article examines Ketti Frings’ play “Look Homeward, Angel” (1957) as a
re-interpretation of the novel Look
Homeward, Angel: A Story of the
Buried Life (1929), by the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, failed
playwright and adaptor. Frings seems to have focused on the notion of “buried
life,” central to Wolfe’s work, as she condensed the storyline, developed some
aspects, invented scenes, and changed some outcomes. Her work is a re-creation
that ultimately proves wrong the clichés on adaptation identified by Linda
Hutcheon, for it conveys some of the intimacy in point of view, the
interiority, time relations, and other “untranslatables” of the novel. The reception
of the play is examined; a critical and popular hit in 1957, it won the
Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a musical and two TV movies. The article
considers the (still widely produced) play as an introduction to Wolfe’s life
Cet article étudie l’adaptation
scénique de Ketti Frings du roman de Thomas Wolfe Look Homeward, Angel : A Story of the Buried Life (1929) en
tant que réinterprétation de l’œuvre du romancier américain, dramaturge raté
qui pratiquait l’adaptation. Dans “Look Homeward,
Angel” (1957), Frings semble avoir retenu la notion de “vie enfouie” pour concentrer la diégèse, développer
d’autres aspects, inventer des scènes et modifier des dénouements. Sa pièce est
une recréation qui dément les clichés sur l’adaptation identifiés par Linda
Hutcheon en ce qui concerne le point de vue, l’intériorité, le passage du
temps, et d’autres éléments “intraduisibles”.
L’article décrit la réception de la pièce en 1957 ; elle remporta le prix
Pulitzer et fut adaptée en comédie musicale et deux films pour la télévision.
La pièce, souvent produite aujourd’hui, peut être envisagée en tant
qu’introduction à la vie et l’œuvre de Wolfe.
The American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was a
failed playwright when he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, subtitled A
Story of the Buried Life, in 1929. Ketti Frings (1909-1981), born Katherine Hartley, was a
journalist and writer who had had a play on
Broadway. Her work had been adapted for the screen, and, as a screenwriter, she had adapted novels such as Jane Eyre (1943) and plays such as William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba (1952). In this article, I look at what instances of
adaptation in Wolfe’s novel become in Ketti Frings’ 1957 play “Look Homeward, Angel.” It will appear that the “buried life” was a key concept for both novelist and playwright, though they used different techniques to make it perceptible. I examine how Frings’ changes give a concentrated
impression of “buried life,” and how her “comedy drama” proves wrong the four main clichés on telling versus showing identified
by Linda Hutcheon in A
Theory of Adaptation, in order to better appreciate its merits as “a (re)interpretation and (re)creation,” to quote
Hutcheon’s definition of an adaptation. Finally, I give an account of the
reception of the play.
Wolfean Adaptation: Scope
Frings was dealing with an author who was an adaptor, and had been adapted. Wolfe had
studied playwriting at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard. He
never had a play produced off campus as he found it difficult to keep to the
necessary condensation of drama—he explained that “Welcome to Our City,” for
example, with 32 named characters, did not deal with any specific problem because
it was meant to reflect “a certain civilization, a certain society. I am
content with nothing but the whole picture.” He intended one day “to write a
play with fifty, eighty, a hundred people—a whole town, a whole race, a whole
epoch” (Nowell qtd. in Donald 98). Instead, he adapted some playwriting
techniques to his novel on his home town, in which he reworked true incidents,
interspersing dialogue with stage directions, but commenting upon the action at
leisure, too. As the groom Hugh Barton’s mother is “taken with a violent, a
retching sickness” during the Gants’ daughter Helen’s honeymoon, for example, Helen
is shown taking over the sick woman’s care against her will, much as she tends
to Eliza’s boarders against her will in the play:
Hel-en!” Mrs. Barton’s voice came feebly in to them.
“O gotohell!” said the girl, sotto-voce. “Urr-p!
Urr-p!” She burst suddenly into tears: “Is it going to be like this always! I
sometimes believe the judgment of God is against us all. Papa was right.”
“Pshaw!” said Eliza, wetting her fingers, and
threading a needle before the light. “I’d go on and pay no more attention to
her. There’s nothing wrong with her. It’s all imagination!” It was Eliza’s
rooted conviction that most human ills, except her own, were “all imagination.”
“All right! I’m coming!” the girl cried cheerfully,
turning an angry grin on Eliza as she went. It was funny. It was ugly. It was
terrible. (LHA 386-87)
And Wolfe readapted the novel into other forms. He was always to adapt fact into his fiction,
always to take excerpts from the novels he was working on to market as short
stories, first on the advice of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and later with the
help of his agent, Elizabeth Nowell. His first short story, “An Angel on the
Porch,” taken from the novel, was published before it.
