A New Adventure for ‘Augie March’: A Chicago Stage
CHICAGO — When “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow’s groundbreaking 500-plus-page Chicago epic, was published in 1953, it shook up literature. For the first time, an American writer told a Jewish-American hero’s picaresque story of self-discovery in heightened language and street-smart argot. Zachary Leader, Bellow’s most recent biographer, calls it “the great American novel.”
Since then, the book has fallen somewhat out of fashion, as has Bellow. Today, “Augie March” is in print, like all of his novels, “but not taught much at university,” said Mr. Leader, the author of the two-volume “The Life of Saul Bellow.”
Now 49, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn didn’t read “Augie March” until after he graduated from college, when, at 23, he was drawn to its “vitality,” its “cascade of incidents” and its fecund slang.
Four years ago, he suggested adapting the novel to Charlie Newell, the artistic director of Court Theater, the University of Chicago’s resident company. “The language made me feel like it might be a good fit for the theater,” he said.
On May 18, Mr. Auburn’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” the first theatrical adaptation of that Bellow novel, will have a world premiere at the Court, with Mr. Newell directing. The city where a nine-year-old Saul Bellow arrived in 1924 with his family from Canada will have a chance to see on stage how its most famous writer imagined it.
Bellow’s portrayal of the Second City is as complex as the rest of his life and work. “Augie March,” said Mr. Leader, is the first novel “to believe that to understand Chicago is to understand America.”
The novelist briefly attended the University of Chicago, although he actually graduated from Northwestern University. He later taught at (and chaired) Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, the purest expression of the university’s Great Books program, for 31 years.
But he also once bragged that “not a single word” of “Augie March” was written in the city.
Chicago-born, Mr. Auburn graduated from the University of Chicago in 1991. “Proof,” his 1998 Pulitzer-winning play, is set there. In a phone interview, he described the “free” approach he took to adapting a freewheeling novel about making your own way.
That included cutting whole sections of the novel and conflating hundreds of pages to construct scenes. Adding his dialogue to chunks of Bellow’s tangled prose, he turned a first-person novel set in Chicago and Mexico into a play with 13 actors portraying 40 roles.
“I wanted the adaptation to be fully dramatized,” he said.
A few weeks ago, in a room on the second floor of a nondescript building in Hyde Park, two actors rehearsed the play’s prologue, which Mr. Auburn had lifted from the novel’s end “to give the story shape.”
Augie (Patrick Mulvey) sat on a wooden bench facing the mad scientist, Basteshaw (John Judd), one of many tyrannical figures he will encounter. The bench represented the lifeboat on which they are trapped after their ship was torpedoed.
Several pages into the prologue, after Basteshaw has conked Augie on the head to stop him from getting help, an ensemble of 12 actors swooped downstage, each brandishing a chair.
Boxing Augie into a corner, they chanted the novel’s famous first lines:
“I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
Mr. Newell watched, walking around, whispering in actors’ ears. Later, he explained that the swooping emerged from a workshop with two former dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the troupe founded by the innovative modern dancer who died in 2009. The workshop, which taught actors the basics of Bausch’s physicalized way of working with poetic text, was part of his project “to make the audience feel what it is like to read Bellow.”
Mr. Auburn’s script recycles one of the novel’s strangest and most evocative images — the eagle that Augie and his aristocratic lover, Thea, train to hunt iguanas — into a metaphoric throughline.
“The eagle activates the philosophical debates Augie is having with himself,” he explained.
In the production, the eagle will be rendered in puppet forms designed by the acclaimed local troupe Manual Cinema. Mr. Auburn also gave the eagle lines, which are spoken by the actor Marilyn Dodds Frank.
In 2019, can all this stage ingenuity revive a novel that many writers consider irrelevant to our moment?
Beginning in the 1980s, Bellow’s seeming endorsement of reactionary positions in the culture wars made him something of a pariah. “He’s lucky he did not live to see the #MeToo movement,” said James Atlas, who published the first major biography of Bellow in 2000.
Robert Pippin, who has been chair of the Committee on Social Thought since 1994, said Bellow is “regarded here as a quintessentially male writer who does not understand that things have changed.”
The writer Vivian Gornick offered a more complicated appraisal. “Of course he’s a misogynist,” she said, but argued that “Augie March” was an exception, with the characters of Augie and Thea truly equal.
Mr. Auburn said his adaptation, like the novel, celebrates the female characters, who are “strong, powerful, ferocious.”
His most surprising innovation is the treatment of the novel’s heroic immigrant and disabled characters: Padilla, the Mexican mathematician; Augie’s blind mother; his mentally challenged brother Georgie; and Einhorn, an early mentor, who is in a wheelchair.
Mr. Auburn has redistributed some of Bellow’s words to these characters, several of whom are semi-mute in the novel. “These are the moments where we leave strict reality,” he explained.
But in the last seconds of the play, Mr. Auburn is faithful to the novel’s famous ending. Augie speaks Bellow’s words directly to the audience for the first time: “Look at me, going everywhere!” he begins.
Here, Mr. Auburn said, after everything that has happened to him, we see “Augie’s sensibility being formed.”