Notes On The Adaptation of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Oren Jacoby, adapter

Why did I adapt this novel for the stage, today, so many decades after it was first published? Ralph Ellison once commented about the chances of Invisible Man to survive and speak to future generations. He said, ‘If you’re lucky… if you splice into one of the deeper currents of life, then you have a chance of having your work last a little longer.”  This is one of those rare works in American literature that is timeless; that really does splice into the deepest currents of our lives in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th

I think it is the protagonist’s resistance to despair and his ultimate belief in optimism that earns this ongoing and widespread admiration from generations of readers. One of those readers was a disaffected teenager named Barack Obama who devoured the book when he was living in New York City after college.  I hope, in reflecting on Obama’s recent reelection as President of the U.S., the play will encourage audience members to revisit the novel for a more thorough consideration of Ellison’s understanding of the optimism needed to turn the American dream into a real success story.

It is important to note that my adaptation of Invisible Man is the product of a close collaboration, first and foremost with John Callahan, Ralph Ellison's literary executor and friend. As long as John was there with a close eye on the process, I was confidant I wouldn't go too far off track. I have also benefited from six companies of wonderful actors who made valuable contributions in the play’s workshop process over the past seven years; in a series of readings in New York, Wilmington, NC and Pittsburgh, PA, supported by the Tribeca Theater Festival, the Classical Theater of Harlem, Pace University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the August Wilson Center; as well as in two productions, first at Chicago’s Court Theater and more recently at the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.  My collaborator through the crucial last two and a half years of this “development” and an indispensable partner in seeing that the play is faithful to the integrity of Ellison's novel, has been Christopher McElroen, who directed both productions. 

The task of adapting this novel to make a play while preserving its “integrity" turned out to be fairly straightforward, as soon as I realized that everything I would need to make Invisible Man come alive on stage was already there in the underlying work. I followed one simple rule: all the words spoken in the play had to be Ellison's. My adaptation was a process of editing and shaping those words into a somewhat simpler narrative with a three-act structure.

Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man with many a wink and nod to other masters of the American novel whose work he admired. But I learned from his friend, John Callahan, that while writing Invisible Man there were two books that Ellison had on his desk at all times. One was the dictionary, the other the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was his first long work of fiction, but by the time he tackled it, Ellison was already a master of rhetoric and dramatic structure and there are echoes in the novel of a number of great Shakespearean scenes.

The most obvious example is in Invisible Man's eulogy for Todd Clifton, an inspiration Ellison himself once alluded to.  When discussing this climactic scene with a fellow writer one day at his home, he pulled open the volume on his desk to Julius Caesar and started to read Mark Anthony's funeral oration.  

Like Shakespeare, Ellison creates conflict in his characters and in the structure of each scene or speech using a dialectic approach. The hero of Invisible Man is torn, the way Hamlet or any other Shakespearean hero is torn, by conflicting impulses articulated in speeches that alternate thesis and antithesis, argument and counter argument. Like the Prince of Denmark, a quintessential part of the hero’s journey in the play and the novel of Invisible Man is not just overcoming adversity, it is his growing capacity to articulate his response to each challenge as it comes along. 

The book abounds both in spectacle — with a number of tour de force set pieces — and in great two-person scenes, or arguments.  Invisible Man opposes an antagonist like Dr. Bledsoe, not just as a personal adversary, but also as a proponent of an antithetical point of view.  An approach to adapting the novel was suggested to me by Ellison's inherently dramatic treatment of conflict. Like the novel, the play is a series of intense confrontations. One by one, Invisible Man, the protagonist, must confront the antagonistic characters (as well as his own illusions) that have kept him from being true to himself. Like many a great Shakespearean character, Invisible Man, the hero, may be his own most formidable antagonist. 

The other crucial element in my approach to adapting this work was music. As a native of Oklahoma City, Ellison, at a young age, became a devotee of the strongly blues-flavored swing music then flourishing in the southwest U.S. from Kansas City to Texas. Among his favorite musicians in these formative years were two local heroes in the city’s East Side neighborhood, or “Deep Deuce” as Ellison and his contemporaries called the honky-tonk block where they played. They were Charlie Christian, pioneer of the electric guitar, who would eventually find fame with Benny Goodman's quintet and orchestra; and Jimmy Rushing, the greatest blues singer of the swing era, appearing then with the legendary Blue Devils Orchestra and flourishing later in his career with the Count Basie Orchestra. Rushing and Christian would both go on, not just to national acclaim, but to help change the course of American music.

When all three had gone north and Ellison heard them again in Harlem, he wrote an essay celebrating Rushing's “sweet, high floating sound . . . steel bright in its upper range”, and remembered, “on dance nights, when you stood on the rise of the school grounds two blocks to the east, you could hear it jetting from the dance hall like a blue flame in the dark . . . ” In another article he described Christian's "irresistible . . . danceable swing." But more important than their sound, he remembers what each of these giants meant to his community. “Jimmy Rushing was not simply an entertainer, he expressed a value, an attitude about the world . . .  We were pushed off to what seemed the least desirable side of the city . . . yet there was an optimism . . . and a sense of possibility, which despite our sense of limitation . . . transcended all this, and it was this rock-bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing’s voice.”