The “Look Homeward” title lifted from Milton’s
“Lycidas” suited this adaptation of stories of Wolfe’s family and neighbors in the South of the USA. The subtitle, A Story of The Buried Life, has many meanings. Wolfe was inspired by Freudian theories on the importance of the formative years to write about his alter
ego, the sensitive Eugene Gant, growing up in Altamont. Moreover, the phrase was an adaptation of the notion expressed in Matthew
Arnold’s poem, “The Buried
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course…
(“The Buried Life” 46-50)
This secret life is the consciousness
Wolfe’s characters repress in their everyday business, while questioning in
their hearts the course of their existence and the human condition in general. The characters’
lives are also buried in the small town, encompassed by hills, and though many
of the characters have dreams, as Janet Savage Blachford has pointed out, only
Eugene will “spend [his] fire and restless force” positively.
early as the liminal prose poem, Wolfe introduces the idea that man on earth
“remembers speechlessly” a happier preexistence, after which life on earth is a
“prison,” and references to the Golden Age recur throughout the book and give
it a mythical dimension typical of modernism. The characters have an epic
greatness, from the father, W.O. Gant, who is a “Hammer hurling Thor” (286) and
the mother, Eliza, who is Avarice personified, to the older brother, Ben, who
walks the earth “like Apollo […], trying to recapture the music of the lost
world” (557), on a quest similar to Eugene’s.
The novel Look Homeward, Angel is “organic” rather
than synthetic in form; it has over 200 named characters and most editions run over 600 pages. It is famous for its
Whitmanesque catalogues seeking to render the sum total of Eugene’s “multiplex”
sensory experiences (84), and passages of lyrical prose built up in incremental
repetition, inspired by the Romantic poets, as in the passage where Eugene visits
Ben’s grave, with its variations on “the leaves were quaking […] Wind pressed
the boughs; the withered leaves were shaking” and Wolfe’s “ghost, come back
again” motif (578, 581-83). After Wolfe’s death, some passages from his work
were published as separate stanzas or, with line breaks, as free verse—in The
Face of a Nation (1939)and
A Stone, a Leaf, a Door (1945).
Frings’ Adaptation: Concentration
Although Frings was no Wolfe
scholar when she began work on the play for producer Kermit
Bloomgarten in the spring of 1957, she brought
to the task of reinterpreting Look
Homeward, Angel for the stage both a talent for concentration and
sensitivity to the Wolfean spirit, as she makes the buried life apparent.
Frings had to reduce the scale of the work and the epic
nature of the characters; she cut the subtitle and references to preexistence that suggest an alternative to life as
a prison, but the characters are concerned with escape—from family ties, and especially from a
manipulating mother, as well as escape from the small town and sordid boarding
house. She confided in an interview that she re-read the novel several times, but “didn’t
read anything else about Wolfe or by Wolfe that might confuse [her]” (Dedmond 44). Visiting Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house, she came away with a feeling for Wolfe’s
intense loneliness, which she strove to keep as a central impression, the
“buried life” of a play that hinges on, Frings stated, the moment in which the
character loses his “blind spot”. Eugene, who has always suffered from a sense
of loneliness, abandoned by his girl and having lost a beloved brother,
realizes that he must stand alone, no longer tied to his brawling family. To
guide her in limiting the action, Francis Dedmond relates,
looked for what she called “the point of not-blindness.” “In a play,” she said,
“the protagonist should have a blind spot about something. When that blind spot
is removed for him, the play is over.” Eugene’s blind spot, she argued, was “the
feeling that he must accept the embraces of his family and be bound by ties of
family love.” The moment of not-blindness she found in Eugene’s conversation
with Ben’s ghost at the end of the novel. “Where, Ben? Where is the world?”
