It had been my pleasure to experience a number of very fine productions as staged by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, many of them helmed by the expert hand of their Producing Artistic Director, Nick Sandys. So when I contacted him to say, “We should work together on something,” and his swift response was, “Yes, we should. Let’s get together for lunch,” I was delighted. The emphasis of this illustrious Chicago collective is placed on great plays of the past and important plays of today, so the starting point for our conversation was asking Nick to name some classic texts in the public domain that he might imagine me adapting for the stage. He listed five such titles and, over the next few months, I read them, ruminated on them, and then delivered what he laughingly called “a book report on each.” I liked all of these works, but the one that really sparked my imagination, and resulted in Remy Bumppo offering me a commission, was E.M. Forster’s astonishing novel Howards End.
It had everything. Great themes. Rich ideas. Wonderful settings. A plot that never slowed down. Highly actable dialogue. Ripe humor. And, at its core, two of the most indelible female characters in English literature – the highly cultured but cautious Margaret Schlegel and her free-spirited sister, Helen.
You must remain true to the source material, but you must also remain true to the new medium you are taking this material into. These fictional creatures were now talking to me and it was my responsibility to listen. "
In thinking about how to make this story work on stage, I saw a way of winnowing Forster’s novel down so that it focused on these bohemian siblings as well as two other sets of relations – Charles Wilcox and his adult children, who have recently come into significant capital, and Leonard and Jacky Bast, who are barely making ends meet. This meant leaving many other characters by the wayside, but it also meant that I could tell the tale of three families, on varying rungs of the social and economic ladder, seeking love, purpose and connection in London and its surrounding terrain at the start of the 20th century.
With my stage version now centered on these nine characters, five women and four men, a structure began to emerge. My play would open with a funeral and close with what is essentially a birth. At the climax of the first act, there would be a wedding, and this would be the only time that all of my people would occupy the same space. Yes, I had begun to think of these characters as “my people.” The hard fact of any adaptation is that one is a servant of two masters. You must remain true to the source material, but you must also remain true to the new medium you are taking this material into. These fictional creatures were now talking to me and it was my responsibility to listen. Of course, this would not have been possible without my constant referrals to Forster’s text, but I felt free to embellish and invent.
One of the reoccurring themes in the book is “the architecture of hurry,” which is expressed through the changing landscape and the charge of the motor-car. I loved this evocative concept and worked to make sure that everything in my play revolved around it. There would be a myriad of settings, but I felt sure that we could get from here to there in rapid fashion with only the suggestion of interiors and exteriors, as well as a minimal amount of furnishings.
Once we were in production, it became clear that Nick, our designers, and our very great cast knew exactly what to do with the script I’d delivered to them. They wholeheartedly threw themselves into this venture with daring and technique. And, when we opened, I was pleased to see that many of our friends in the press seemed to understand that this “state of the nation” play was not only about England in the early 1900s, but also about our world today. As a result, the Joseph Jefferson Committee saw fit to nominate our show for five awards, including one for Best New Work.
I am thankful to all involved for allowing me to be a part of such a grand adventure. And I am thankful to Edward Morgan Forster for giving us such a vibrant piece of prose to serve as the springboard for our theatrical enterprise.