In a 1972 speech at the Chicago Public Library, the novelist Saul Bellow described the Westside branch where he borrowed books as a boy. The regulars at the Humbolt Park library, he remembered, comprised “a considerable variety of self-taught and often cranky theoreticians…[P]eculiar autodidacts and philosophers in ragged trousers brooded or raged.” These are the Chicagoans who populate Bellow’s fiction: the immigrants who read Plato at one moment and enter fist-fights in the next. In lieu of tight plot structures, Bellow’s novels build narrative tension around the question of what his characters will do with their hard-won learning: Will they ascend America’s ladder of success, or sink into gangsterism?
Bellow’s lecture noted, with regret, that “Adult education courses and television have abolished this special class of self-educated workingmen or loafers.” Of course, the twentieth-century city was far from a peaceful lyceum. Bellow acknowledged the Capone-era violence, race riots, and the fact that many of the people who lingered in public libraries were permanently out of work. Yet Bellow, who served as a professor with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought for over three decades, always held out the possibility that the real contemplation of the true and the beautiful might be happening on the street corner.
In his recent speech on democratic education (“From Democracy in the Streets to Democracy in Danger”), Arthur Goldhammer quoted the famous first lines of Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953):
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
For Art, Augie March spoke not just for those who came up during the Depression but also the baby boomers who read the novel in the 1950s and 60s: young people who “were now through the door” but were determined to “knock” for more.
So I’d been thinking of Bellow this spring when I learned that the stage adaption of Augie March was making its world premiere at Chicago’s Court Theatre. The play, written by the Pulitzer prize-winning David Auburn and directed by Charles Newell, marks the first attempt at staging a Bellow novel. And it’s not difficult to see why Bellow presents particular production challenges. His work thrives on verbose internal monologues—vacillating between Yiddish slang and meditations on Frederick the Great. Take, for instance, late in the novel, when an adrift Augie confesses:
I was no wizard, for sure, nor gazetted as anything illustrious, nor billed to stand up to Apollyon with his horrible scales and bear’s feet, nor slated to find all my shames like Jean-Jacques on the way to Vincennes sinking down with emotion of the conception that evil society is to blame for all that happened to warm, impulsive, loving me?
How is a director supposed to stage that? Much of what makes Augie lovable, after all, is that he’s a poor Jewish kid who’s forever comparing himself to philosophers like Rousseau.
Naturally, the play has to leave a lot out. But Auburn’s script settles on the strategy of a Greek chorus, allowing members of the ensemble to deliver some of Bellow’s more philosophical lines. In a novel about urban shapeshifters, it makes sense that Newell has his small cast play a number of different roles. In a rather oedipal director’s choice, Thea (Charon Cross), the gorgeous divorcée who whisks Augie off to Mexico, first appears on stage as Augie’s mother, a near-blind single woman struggling to raise three boys. And Augie’s eventual wife, Stella (Abby Pierce) also doubles as Thea’s sister Esther, the heiress who once refused Augie’s earnest request for a date.
The novel’s episodic structure hands Auburn and Newell a lot of material to work with. For example, Dingbat, a neighborhood conman and boxing coach, (Brittney Love Smith) is funnier than I remember him in the novel, and Newell plays him for laughs. When Dingbat’s out-of-shape boxer gets seasick on the ferryboat ride to a match in Michigan, Dingbat questions if it’s even possible to get “seasick” on a lake. The play also curbs some of Bellow’s excesses. The novel’s account of Augie’s ill-fated hunting trip to Mexico borders on becoming overlong and obnoxious. Yet Newell nicely captures the stupidity of Augie’s love-affair—with the help of some puppetry. Yes, puppetry. The falcon that Thea insists Augie train to hunt iguanas appears on stage as a massive marionette. The bird is a prop—a lot like Augie’s relationship with Thea.
Patrick Mulvaney succeeds as an exceedingly-likable, endlessly-frustrating Augie, whose natural intelligence and good looks insulate him against the worst of his decisions. Bellow, who himself married five times, is infamous as a mid-century misogynist: His books specialize in smart, hapless men like Augie, who draw on an endless supply of beautiful women. But Bellow’s sexual politics aside, the stage adaption reminds us that Augie March is a tribute to the American immigrant: the Greeks, Poles, Mexicans, and Italians who populated Bellow’s Humbolt Park in the 1920s and 30s. When she’s not barking orders at Augie’s mother, Grandma Lasch (Marilyn Dodds Frank), a Russian émigré, reads Tolstoy. And besides being an expert book-thief, the Mexican-American Manny Padilla (Kay Ealy) is a genius physics student.
On July 4, 1924, bootleggers smuggled Bellow and his family across the Canadian border—just after the US Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act. The raw, working-class patriotism of Augie March was Bellow’s response to this nativism. The novel celebrates the hardscrabble newcomers that the Act was designed to keep out. Augie is full of grandiose historical analogies, but perhaps it’s not wholly farfetched that he compares himself to Christopher Columbus:
Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this kind of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.
Even in his failures, Augie confirms his Americanness.
My favorite period in Augie’s adventures comes when he joins Padilla’s book-stealing racket. Augie proves a mediocre thief because he gets distracted by his merchandise: he locks himself up in his room to read pilfered copies of Marx and Montesquieu and Tocqueville. This is Bellow at his best—with his suggestion that raw curiosity and street-smarts makes unexpected students of democracy. Augie doesn’t channel his studies in any particular direction, which is one reason for his rootlessness. He prefers reading on his own and puts off formally enrolling in classes. His brother Simon (Luigi Sottile), who developed an early taste for Plutarch, wants Augie to become a lawyer and marry into a prominent coal company. But there’s a nobility to Augie’s procrastination. Behind the crime and carelessness, Augie might be the true liberal arts student, studying for no specific end.
Augie, however, also has a calculating side. Manuscript drafts in the Bellow archive reveal that an earlier title for the novel was: The Life of Augie March Among the Machiavellians. This raises the question of whether Augie himself is a Machiavel, or simply doing his best in a city full of courtiers. The answer has to be both. Augie gives advice, ignores advice, steals, reads, philosophizes, aids others, frustrates his family—but, through it all, remains committed to a vision of the Chicago everyman. Bellow’s Augie is a prince of the people.
Image credits: first edition cover, Viking Press (1953); photo of Chicago skyline by Dan Price (CC Unsplash).