Eugene asked. “Nowhere,” Ben said. “You are your world.” Once she found that
moment, Mrs. Frings was able to condense the play into a three-week period
surrounding Ben’s death. (“Problems” 44-45)
To add to the impression of
confinement, Frings restricted the action to Eliza Gant’s Dixieland boarding
house and W.O. Gant’s marble shop. Jo Mielziner, who had recently done the
stage design for “Death of a Salesman,” arranged a set of a house around which
everything was concentrated. It enabled the scenes to flow into one another
without stopping. In a step away from literalism, the upstairs scenes were
situated downstairs, the shift from the lower level to the bedrooms being made
by a revolving stage built inside the living room. The set made simultaneous
scenes possible: thus Ben could be seen dying while his mother wrung her hands
in the kitchen. The entire house moved forwards and backwards, so that scenes
could be played in front of it as well. Mielziner used projections to reinforce
the desired atmosphere (“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel’”). What is more, Frings
restricted the number of characters to only one of Gant’s cronies, the doctor
and the town madam besides the family and the boarders. As in the novel, where
all of the characters have a buried life, Frings makes it clear, although she simplifies
their longings, that they all want to escape in one way or another: brother Ben
to the war in Europe, sister Mabel to stop waiting on boarders, her husband
Hugh Barton to a house of his own and a better job, old man Gant to leave his
wife Eliza and travel, Eliza to a fine property, the young boarder Laura from
her fiancé, Eugene with Laura to end solitude, and, when she leaves him, to
university. Again, only Eugene will prevail. As Frings has W.O. Gant prophesy,
“You’re going to bust loose, boy—you’re going to bust loose, all over this
dreary planet!” (89)
The Playwright’s Hand: Adding for the Gist
adapts Wolfe’s work into various sub-plots that highlight inner experience and
the buried life. She insisted on the strong tie between Eugene and Ben from the
beginning, opening on a prose poem that Eugene is writing about his mysterious
older brother, which she adapted from the novel—“His face is like a blade, and
a knife, and a flicker of light…” (“LHA” 6, LHA
165). She developed the character of Ben so that his loss takes on its full
significance, and when only his voice remains, declaring the famous inner-life
affirming “You are your world,”
Eugene understands that he must live alone (91). Inner life is made clear as
she develops the love affair between Eugene and Laura James, making motives
apparent. Eugene is ready to forfeit college for marriage and an end to
solitude: “You are my world, Laura. You always will be. Don’t let anything
destroy us. Don’t leave me alone. I’ve always been alone” (53). And Laura
explains why she leaves Eugene: “The thought of marriage frightened me. I told
my fiancé I needed time to think it over. I fell in love with Eugene […] He
needs the whole world to wander in—and I know now that I need a home” (81).
Frings made Eugene’s going to the University at Chapel Hill depend on Gant
selling his shop, then made Eliza refuse to let that sale go through for fear
that they would both leave her, and finally made her the means of Eugene’s
going as she decides to sell some of her own precious property to save her baby
from Laura’s clutches. In these episodes, Frings shows the undercurrents of
feeling in the characters. She modified the most famous episode: the angel
statue in Gant’s shop is not sold to his friend the madam, as in the short
story and novel, but reserved for his own grave, suggesting that long-buried
ideals still guide the characters: “… as I looked at [this angel’s] smiling
face, I felt, more than anything in the world, I wanted to carve delicately
with a chisel. It was as though, if I could do that, I could bring something of
me out onto a piece of marble” (51). She changed the behavior of the
characters, making Tarkinton, Gant’s neighbor but no friend in the novel, his
associate in alcoholic excess, and presenting the town madam as less
distinguished than in the book, were she was so regal as to be called Queen
Elizabeth: in the play, both sing bawdy songs with Gant. And Frings created new
scenes from existing ones, transforming Eugene’s vain attempts to bring down
the house when Laura leaves in the novel into a rampage as Eliza and a gleeful
Gant start to tear down the boarding house when Eugene is about to leave,
giving free rein to their hatred of it.
last scene, in particular, is “good theater,” Frings does not indulge in
overdramatic “showing.” In an opening night review, Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, praised the play and the
performances whose “varied tempos” had the “mark of truth.” Looking at some of
the variations within the play proves wrong the four clichés Linda Hutcheon
lists regarding adaptation, and telling versus showing. In what follows, I do
not take the terms “telling” to mean narrative prose, or description, and
“showing” to mean all dramatic devices, including dialogue, as is sometimes the
case. I follow Hutcheon’s practice of considering that the use of language is
“telling” and visual or other effects are “showing.”
Intimacy and Distance in Point of View
cliché, according to Hutcheon, is: “Only the telling mode (especially prose
fiction) has the flexibility to render both intimacy and distance in point of
view” (52). In Wolfe’s novel, the point of view alternates between third person
omniscient, with some passages reading like account books (194-97), and
episodes of stream of consciousness, for both of the parents and Eugene. At the
end, the reader understands that the ironic or lyrical narrative voice is that
of the adult Eugene, looking back on his youth.
Jahn writes, focalization and narration have a place in drama, whether printed
text or performance, at the level of the stage directions and arrangement of
scenes, and of the character who seems to be presenting the play (9). Frings’ decision
to have Eugene writing alone at the start, and Eugene alone on stage again at
the end seems to make him the central consciousness of the play, as in the
book, though he is not its explicit narrator. Frings also conveys the intimate
thoughts of the other characters, like Gant’s “Why here?” of the novel (“And
like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows
of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!” )
that is transformed into the following lines in the play: “Why am I here, now
at the rag end of my life? … But why here? Why here?” (39). Yet she does not
seek to be sociologically realistic with scenes of account-book factuality, but
rather keeps the audience conscious of the characters’ buried inner life. And
drama permits revelation in ways that print does not: whether the characters
are dispassionate or revealing, intimate thoughts can be perfectly conveyed by
showing, as stance, gestures, tone, volume, mimics are all signs that contribute
to what Patrice Pavis calls the vectorization of meaning in a performance. He
feels, like Eugene Barba, that spectators are “capable of following or accompanying the
actor in the dance of ‘thought-in-action,’” of perceiving “the body of the performers
and the performance as an auto-biography in the strict sense of the term, i.e.
as a writing of the actor’s body as much as the spectator’s, a writing which
inscribes itself in the scene” (Pavis 221).
