I read an article about the world premiere of a play based on Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, got a cheap ticket, and was at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park for the first preview a few days later. I read a bunch of Bellow’s books, but it’s been many years since I picked one up. I was curious how it would read on a stage.
It’s an epic saga. Three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions. The audience was winnowed more and more after each break. But I stuck with it. The challenge of externalizing the inner monologues and descriptions inherent to written work is a great one, but they managed it admirably. A cast of seven or eight took up the work of dramatizing March’s inner life and philosophizing. I admired their effort, but as the thing wore on, I grew increasingly hostile toward March himself. I searched my memory for my sense of Bellow’s book, but came up blank. Up till this night I always thought I’d liked it, but after this play I’m not sure I’d wanna re-read it.
I’m currently reading Colin Asher’s definitive new biography of Nelson Algren. For a time Bellow and Algren were the opposing poles of Chicago letters. Algren’s always been closer to my heart, but if this new play accurately reflects the essence of what is Bellow’s best-loved work, maybe I don’t want anything more to do with Bellow. He become a hopeless reactionary later in life—as so many people do with age—but I’d always thought the early work had something. This night, Augie March—a stand-in for the youthful Bellow—came off as a smug, arrogant Ferris Bueller type. Traipsing in and out of people’s lives, taking whatever his heart compelled him to, then moving on to the next mark. I really hated that guy.
A couple nights later, Werner Herzog did a Q & A at the Music Box after his new Gorbachev documentary. I was glad to see the man in person. The sold-out crowd gave him a standing ovation before he’d said a word. I doodled awhile, listening while some film writer from the AV Club asked him predictable questions, then walked out to beat the exodus to come. I was kind of down after watching the aged Gorbachev guilelessly talk up his achievements. The man’s had to watch as our mutual country of origin has reverted to authoritarianism and as the US has run breathlessly after to do the same.
All that footage of walls coming down back then, whereas now everybody’s stepping all over one another to put walls up. Herzog and Gorbachev talk in such hopeful terms. It sounded like science fiction to me. All that footage time-lapsing the rise and fall of the Soviet Union eats at me. There’s nothing for me to go back to, even if I wanted to go back. Neither Bellow’s Chicago, nor Herzog’s Moscow felt like home to me.