The humor of Toole’s novel, O’Connoresque in its satiric bite, its enjoyment of puncturing surfaces and pretensions, has been reduced to punch-line humor and one-liners.
A Confederacy of Dunces by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole. Directed by David Esbjornson. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / Boston University Theatre, through December 20.
By Anthony Wallace
John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, a comic masterpiece about eccentrics and margin-dwellers in 1960s New Orleans, has a long and checkered history, including rumors about various film adaptations. Actors from John Belushi to John Candy to Will Ferrell to Divine have been cast as eccentric-in-chief Ignatius J. Reilly, but no film has ever materialized. Director Steven Soderbergh believes the project is cursed.
This month, the Huntington Theatre Company debuted the world-premiere of a stage version of A Confederacy of Dunces, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and performed in the BU Theater, with Parks and Recreation sitcom star Nick Offerman in the lead role. (Read The Arts Fuse review.) The play begins with Offerman taking the stage in his underwear, then being dressed in his Ignatius J. Reilly costume by set assistants. He stands regarding the process with a look of passive amusement, decorative screens zipping back and forth while the assistants apply each layer of clothing: padded long underwear, baggy pants, flannel shirt, plaid coat, fleece-lined hunting cap, Christmas-colored scarf. He emerges twinkling from behind the last screen, the transformation complete, the air thick with mischief. Nick Offerman is now Ignatius J. Reilly, jobless but witty scourge of the modern era.
Toole writes at the beginning of his novel:
Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.
I don’t know why the HTC production starts out as described above—possibly some post-mod nod and wink to the audience, who seemed a bit more prone to nodding than winking—but the walling off of Offerman behind layers of padded mismatched clothing is suggestive in a way that was probably not intended: it anticipates the main problem with this entertaining but vacant production, which is that although Offerman looks Reilly, and speaks Reilly, we do not get a very satisfying sense of the wildly satiric and one might even say Falstaffian inner life on which the novel so relentlessly turns. In this production, Ignatius is a colorful surface with a deadpan delivery, and the play itself a kind of music hall adaptation, played broadly and, as it seemed to me, strictly for laughs. At times, because of the bright theatricality and the broadness of the plot and characterization, I had the odd sense that I was watching a musical without the music.
In February 1964, Toole sent the manuscript of Dunces to Simon & Schuster, where it eventually reached senior editor Robert Gottlieb (later editor of The New Yorker), who felt that the novel was wildly entertaining and inventive but pointless. He and Toole corresponded about the book for a couple of years, but Gottlieb never published it, and a depressed, mentally unhinged Toole committed suicide in March of 1969. There is evidence that in the last months of his life he took a car trip, which included a visit to the Georgia home of deceased author Flannery O’Connor. The humor in the novel is certainly O’Connor-esque, and one loss to American literature is that Toole was surely O’Connor’s most direct descendent, and one of the most talented. In 1980 Walker Percy had the book published, after being hounded by Toole’s mother to read it, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
Gottlieb read the book but missed the point (which is not local color), but his complaint is alive and well in the HTC production, which arrives 50 years later as entertaining and inventive but blithely, effervescently pointless. The humor of the novel, O’Connoresque in its satiric bite, its enjoyment of puncturing surfaces and pretensions, has been reduced to punch-line humor and one-liners, the point of which seems to be to entertain the loyal and well-funded HTC audience. Folks all around me did laugh and enjoy themselves. “This is crazy! I’m having such a good time!” exclaimed the woman next to me at intermission. I also laughed—there were many funny moments—funny for the sake of being funny, and of having a carefree afternoon at the theater—but I wondered how many of the audience members had read the book, which is a limber yardstick that can serve as well for flogging as it does for measuring.
O’Connor’s hand was certainly never far from the lash, her sensibility never far from the Inquisitor’s delight in scourging, a taste for which Toole picked up with a singing vengeance. Nothing much gets scourged in this production, though, except perhaps for the patron’s wallet. Instead, it seems to me that the tone of the play is oddly, unexpectedly nostalgic in the way that some of the more genteel kinds of humor can be nostalgic. Tennessee Williams, for example, when the humor is coming not from the author but from one of his witty but nostalgic characters. We laugh at and at the same time long for the bygone day of these New Orleans types—low folk who amuse us, and who make us feel better about ourselves, in their foolish pursuit of their foolish dreams, and who give us the most important thing that Aristotle said comedy should provide: a happy ending.
The play, like the novel, would seem to be about race, about class, about gender, about good old-fashioned American exploitation, about puncturing our pretensions about those subjects—about all those things rolled out as a colorful Southern circus, with one memorable scene in which Ignatius’s caustic black counterpart, Burma Jones, is the grinning ringmaster—but it doesn’t puncture anything because it is in itself a surface. An amusing surface. A brightly painted surface. A surface made sometimes a little ripply in a giddy, middle-class, theater-going way by Jones and his salty language and racial outrage that the HTC audience drank up like $15 glasses of chardonnay.
Taking the play on its own terms, I’d say that the acting was professional all the way, with particular nods to Anita Gillette, who played Ignatius’s mother, and Phillip James Brannon, who played Jones, and with some points off for Nick Offerman’s man-in-a-case Ignatius. I’d say that the company did wonders with the minimalistic set, though it ultimately did not suggest the lushness of its subject. I’d say that there were lots of laughs, a Sunday afternoon’s genteel entertainment. But I would not say that I walked out of the BU Theatre and into the drizzly November evening thinking about anything, except perhaps that it was raining and I didn’t have an umbrella. And that’s not how satire works. That’s not how literature works. That’s not how theater works. I’m not even sure that’s how a $15 glass of chardonnay works.
Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. He has work in the latest issue of The Missouri Review.