Interiority and Exteriority
cliché Hutcheon identifies is, “Interiority is the terrain of the telling mode;
exteriority is best handled by showing” (58). Exteriority can certainly be
vectorized on stage through scenery, props, costumes, make-up, lighting and
sound effects, and Mielziner’s set and projections were especially effective in
creating immediate understanding of the situation at Dixieland: “[The house]
has a rambling, unplanned gabular appearance, and is painted a dirty yellow.
Most of its furniture is badly worn and out of style. […] The street itself has
a feeling of great trees hanging over it” (5). But both interiority and
exteriority can be rendered by what Pavis terms the dance, or alternatively,
the energy, of performance:
gazes, restrained rather than manifest gestures are so many fleeting moments
where meaning is suggested, but difficult to read and scarcely externalised.
[…] The rather unscientific and unsemiological term, energy, can be useful in
an attempt to determine what this non-representable phenomenon is: by his
presence, movement, and phrasing, the actor or dancer releases an energy which
directly reaches the spectator. Such a quality makes all the difference and
contributes to the whole aesthetic experience as well as the development of
meaning. (Pavis 221-22)
This energy is
also conveyed in the way the actors occupy the space inside and outside the
house. At the start of the play, for example, Eugene remains onstage in his
bedroom composing his poem to Ben as the action centers on the boarders
outside, and his posture and gestures reveal his outsider’s status and his
feelings about his family just as Eliza’s beliefs about him will be obvious as
soon as she calls “Eugene, are up in your room? Eugene?” (10): “He hasn’t
anything else to do. Spending his time up there scribbling, dreaming” (11).
Thoughts can be shown in other ways. Jahn writes of “characters
fulfilling the role of internal focalizers” in “memory plays and dream plays”
(9). Frings had originally planned a flashback in which Eugene watched a naked
black woman from Stumptown (Niggerland in the novel) dance and lure him into
the jelly roll, or sex act; but she cut that mental scene because it was “too
strong.” It would seem that in the end, Frings resorted to telling onstage to
convey interiority in her play. Ben evokes the Stumptown delivery boy scene
that was Eugene’s in the novel: “I used to deliver papers there. Sometimes
those negra women don’t have the money to pay their bill, so they pay you in
jelly roll” (32). Frings also reworked the following passage by Wolfe on Eugene
as a baby:
He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no
one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our
mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her
arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape
it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart
may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never. (LHA 38)
are given as lines to Ben, which makes him a more insightful and articulate
character: of his parents, Ben concludes, “No one really comes to know anyone.
[…] No matter what arms may clasp us, what heart may warm us, what mouth may
kiss us, we remain strangers. We never escape it. Never, never, never” (65).
Frings invented scenes to reveal Eugene’s longing for escape from his boarding
house and small town existence and his passionate inner life—Laura tells of
seeing him throw the Dixieland advertising cards in the gutter and stare at the
train at the station; Eugene pumps her with questions about the city of
Richmond, and he tells her that when he touches the locomotive the rails send
“a message of all the mountains that engine ever passed—all the flowing rivers,
the forests, the towns, all the houses, the people, the washlines flapping in
the fresh cool breeze… a whole life, a whole country clicking through your
hand” (35-36). Thus Frings lets the audience know how the characters’ thoughts
resonate with, or range beyond, the confinement symbolized by Dixieland.
Yet the playwright in Wolfe came through in his “showing” of mannerisms
and characteristic phrases, like Ben’s looking heavenward to say “Listen to
that,” Eliza’s “Pshaw”s and constant defense of her coffee, or Gant’s “Merciful
God”s. And Frings shows us something of Ben’s interiority in his derisive “Listen
to that…,” or of Eliza’s, in her defensive “That’s good coffee.” Frings also
conveys interiority by showing: when Eliza finally desists from tearing down
the house, the different personalities of the avaricious and profligate parents
“ELIZA. Helen, go get the boarders, tell them he’s been drinking, tell
them anything, but get them back! […] Hugh, help me clean up this mess.
GANT. Let them go, Miss Eliza. Let
the boarders go!”(88)
Relations among Past, Present and Future
The third cliché Hutcheon lists is, “The showing and interacting modes
have only one tense: the present; the mode of telling alone can show relations
among past, present, and future” (63).
As mentioned earlier, Frings dropped the one visual flashback, about the
Stumptown jelly roll, so that exposition about the past is spoken, and often blends
with telling about interiority. We are told, for instance, about Eliza buying
Dixieland, “selling the house that Papa built with his own hands and moving us
into this drafty barn where we share our roof, or food, our pleasures, our
privacy so that you can be Queen Bee” (42), told about the sinister happenings
at Dixieland over the years (72), and about her “hang[ing] on to [Eugene] like
a piece of property].” Told too, is time’s elapsing, noted on the program and
voiced by the characters “You’ve been so strange all this last week,” (48) says
Eliza to Eugene, or “It’s five minutes to dinnertime at Dixieland,” she says
(58). Moreover, all of the characters evoke future plans. Their coming to
naught suits the buried life theme.
But onstage, the lighting and projections give an idea of time’s
passing, and the actors’ demeanor and tone can show when they are reminiscing
about the past. And they can foreshadow the future, as when Laura’s changed
attitude is perceptible as she enters Gant’s shop with the picnic basket in Act
II, Scene 1. Particularly noteworthy is the final expressionistic tableau of
the play, a synthesis of past, present and future made apparent through the
vectorization of sound, lighting, moveable set, of the actor’s energy, and of stage
props and theatrical and fictional codes (the curtain signals the end, the
convention of closure suggests that the final image foretells the future).
Eugene is about to leave for university, having lost Ben to death and Laura to
a rival. If the stage directions are followed, the final scene presents the
future as “The TRAIN WHISTLE sounds;”
it recalls the past—and also introduces it into the future, suggesting that
Eugene will always carry it around with him: “LIGHTS reveal Dixieland in dim silhouette;” and it shows Eugene’s present
resolution as he faces the future squarely: “EUGENE, without looking back, exits. CURTAIN” (92).
Hutcheon reformulates a fourth cliché: “Only telling (in language) can
do justice to such elements as ambiguity, irony, symbols, metaphors, silences,
and absences; these remain “untranslatable” in the showing (…) mode” (68). Much
is told in speech that would otherwise remain untranslatable, but a great deal
is made more poignant through being shown.
The ambiguity and ambivalence about all the characters in Wolfe’s book
is stressed. Though Eliza is more directly responsible for the woes of the
dysfunctional family in the play, there is the ambiguity of Gant’s wanting
freedom for his son, but constantly tormenting his wife, and of Eugene’s
enduring love for his family. Ambiguous, too, is Eliza’s tearing down the
house, then refraining. These perplexing evidences suggest the depth of their
Much of the irony in the book is turned into humor. Wolfe writes: “But
Eliza was not content with [Gant’s stonecutting] trade: there was no money in
death. People, she thought, died too slowly. […] So she persuaded Gant to go
into partnership with Will Pentland” (17). In the play the passage becomes
black humor as Eliza complains about Gant’s tombstone cutting: “in this day and
age people die too slowly” (47). At other times, Frings creates burlesque scenes:
Gant cries “So you don’t like my wife’s coffee!” while chasing the boarders,
and Eliza, destroying the house, automatically replies “Why, law, that’s good
coffee!” (88). But Frings introduces dramatic irony in many scenes, as when the
audience knows that Gant is watching Eugene secretly fondle the angel in his
shop in Act II, Scene 1, or knows that Laura has left Eugene as he trundles to
her door with his suitcase in Act III. And there is irony in the denouement of
Frings’ plot: the penny-pinching Eliza sells her property at the last minute
hoping to prevent Eugene’s marriage by sending him to university; she doesn’t
know that Laura is leaving and the expenditure is unnecessary (82). Moreover, Eugene
ends up going to university as he had wanted to at first, instead of marrying
and getting a job with his uncle. The tangled course of events parallels the
Gants’ tumultuous inner lives.
Frings established symbols, the boarding house and the train standing
for captivity and escape, superimposing the two at the end to show Eugene at
the crossroads. She kept the symbol of the angel as Gant’s ideal, while the
“melt[ing] with ruth” Milton’s angel evokes is all the easier for the viewer as
Frings shows something of the inner workings of all the characters—that they all
had an ideal of sorts.
In contrast, Frings invented the spoken metaphor of being fixed in a
photograph for the Gants’ unsatisfactory cohabitation, perhaps reworking
Wolfe’s references to photographs in other contexts, notably at the end of
Chapter 19 of the novel, or “An Angel on the Porch,” where “life was held […]
in photographic abeyance” as Gant’s psychic state is compared to three
different men viewing old photos (LHA
269). Frings has Ben use the image twice; his dying words are “It’s one way—to step
out of—the photograph…” (“LHA” 74).
Frings inserts dashes in the dialogue and specifies pauses in her stage
directions, and a director can effectively place longer silences in several
scenes, for example, when Eugene prays for the deceased Ben on the porch while
Laura watches unseen—the silences in between the bursts of prayer and Laura’s
silence links them in a caring and sorrowful vigil contrasting with the family
quarrels shown earlier.
Finally, telling is thought to render absences best. But Ben’s refusal
to have his mother by his deathbed is made evident as Mrs. Pert replaces Helen
and Eliza in the bedroom shown on stage, while they are seen waiting down
below. Laura’s absence is shown by Eliza taking in her place in the room, by
the letter Eugene reads as he hears the train’s whistle, indicating her
departure. And Ben’s absence rings out in his disembodied voice in the darkness
(his ghost was flesh in the novel). Eugene’s break with his family is driven
home as he delivers his line (taken from the novel) after the argument with
Eliza about the boarding house—and physically departs from view:
EUGENE. […] And now, at last I am free from all of
you. And I shall get me some order out of this chaos. I shall find my way out
of it yet, though it takes me twenty years more—alone. (Starts for door.)
ELIZA. Gene! Gene, you’re not leaving?
EUGENE. Ah, you were not looking, were you? I’ve
already gone. (EUGENE exits) (“LHA” 85)
But as stated
earlier, through vectorization, showing can convey both the lessening and
continuance of the familial influence and the weight of inherited loneliness that
Dixieland symbolizes, seen in the distance as the curtain falls—an
untranslatable element, at least one that is not explicitly formulated in the
The Spirit of the Play
Similarly, Frings identified cuts in her adaptation that nevertheless
had a lasting quality. Orientating playwright and cast, they were the buried
life of the play; notably, the absent Wolfe fertilized her production. Of the
discarded scenes, she wrote, in an article entitled “O Lost!”, “in their brief
existence, each gave of its essence, and so deeply enriched all our
experiences” (91). She had conjured Wolfe in her original prologue, realizing
“I needed him—his image—close by” (91). Yet Frings increasingly felt the play
to be her own creation, too. “After a while, as the play grew, I began to have
confidence in its own life […]. I gently crumpled the pages of the prologue”
(91). Still, her ghost of Wolfe walks
through the play, giving Doctor Maguire his lines on the brevity of life: “We
can’t turn back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our
bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three cents’
worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back” (Wolfe LHA 553, Frings “LHA” 75). Frings’ play, like Wolfe’s novel,
highlights the transience of life and the aptness of following the buried
consciousness that is within us. “I shall get me some order out of this chaos
[…], though it takes me twenty years more—alone” Eugene resolves, though his family bury their
The Reception of Frings’ “Look Homeward, Angel”
Frings’ achievement has been recognized and her
adaptation is still unsurpassed. In November 1957 the
play, with Anthony Perkins as Eugene, was produced in Philadelphia for a trial
run, and then in New York, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. There it ran for 564 performances (Dedmond 56). On opening night in New York, Wolfe’s
surviving family members, on whom characters in the novel and play had been
based, attended the performance. His sister Mabel (Helen) said, “I went in fear
of what I might see or that the audience might titter,” but she found that the
spellbound audience reacted with sympathetic silence, applause, and cheers
(“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel”). The magazine Theatre Arts of February, 1958 states that “There was nothing but
praise from the seven New York newspaper reviewers” on the Broadway opening,
citing figures such as John McClain of the Journal-American:
“One of the best evenings I’ve ever had in the theatre” (19). In her touching
recollection of the original play, Clara Stites, the daughter of Wolfe’s agent Nowell,
writes about the fine choice of a lead actor: “[S]he [fell] in love instantly
and forever with Anthony Perkins, his lonely tragic being, his yearnings and
ineptness, the way his neck [rose] out of his sweater thin and unprotected. He
perfect, so sad, so desirous of love…” (100). Some reviews of the production found fault with the quantity of telling
material, insisting on the quality of the showing aspects that made up for it:
You will hear, now and then echoes of the effortful
rhetoric that has disturbed even Thomas Wolfe’s most ardent admirers […]; there
is pretentiousness here and there when one or another Gant stops wrangling long
enough to venture on philosophy. But the essential, genuinely exciting
theatricality of Miss Frings’ play swallows these small burdens whole. (Kerr)
[T]he text occasionally goes wrong, partly because of
the necessity for turning whole paragraphs of description into dialogue […];
partly because a certain amount of original, bridging material had to be
supplied, a nearly impossible task in dealing with a novelist who was inimitable
(at least this side of parody) in his idiom; and partly […] because Miss Frings
[…] was unable to tamper with passages that her intelligence must have informed
her were ‘literary,’ to put it mildly. But [it is] a fine, moving, and
generally eloquent play. […] The play is focused on Eugene and his parents, and
they are magnificent. The performances in these three leading roles are really
brilliant. (The New Yorker)
Many critics, however, expressed relief that Wolfe’s lyricism was so
unobtrusive in the play. John Gassner’s 1958 article lauding the playwright’s
choices is typical:
The effect is nothing short of superbly realized
personal drama made both stirring and meaningful by the obsessiveness and
complexity of human beings. […] But we can permit ourselves the reflection that
the dramatization would probably have been a fulsome failure if an attempt had
been made to turn the lyricism of Wolfe’s large novel into a lyricism of the
stage. A simple, occasionally semi-naturalistic, treatment was the best choice.
