N°2 | “Look Homeward, Angel”: Re-Interpreting “the buried life” for the Stage
This 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 and work.
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! Oh 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. (LHA386-87)
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 Life”:
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.
Finally, as 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,
Mrs. Frings 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
Frings 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.
Though this 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
The first 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.
As Manfred 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
The second 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:
[I]ntonations, 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)
Eugene’s thoughts 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 are highlighted:
“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 buried life.
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 play.
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 ideals (85).
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 [was] 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. (Gassner 51)
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:
The Gant 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 D.C. Print.
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.
Jahn, Manfred. “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.
Kerr, Walter. “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. Print.
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 Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.
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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Stanley, Steven. “Look Homeward, Angel.” Stage Scene LA site. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 10/06/2017.
Stites, Clara. “At the St. Regis.” 2002. Getting Tom Right. Dates in Wolfe’s Life, By Elizabeth Nowell. Ed. 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, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.
Wolfe, Thomas. “An Angel on the Porch.” Scribner’s Magazine 82.2 (August 1929): 205-10. Print.
—. The Face of a Nation: Poetical Passages from the Writings of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. John Hall Wheelock. New York: Scribner, 1939. Print.
—. 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.