Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Flannery O'Connor in the Public Square: Karin Coonrod's Everything That Rises Must Converge

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Flannery O'Connor in the Public Square: Karin Coonrod's Everything That Rises Must Converge

Article excerpt

Piazza Sant' Apollinare was full of laughter on a warm April evening. The day's light of Rome was fading, and all were riveted by the presence of eight actors who made their stage a few feet away from the assembled crowd in the piazza. The Compagnia de' Colombari were bringing Flannery O'Connor's fiction to life with their public performance of Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York City director Karin Coonrod began working on this material in residence at the University of Iowa in 1998, again at Sundance Theatre Lab in 1999, finally culminating in the sold-out Off-Broadway production in 2001. The dazzling performance in New York featured the first three stories in O'Connor's posthumously published collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, uncut and unedited; a pile of red Georgia clay swept into a new formation for each story served as the only prop.

At a 2009 International Flannery O'Connor conference in Rome, organized by the Poetics and Christianity Project, Coonrod brought her company to perform one of these stories, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," for two evenings during the conference. The intellectual interpretations of O'Connor's art that formed each day were made incarnate on that public piazza at nightfall. If Julian's comment that "True culture is in the mind, the mind" (CW 489) dominated the scholarly activities of the conference, his mother's insistence that "It's in the heart" spoke to the experience of this theatre piece. The effect of this shift on everyone present was transformative, opening the audience to a new dimension of O'Connor's art: public performance.

In an interview in 1955 on the television program Galley Proof, Harvey Breit asks O'Connor after part of her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is dramatized, "Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?" To which O'Connor replies: "No, I certainly would not. I don't think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there's only one way to tell it and that's the way it is told in the story" (Conversations 8). O'Connor's comment suggests a simple truth: stories are not reducible to a summary, an interpretation, or even a "point," moral or otherwise. The fact that her preference when invited to public forums was to read a story rather than talk about them further confirms the importance of the dramatic action that brings stories to life. There is much written about O'Connor's comment that fiction is an incarnational art, most often read in light of its Christian meaning. However, incarnation also implies embodiment more generally, and so the public performance of her fiction provides another approach for "reading" O'Connor. Brad Gooch describes the story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" with the language of movement, bodies, the dramatic: "An elaborate interracial ballet of seat shuffling by whites and blacks ensues" (336). In Karin Coonrod's production of Everything That Rises Must Converge in Rome, the "interracial ballet" on stage invites interpretations about O'Connor's narrative art, her politics of race, and her search to find "the hidden love that makes a man ... give up his life to the service of God's people" (3 Dec. 1958, HB 307-08).

A Simple Stage, an Uncut Story

In the 2001 performance of O'Connor's stories in New York City, Coonrod's set was spare: red Georgia clay predominated, and except for a few chairs, there were no other props. One reviewer of the play notes that "Tied to the written word as she is, director Karin Coonrod leaves her actors otherwise unfettered" (Winter). The same simplicity prevailed in Rome: some lights, a few chairs, two newspapers, five handbags, two floppy velvet hats. Without distractions, all the action happened in the bodies and the voices moving around the piazza. The effect was a sense of spontaneity, an impromptu gathering of actors bringing life to O'Connor's story. The performance was public and free. Like the Corpus Christi medieval mystery plays directed by Coonrod in the streets of Orvieto, this presentation of O'Connor was not limited to select theatregoers. …

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