Can you do a play about an invisible man? About an African-American whom others simply refuse to see? Ralph Ellison, it seems fair to surmise, thought probably not. Not well, anyway. Not something that would do justice to the moment, shortly after the end of World War II, when a mostly impecunious writer, an African-American visitor to Vermont, wrote five words on a piece of paper — "I am an invisible man" — without knowing why or where it might lead him.
Not something Ellison — whose declarative statement turned into the opening salvo of one of the most deeply complex, formatively prismatic and widely acclaimed American novels of the 20th century, something on par with the very best works of Herman Melville or William Faulkner, something that attempted to chart the relationship of America and the individual, in all its complexity — would have actually wanted to see.
"Ralph was a stickler and a perfectionist," observed John F. Callahan, his longtime friend and now his literary executor, in a recent telephone interview. "A lot of people pestered him about making a movie of 'Invisible Man.' I believe even Quincy Jones approached him. But he was not persuaded it could be done."
He was so unpersuaded, in fact, that Ellison stipulated in his will that there would be no dramatic adaptations whatsoever of his work even while his (second) wife, Fanny McConnell Ellison, was still alive.
Ralph Ellison died in 1994. His wife, who helped her husband edit his masterwork, died in 2005 at age 93. And shortly thereafter, documentary filmmaker and writer Oren Jacoby got in touch with Callahan. He told the literary guardian that he wanted to make a play out of "Invisible Man."
"The request grew out of my interest in the novel and in all the pleasure I had gotten when I did 'All the King's Men' as a stage piece in Dallas," Jacoby said, in a recent phone interview. "Perhaps it was a foolish idea. But it had an irresistible hold on me."
Callahan was sympathetic, despite Ellison's rejection of those offers during his lifetime and his distaste for adaptations. "I know a lot of estates are interested in money, these days," he said, ruminatively. "But my sole concern is Ellison's reputation and the artistic reputation of his work."
Once an author is dead, that's a complex call. But Callahan said he truly believed that Ellison didn't want those restrictions to remain after his wife's death. Anyway, Callahan had already decided in 1999 to publish Ellison's second novel, "Juneteenth," which was unfinished when Ellison died. According to reports at the time, that involved Callahan editing — or, more accurately, charting a way through — something like 2,000 pages that Ellison had penned and then rewritten. As such, Callahan was not so much an editor as a co-author. But the novel was acclaimed as a major literary discovery, even though Ellison chose not to let it come to light during his lifetime.
"Ralph is not here anymore," Callahan said. "I've long had to wrestle with that demon. All I could say with any certainty about 'Juneteenth' is that Ralph would have done it better. He would have done it his way. But all I can do is make my best call in these things. I cannot expect to replicate exactly what he would have done. And there is no better metaphor for the complexity of the human condition in the 20th century than 'Invisible Man.'" In other words, Callahan also sees the moral imperative of making Ellison available to an ever-changing audience.
So Jacoby found an advocate in Callahan, who liked Jacoby's conception of the show as an ensemble production and a memory play, and who then helped sell the early drafts to the other trustees. And thus, on Saturday night at Court Theatre, the first dramatization of "Invisible Man" will open, under the direction of Christopher McElroen, a founding artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and with New York actor Teagle F. Bougere in what is, for want of a better term, the title role.
It is a high-profile project that will be closely watched. The Ellisons had many connections to Chicago. Ralph Ellison taught at the University of Chicago, on whose campus Court sits, in 1961. Fanny McConnell Ellison, who finished high school in Chicago, was a writer for the Chicago Defender, and was also a founder of an early and influential black theater in Chicago, the Negro People's Theatre, in the late 1930s.
"There is something fitting," Callahan said, dryly, from his home in Oregon, "with it debuting there among all the complexities of Hyde Park."
For anyone who knows this book, there will be considerable curiosity as to how Jacoby plans to dramatize such a complex metaphor. The book would appear to be filled with impossibilities: The narrator, for example, tells us that he lives in a basement hole which he illicitly illuminates with 1,369 filament bulbs, with power stolen from the Monopolated Light & Power.
According to the director, McElroen, the play will begin with all of those 1,369 lights ablaze. From there, he said, the piece will depart for a trip inside the main character's head, as is basically the case in the roughly 600-page novel. Every word spoken in the dramatization was written by Ellison, even if not all the words written by Ellison are in the dramatization.
"We start very simply with the invisible man on stage," McElroen said, "and then his world breaks apart as we enter his memory. We follow his memories through an ensemble and we try to find theatrical gestures, theatrical threads, that evoke his experiences.
"Ellison was completely theatrical in his language," Jacoby said. "The book is poetic, dramatic, rhetorical. It's all laid out in novelistic form as a picaresque adventure, but then so is Oedipus."
"Invisible Man" is, of course, one of the best-known American novels of the 20th century, not least because so many students have been obliged to study it. Ellison himself, though, had a number of complex relationships. He did not walk the barricades of the civil rights movement, and he said on numerous occasions that he did not want to be known as a black writer, but as a writer. For some, he was too much of an individualist and not enough of a racial revolutionary.
Right from its first publication, therefore, the book has had its share of critics, many of whom attacked its apparent inaccessibility and its seeming distance from the orthodoxy of progressive writings about issues of race in a changing America. The character of Ras the Exhorter, whom some critics have seen as a kind of precursor of Malcolm X or Louis Farrakhan, gets killed. That was troubling to some. And the Invisible Man ends up mostly trying to figure out himself, so he can rely on himself.
"I think Ralph was seen as unsympathetic to the causes of separatism and black nationalism," Callahan said. "The communists went after his book with hammer and tongs."
Yet, over time, literary critics have also come to see that Ellison was profoundly influenced by African-American art and, most especially, by jazz. Some have seen "Invisible Man" as the great narrative attempt to reconcile those outsider or folk-rooted forms with the kind of high-art modernism we associate with, say, Franz Kafka or T.S. Eliot.
"This one incredible colossus takes so many of the myths and underlying streams of American thought and history, the things that uniquely define the American people, and turns all that into a narrative that has a literary authority," Jacoby said. "It's a serious novel, but it also has all of the life of popular fiction by, say, Melville or Mark Twain."
Over the years, there has also been a good deal of debate as to who was reading the book. Harold Bloom, for example, in his laudatory introduction to a collection of essays on Ellison, suggested that the book was always mostly read by whites.
Kenneth Warren, a professor of English at the University of Chicago and the author of a book on Ellison, disputes that characterization.
"There were always discussions and arguments about the nature of the book," Warren said. "The African-American audience was always a contested audience. In some ways, Ellison was right in line with the new liberal consensus on race that emerged at the end of the Cold War, when this novel really resonated. But its initial publication represented a turn and a departure."
Warren suggested that, in essence, "Invisible Man" long has functioned as a kind of cipher, allowing people to impose on it whatever agenda they wanted to impose. It is a state of affairs that the Invisible Man himself would surely have understood. But it also perhaps explains Ellison's reluctance to let the book be dramatized — given that any dramatization inevitably imposes, well, a certain inherent visibility. But so be it. Here we are.
"Ralph was wonderfully faithful to the complexity of the American experiment," said Callahan, his friend. "He saw its improvisatory nature. He saw the connections between amendments to the Constitution and jazz. He saw ours as a country in constant flux, a place where change was a given. And he also brings a sense of the tragicomic nature of American identity. He was able to embrace the chaos manifest in America. 'It's a crazy country,' Ralph always liked to say."
"Invisible Man" runs through Feb. 19 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye