell found a way to incorporate Bellow’s language when they realized they could treat it like song.

“When we do a musical successfully,” Newell explained in 2016, following a public reading of an early draft of the play, “a character gets to a place where they’re no longer speaking. They have to sing to express the emotion.” The script borrows several rhapsodic monologues from the novel, which serve the same role as songs, revealing things the characters can’t communicate or won’t admit to themselves.

Collaborating with Newell was one of the reasons Auburn wanted to produce Augie at Court. “I knew that I could approach this and there would be no rules, that I could say I want an eagle, and we’d have an eagle.”

By happy coincidence, as Auburn was refining his script in 2017, the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center opened its archive of Bellow’s personal papers. Bellow had donated portions of the collection over his 31 years on the UChicago faculty; the rest came after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2005.

For Court’s resident dramaturg Nora Titone, who got involved in the adaptation in its early stages, the archive was a dream. Her job was to delve into the world of the play and give the playwright, cast and production team historical and biographical information to inform their work. 

Studying Bellow’s papers offered Titone insight into his process and intent, and helped her see “how much Chicago, the city, is a force in the production.” That inspired her to then pore through the Studs Terkel Oral History Archive, feeling out the “kaleidoscope of accents” the actors would need to master.

A team of undergraduate research assistants helped Titone field the other dramaturgical inquiries she received: What was the experience of Russian Jewish immigrants in Chicago? What music would Augie have listened to?

Julia VanArsdale Miller stands in Court’s rehearsal space on Stony Island Avenue. She reaches into a shopping bag and produces a white wireframe puppet prototype. When she slips it on her hand, and adds a fluffy beaked head, it looks unmistakably like a bird.

Nearly two years after Auburn told Newell to “commit to the eagle,” the cast, production staff and various friends of Court Theatre have gathered for the play’s first rehearsal, which will include a full read-through of the script.

Before they begin, the set designer and costume designer give brief overviews of their preparations for the production. Then it’s time for Miller, a member of the Chicago-based collective Manual Cinema, to show off plans for the eagle—already lifelike, even in its unfinished state.

Best known for its intricate shadow puppet productions, Manual Cinema has a track record of “putting things on stage that shouldn’t be on stage,” says co-artistic director Drew Dir, AB’07. The collective has made the humble overhead projector a centerpiece of their work, using a combination of handmade shadow puppets and the silhouetted bodies of actors, to create performances that resemble both plays and animated films.

“The challenge is making the eagle look as powerful and as threatening as they can appear in real life,” Dir says. “If you take off all the feathers of an eagle, they’re dangerously close to looking like a chicken. It’s a really thin line between chicken and eagle.”

But three-dimensional puppetry, the group decided, wouldn’t work for the scenes of Caligula chasing iguanas. Instead, Manual Cinema leaned on a trademark of their usual work, using shadow puppets and actors to depict the scene in silhouette “as if we were filming a movie of it,” Dir explains.

As the reading unspools, Auburn’s glance moves between the actors and audience. His eyes light on Janis Freedman Bellow, AM’90, PhD’92, who, along with other members of the Bellow family, has come to watch. 

When the read-through is finished, and the rehearsal room empties out, Newell, Auburn and the cast pull tables and chairs into a circle and debrief. There is a lot still to do in the four weeks ahead: They haven’t finalized which actors will be playing which combinations of roles. The performers have to learn choreography and shadow puppetry. The eagle puppet needs feathers.

But as he has been from the beginning, Newell appears undaunted. They’ve made an evening of theater from a 600-page novel and eagles from wire and light. What’s one more impossible feat?

The Adventures of Augie March runs through June 9 at Court Theatre. An exhibition about the production, featuring materials from the Bellow archives, will be on display at the Special Collections Research Center through Aug. 30.

—Article originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine