Return to Paton's Place

By Adler, Tony | American Theatre, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Return to Paton's Place

Adler, Tony, American Theatre

There's no doubt about Frank Galati's regard for Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. Galati, whose stage version of the novel opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in June, calls it a South African national epic and compares it to The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's great novel about the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s.

"If we have an American chronicle that cuts to our bone, that rings in our hearts in terms of the history of our personality, it must be The Grapes of Wrath," says Galati, his white-bearded face characteristically animated atop a substantial black-draped frame. "At least in part, it captures some essential qualities in our collective narrative. Certainly people in South Africa feel this way about Alan Paton and about this particular story."

As a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, associate director at the Goodman Theatre, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, stager of operas, and member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble - who, not incidentally, adapted and directed that company's Tony award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath - Galati is himself something of an epic figure, and he should know.

Basics vs. essentials

Yet it's hardly necessary to take his word for it. Open Paton's book. Published in 1948 but cast in a high, pure, poetic direction that echoes the Bible, the Odyssey of Homer, the voices found in stories that were spoken long before they were written down, Cry, the Beloved Country offers its tragic vision of life under apartheid without resort to the modern tics of cynicism or facile irony. The tone is grave. The manner is spare and deliberate-almost naively so, as if the author knew he was describing something so deep and complex, so delicate and momentous that only the most careful construction of the most careful words would serve; as if he knew that a single moment's retreat from clarity would reduce the book and its vision to the murderous chaos from which he was trying so hard to save it.

"The story is mythic," says Galati. "The story has hidden lessons in it. It is deeply layered, so the voicing of the story has the ring of a sage, a poet, a bard, a rhapsode, a chronicler of a people."

In 1948 the American playwright Maxwell Anderson bought the stage rights for Cry, the Beloved Country and, together with the legendary German emigre composer Kurt Weill, built a "musical tragedy" around it. Titled Lost in the Stars, the Anderson/Weill adaptation tells basically the same story Paton tells: that of an old black country parson named Stephen Kumalo who searches the city of Johannesburg for his wayward son, Absalom, only to see him arrested for having shot a young white man to death in the course of a bungled burglary.

But telling basically the same story isn't necessarily the same thing as telling essentially the same story. Lost in the Stars and Cry, the Beloved Country diverge not only in some basics, but in their essences as well.

Galati found this out as soon as he began working on Anderson's script in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Goodman revival of Lost in the Stars. "You see when you read the play how widely Anderson diverged from the novel," he says. "There may be a few fragments of dialogue that are from the novel, but even the dialogue and the speeches, the rhetoric, the text itself is all Maxwell Anderson's invention."

Understanding apartheid

Anderson and Weill ditched the bardic gravity of the novel's voice in favor of something harder, livelier and more profane: something closer to the voice one finds in Weill's most famous collaboration-the one with Bertolt Brecht, on The Threepenny Opera. They dropped certain significant characters and reduced others to sentimental cartoons, reflecting the liberal cliches of the time.

Where, for instance, Jarvis, the father of the murdered white man, goes through an extraordinarily delicate transformation in the novel, coming to understand his dead son's anti-apartheid politics as a consequence of coming to understand his son, Anderson and Weill turn him into a stiff-necked bigot whose conversion, when it finally happens, is about as subgtle - and dramatically motivated - as Saint Paul getting blasted by a bolt of lightening. …

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