In the Broadway program, Wolfe’s Harper
editor Edward Aswell called it a “final consummation” of Wolfe’s failed hopes
to write plays (Doll and Stites 228). Frings’ play received the Drama Critics’
Circle Award for best American play of the season and the 1957-58 Pulitzer
Prize, one of the Pulitzer jurors pointing out that Frings had helped Wolfe do
what he “could not do for himself” (Fischer and Fischer 256). And indeed, some
eight months after the play opened on Broadway, Wolfe’s editor wrote,
There is a
great revival of interest in Wolfe, both here and abroad. The dramatization of Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings,
which […] has been running to capacity audiences […] is largely responsible for
all this. A whole rash of articles about Wolfe has been appearing in magazines.
The text of the play has been published in this country by Scribners and has
gone into a second printing. It is going to be published in England by
Heinemann, and in Germany by Rowohlt, and in Italy in a magazine called Sipario devoted to the best current
works in the theater. Arrangements have been concluded to produce the play
abroad, in England, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Israel. (Aswell to
Flaccus, 18 June 1958)
Frings’ play has continued to give many audiences a taste of and for
Wolfe. In addition to the compelling nature of the family drama itself, theater
programs often provide information allowing the audience to link it to Wolfe’s
novel and life. The play was adapted for TV dramatizations in Germany in 1961
and in the United States in 1972. Although, like her characters,
Frings had to bury some hopes (she never adapted other works by Wolfe as she
had wanted to (Dedmond 51), and the 1978 musical, “Angel,” only played 5
performances), her adaptation is still widely performed today. Yet a few words
of warning are sometimes offered as audiences change. Steven Stanley, in his
review of a North Hollywood “Intimate Theatre Company”’s production in November
2013, mentioned its slowness and involved plot, and concluded: “Look Homeward,
Angel is precisely the kind of play folks are referring to when they say, ‘They
don’t write’em like that anymore.’ Yes, shorter might indeed be more in tune
with contemporary tastes. Still, there’s no denying the many pleasures of this
lengthy but ultimately quite rewarding mid-20th Century gem.”
The play, which concerns a family and a teenager, is today a favorite with
community theaters and schools. In 2017, for instance, it was put on by the
StageCenter Community Theatre in Bryan, Texas, and by the Maine Coast Waldorf High School graduating class. The
Texas community theatre’s director let the local paper know that “Children will not relate to the play’s humor and romance the way teens and
adults will. People of all ages should know there is brief strong language and
alcohol abuse.” And the Maine high school site stated: “Because of the mature themes, sometimes raw language
and occasional violent outbursts, parents might find the play’s general
intensity inappropriate for children under 12.”
Some productions, like a December 2014 Southern Methodist University
production, practice color-blind casting. Here the critic’s warning is literary
and biographical in nature:
family, except for Helen and her husband, Hugh Barton, were played by black
students. The other key players were white. Because the roles were so well
played, one soon forgot that this casting was inimical to the novel where
blatant racism, though authentic, is disquieting to the sensibilities of today.
Audience members unfamiliar with the novel and its autobiographical
underpinnings would have come away with false ideas about Wolfe’s family and
his attitudes, a good reason for being well read. (Casper 118)
But the play, providing meaning
on its own terms, can still spark curiosity about Wolfe’s life and work. While
Michael Grandage’s 2016 film on the relationship between Wolfe and his editor
Maxwell Perkins, Genius, has also led
to greater interest in the writer, Frings’ adaptation, covering the earlier
years, gives many different types of audiences a sense of intimacy with the
young artist to be.
As a conclusion, in “Look Homeward, Angel,” Frings
uses the showing and the telling mode to render the buried life on stage.
Though the wordiness of the play has sometimes been criticized, Frings made
enormous cuts, and her great talent was adapting Wolfe’s lyricism by putting it
to dramatic use. Wolfe’s own dramatic talent, and the “eponymous” nature of his
work, whose subject is not just the single man but potentially humankind (see Radavitch
18), bear out Sam Smiley’s belief that drama “inherently moves toward lyric
expression. The greatest characters express their dramatic insights and react
to their conflicts in poetry; thus, most of the greatest dramas feature great
poetic diction” (qtd. in Radavich 16). Including passages of Wolfe’s poetic
diction, but synthesizing conflicts and creating her own images to clarify
them, Frings selects from and in places amplifies on Wolfe’s range, making her
own version of buried life. Performed by gifted actors, it represents not just
the Gants’ lot but the plight of all who suffer from a lack of understanding
and from obstacles to self-realization—and thus Frings conveys Wolfe’s
“essence” (Doll and Stites 228) and fulfills the promise of her own medium,
creating community by telling and showing isolation.
Arnold, Matthew. “The Buried Life.” Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems.
London: B. Fellowes, 1852. U of Toronto site. Web. 14/06/16.
Aswell, Edward. Letter to Kimball Flaccus 18 June
1958. Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections,
Washington D.C. Print.
Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theatre: ‘Look Homeward,
Angel.’” New York Times 29 Nov. 1957,
Flaccus-Wolfe Archive, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington
Blachford, Janet Savage. “Studies in the Novels of
Thomas Wolfe.” MA thesis. Department of English, McGill U, Montreal. April,
1963. mcgill.ca. Web. 5/04/16.
Casper, Vivian. “Reviews: Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings.” Thomas Wolfe Review 38.1-2 (2014):115-21. Print.
Dedmond, Francis B. “Problems of Putting Look Homeward, Angel
on the Stage.”Thomas
Wolfe Review 10.1 (Spring 1986): 44-57. Print.
Doll, Mary Aswell and Clara Stites, eds. In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe.
Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958. Athens,
Ohio: Ohio UP, 1988. Print.
Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. (Boston: Little, 1987)
London: Bloomsbury, 1987. Print.
Fischer, Heinz-D. and Erika J. Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: Discussions, Decisions and
Documents. München: K.G. Saur, 2008. Print.
Frings, Ketti. “Look
Homeward, Angel. A Comedy Drama in Three Acts. Based on the Novel by Thomas
Wolfe.” New York: Samuel French, 1986. Print.
— “O Lost! At Midnight.” Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 30-31, 91. Print.
Gassner, John. “Broadway in Review.” Educational Theatre Journal 10.1 (Mar.
1958): 41-51. Print.
Genius. Directed by Michael Grandage, performed by Colin
Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, 2016. Film.
Hutcheon, Linda. A
Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
“Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama.” New
Literary History 32 (2001): 659-79. Koln U site. Web. 8/04/16.
“Look Homeward, Angel.” New York Herald
29 Nov. 1957, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections,
Washington D.C. Print.
“Look Homeward, Angel.” Bryan Eagle.
StageCenter Community Theatre site. 2/04/17. Web. 10/06/17.
“Look Homeward, Angel.” Unsigned Review. Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 18-19.
Milton, John. Lycidas.
The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.
Ed. Arthur Quiller Couch. 1919. bartleby.com. Web. 14/06/2016.
New Yorker Review 7 Dec. 1957 (segments only). Flaccus-Wolfe
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Pavis, Patrice. “The State of Current Theatre
Research.” Applied Semiotics/Semiotique Appliquée 1:3 (1997): 203-30. U of Toronto site. Web. 7/08/18.
Radavich, David. “Genre Intersections in Thomas
Wolfe’s ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You.’” Thomas
Wolfe Review 40.1-2 (2016): 7-22. Print.
Sloane, David. “MCWS Seniors to Perform ‘Look Homeward,
Angel.’” Maine Coast Waldorf High School site. 23/05/17. Web. 10/06/2017.
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The Structure of Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Print.
Stanley, Steven. “Look Homeward, Angel.” Stage Scene LA site. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 10/06/2017.
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Lucy Conniff. Thomas Wolfe Society, 2017. Print.
“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel.” Unreferenced
review, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special
Collections, Washington D.C. Print.
“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel.’” Unreferenced review,
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Washington D.C. Print.
Wolfe, Thomas. “An Angel on the Porch.” Scribner’s Magazine 82.2 (August 1929):
—. The Face of a
Nation: Poetical Passages from the Writings of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. John Hall Wheelock. New York: Scribner, 1939.
—. The Letters
of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner, 1956. Print.
—. Look Homeward,
Angel. New York: Scribner, 1929. Print.
—. A Stone, a Leaf, a
Door: Poems by Thomas Wolfe (selected and arranged in verse). Ed. John S. Barnes. New York: Scribner, 1945. Print.
—. Welcome to
Our City. A Play in Ten Scenes. Ed.
Richard Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. Print.
Amélie Moisy is an associate professor
(maître de conferences) in applied languages at the Université Paris Est
Créteil. She is a member of the TIES/IMAGER research group there and of the
Thomas Wolfe Society, USA. She has written a doctoral thesis, a book (Thomas Wolfe: L’épopée intime) and many
articles on Thomas Wolfe. She has published work on other American writers, and
her focus in research has broadened from Southern authors of Wolfe’s era to
contemporary Southern writers.