As I set out to direct another play, my mind has been drawn to the concept of reimagining and re-envisioning previous works. I’ve long felt that the main problem with a lot of older works is not in the original source material but in the cruft that they’ve had piled on top of them over years or even decades: stuff left over from previous interpretations that people nowadays feel must be part of every subsequent version, even though they were part of a particular adapter’s vision and not the original creator’s.
My taste for reinterpreting and reimagining works occasionally makes me want to tackle works that were previously considered “unstageable;” that were considered too vast or too complex to be brought to fruition on the live stage. Most of the time I can’t do it, but sometimes I’m blessed with a Eureka moment that makes the impossible seem ridiculously easy, and will make me regret that most likely I will never be able to see my vision through.
That’s what happened this time, and since I will probably never get to put it forth live on stage I’ve decided to share that vision here.
I have figured out how to pull off a successful stage adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye.”
The Unadaptable Holden
J.D. Salinger was famously put off from adaptations of his work because of one disastrous move by Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn bought the rights to one of Salinger’s Nine Stories, specifically Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, which he made into a film called My Foolish Heart. Other than a simple framing device, nothing of Salinger’s story remained in the film. Feeling very much slighted and protective of his creations, Salinger basically turned his back on any further adaptations. Especially when the first person to approach his agents about adapting Catcher was none other than Sam Goldwyn. It could be said that the disaster of My Foolish Heart led directly to the creation of Holden and his hatred of all things “phoney,” including Hollywood movies.
One serious attempt was made at bringing Holden to the stage. Elia Kazan began work on a version and approached Salinger, who rejected it out of hand. He would later say that he didn’t think the story could successfully be adapted to the stage or film and rejected every offer that came his way while leaving it open to his heirs whether or not to ever offer the rights.
My opinions of Catcher are well-known, but most of what I think makes it a worn-out piece of written literature today would actually make it well suited to the stage. A properly written stage adaptation could tame the beast, solve most of the problems that have made the book less impressive today than when it was first published, and sweep aside a lot of the interpreting and “changed-my-lifeism” and antihero worship that has grown up around the book. Basically, take the story back to Salinger’s original material.
Taming the Beast
One thing that has made people think that Catcher is unstageable is the sheer scope of the book. It starts in rural Pennsylvania at a boarding school and then takes in about half of Manhattan. You obviously can’t pull all of this off on the modern stage unless you had a lot of tech behind you, which would limit the number of places where the play could be performed. The most likely place for this play to be produced (once it had finished its first professional productions and amateur rights became available) would be high schools and colleges, where the source material is well known and still revered, and community theaters looking for a big name title to produce.
The answer to this problem is surprisingly simple. And as with any good reimagining, it’s solved by going back to the source material.
Salinger said one of his major objections to bringing Catcher to the screen is that he thought that having Holden’s narration as voice-over or put into dialogue wouldn’t work. Fine. So we don’t do that. Instead, we put on stage what Salinger did on the page.
Holden is sitting (or occasionally standing) there telling us a story.
Holden would be on stage all the time. He would narrate the entire work as he tells us the story of what has happened to him over the past several days. From time to time we would drift into scenes with dialogue and other actors, and as each of these vignettes ends (or he feels the need to expound on something), Holden would literally step out of the scene, face the audience, and start telling his story again until the time came for him to drift back into the action.
And where would we set these vignettes? Despite the scope of the story, all of the real character development for Holden (and thus all the important action) takes place in one of three rooms. Specifically, three bedrooms.
A Play in Three Bedrooms
Each act of the stage adaptation of Catcher would take place in a different bedroom. This would allow small scale productions to simply redress the set at each intermission with different bedclothes, wall hangings, etc., while large scale productions could rotate a different set into place for each of the acts. The play is set in December of 1951, and is done as a period piece with appropriate costumes and props.
Act One opens with Holden sitting in his dorm room at Pencey Prep, which is where he starts telling us his story. He has just found out that he has been expelled and brings us up to speed on recent events. The scene with Mr. Spencer could be moved here, or shown with different lighting on the same plane as Holden. The bulk of the act would be his conversations with Stradlater and Ackley and the fight that ensues. At the end, Holden leaves for Manhattan. Curtain.
Act Two would be set in Holden’s hotel room. His experiences with the tourist women could either be cut or (if needed for timing purposes) told in flashback with different lighting. The first scene with Sunny, the prostitute, would come next. After she leaves, Holden would call Sally Hayes from the phone in his room and leave to see Romeo and Juliet with her. They would come back to the hotel room slightly tipsy, and that would be when Holden invites her to run away with him and she rebuffs him. Shortly after she leaves there is a knock on the door. Holden, hoping it’s her, finds Sunny and her pimp Maurice, who beats Holden up again and robs him. Curtain.
Act Three is entirely set in Phoebe’s bedroom, late that night when Holden’s parents are asleep. There is a model of the Central Park carousel on one of her shelves. The two have their long conversation, with Holden telling her some of the parts that are show in the book (like the ducks in Central Park) that we would have to have take place offstage. We would jettison the part with Mr. Antolini, and concentrate on his relationship with Phoebe for the entire act. At the end, she talks him into not leaving, and he agrees to accompany her to the zoo.
Phoebe exits and Holden takes down the model of the carousel, telling us about how he enjoyed watching Phoebe ride it in the rain. He brings us up to date on getting sick and going to the hospital in California, and how he will be attending a new school that September. He then says he doesn’t want to tell us any more because it makes him think of how much he misses all those people in his life: Ackley, Stradlater, and especially Phoebe, who he will always remember riding that carousel. He spins the model as the curtain falls.
The advantages of this approach are obvious. The three rooms not only provide for easy staging but also bring a thematic link to the three acts, something the novel notoriously lacks in structure. The parts of the story that are best left to internal monologue are presented through storytelling. The inconsequential portions are disposed of. The nonsense about Jane Gallagher (except for one aborted phone call from the hotel room) is left in Act One where it belongs. Holden is no longer ineffectual and do-nothing; he drives the story. Best of all, it preserves the main structure of the novel by having it be about Holden telling us a story.
This version of The Catcher in the Rye will never be produced. Salinger’s estate has shown no interest in authorizing any adaptations and even if they were interested I would never have the money to option the rights let alone produce a show. But this little exercise should show that with enough time, courage, and faith in the material, it can be possible to adapt almost anything to the stage.