A funny thing has happened this season: Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited is the third work we have produced this year by an author most known for writing prose fiction. Frank Galati adapted novelist and short story writer, Huraki Murakami's after the quake. Don De Lillo's new play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, is playing in our Upstairs Theatre and now, in our Garage Theatre, we are premiering The Sunset Limited by acclaimed novelist, Cormac McCarthy.
It seems fitting that in a season devoted to new work, we are producing well-known writers working in new ways and, in the case of Murikami, presented in a new way. Producing the work of prose fiction writers writers allows us to extend the interrogation of new voices to an interrogation of the form in which these voices take speak. Why doe some work want to take the form of prose? Why does some work want to take the form of drama? And how does prose-writing look and sound when adapted for the stage?
When we interviewed Don about how he chose to write Love-Lies-Bleeding as a play, he said that the opening line of the play, "I saw a dead man on the subway once" had been floating in his mind for yearsan d that he knew it ws being spoken on a stage.
We haven't asked the question of Mr. McCarthy. What we know is that Cormac McCarthy had previously written a play, The Stonemason, which was not produced. The Stonemason went through a workshop process at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. but ultimately, did not eventuate in a production. The Stonemason is a multi-generatioanl drama, a play that touches upon interpersoanl, historic and cultural themes. The Sunset Limited is a more intimate play. Two men sit ina single room and talk to one another. The elemental reduction of the play's canvas extends to the names of the characters themselves. The men are designated simply as "Black" and "White". Perhaps unsurprisingly, these anmes (labels, really) are racial markers. So: two men, one a black man, the other, a white man, sit in a room, talking.
The course of their conversation reveals another layer, another meaning of "black" and "white." The conversatin between the two men has evolved out of a life and death situation. The polarity of life and death is amplified, through their conversation, by the polarity of their spiritual convictions: one man is an atheist, one man is a Christian. Amplified too, by their cultural positioning: one man is educated (is in fact, a university professor); the other, uneducated, a former prison inmate. One has successfully lived his life within the social system; the other, as an outlaw.
It is perhaps the interplay of polarities in these themes(and his skilled manipulation of these polarities) that invited Mr. McCarthy to express The Sunset Limited as a play. A play is, after all,(in the end of all), a DRAMA: a collision of opposing forces alive in a present moment, in a play on the stage. The unwritten language of thestage is a behaviour: we watch two men, "Black" and "White" in a life or death struggle. The elemental struggle is nuanced by our identification with, and empathy for, either or both of these men.
The issues of spiritual conviction, of the meaning of life are enormously comlex ones. And yet there is some insistence, on the part of Mr. McCarthy in his invocation of the labels "black" and "white", that a moral code is in play that is absolute. That he chose the stage as a venue for this conversation suggests that he sees the dramaof The Sunset Limited as one best unmediated by the narrative voice: he seeks the pure exchange of ideas and leaves you, the audience, to negotiate your position in that argument.
Our emotional movement towards or away from these men is the registration of our belief. The novelist abandons his guiding and shaping narrative voice to deliver that responsibility for point of view into our lap.
I regard willingness on the part of prose fiction writers to write for thestage (and to allow their work to be adapted for the stage), a daring one. Working in the theatre is a collaborative process. A director, the designers, the actors, and ultimately, the audience, move and shape the work of the story according to their various points of view. Acceding that control is genrous (and likely, uncomfortable) for a writer whose principle skill is the negotiation of a point of view. We celebrate these writers in ourseason of new work-they provide us insight into both the telling and the tale. They encourage us to question both the story of how we live now, and the form of the story.
Artistic Director Steppenwolf, Martha Lavey