He celebrates their music and offers them thanks not only for providing the soundtrack of his youth, but also for helping to inspire his own artistic identity. Writing about Christian, a great innovator who paved the way for bebop, he observes, “Jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment . . . springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight . . . represents a definition of his identity as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition . . . The jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it…”

Ellison left Oklahoma behind when he won a scholarship to study classical music composition at the Tuskegee Institute. But he was also a trumpet player who adored Louis Armstrong, a “jazzman” like his local heroes. One day in the library at Tuskegee, Ellison discovered a different kind of music in the lyrics of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and was launched on a new career, as a writer. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in an essay written years later, he compares the artistry of Armstrong to that of Eliot, giving homage to both of his artistic progenitors and a hint as to his own fusion of their two traditions in Invisible Man. “Consider that at least as early as T.S. Eliot’s creation of a new aesthetic for poetry, through the artful juxtaposition of earlier styles, Louis Armstrong, way down the river in New Orleans, was working out a similar technique for jazz.”

American music is the underlying leitmotif of Ellison’s great novel. The haunting Fats Waller/Andy Razaf song, Black and Blue, played and sung on a record by Louis Armstrong, is the provocative theme that starts Invisible Man's reverie and leads him back to the beginning of the journey that brought him underground to his basement hideaway. Throughout the novel Ellison invokes particular songs as a soundtrack that one can try to imagine as one reads and that I have included as an actual score in the play.  Ellison doesn't limit his repertoire to jazz. Like Duke Ellington, another of his musical heroes, Ellison may have resented labels and felt that the music he loved was "beyond category". In addition to Waller and Armstrong, he alludes in the pages of the novel to specific spirituals, folk songs, blues, swing tunes, the civil war hymn, John Brown's Body, and Dvorak's New World Symphony. Ellison remembers songs from his youth and inserts them at turning points in the action, like "They Picked Poor Robin" a tune that he heard Walter Page sing with the Kansas City Blue Devils, and that he would later explain in an essay "was played to satirize some betrayal of faith or loss of love". Its use in the novel is almost exactly in this vein. Invisible Man hears it whistled and sings it himself as he experiences a horrible betrayal and moment of disillusionment. But he ends up laughing through his tears.

These musical threads run through the fabric of the whole novel and were partly what attracted me to the idea of adapting it for performance. It goes without saying that music had to be an essential part of the mix in any staging of Invisible Man. The songs I have chosen from the works mentioned in the novel and others in the canon of American spirituals, blues and swing tunes, are as central to the theatricality of this work as Kurt Weill's music is to the plays of Bertolt Brecht.  

In one of his essays, Ellison talks about the redemptive power of the blues. He could be describing his own work: “The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstance, whether created by others or by one’s own failings. They are the only consistent art in the United States, which constantly remind us to see how far we can actually go . . . They are a corrective, an attempt to draw a line upon man’s own limitless assertion.”

A final influence on my adaptation was my strong response to the visual, almost cinematic, elements in the novel. There is something movielike about the structure and style of Invisible Man. It begins with a flashback, a technique that is much more a part of the vocabulary of movies than of fiction. The action cuts from one scene to another in a seamless montage without traditional transitions to facilitate a change of location or jump in time. These and other techniques used by Ellison are helpful in advancing the action in an exciting manner.  Like any cinematic convention or innovation, they are tools in the endless struggle to keep up with the racing, impatient consciousness of an audience in the mechanical age.

Ellison could be writing about his own process in his essay about the artist, Romare Bearden, who created his own “truer” reality though collage, and, like a “true artist, destroys the accepted world by way of revealing the unseen, and creating that which is new and uniquely his own . . . ” He goes on to praise how Bearden, “by stepping back from the immediacy of the Harlem experience . . . was freed to give expression to the essentially poetic side of his vision . . . ” and “reveal a world long hidden by the clichés of sociology and . . . the distortions of newsprint . . . television and much documentary photography.” 

But as a documentary filmmaker I was curious to learn that Ellison had based his novel, in part, on a now largely forgotten nonfiction project he worked on from 1938 to 1942. Like many other authors during the depression, Ellison was employed in the New Deal's WPA Writer's Project. He got this steady, paying gig though his friendship with fellow author, Richard Wright, and joined a group of about twenty writers trying to chronicle the activities of “prominent” black New Yorkers. But the young Ellison preferred an assignment on “The Living Lore” unit, which introduced him to a number of less prominent Harlem residents.  Some of these portraits have been gathered in the book, A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Essays of the WPA. Others are collected among the Ellison papers in the Library of Congress.  In some excerpts I have read from this oral history project, there are clearly stories that inspired Ellison and served as a foundation for characters in the novel and even as a verbatim source for some dialogue. One Harlem interviewee told him “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me,” a line spoken by Mary in the novel (and the play). Of his work with the W.P.A., Ellison once said, “I would tell some stories to get people going and then I’d sit back and try to get it down, as accurately as I could.” This documentary foundation inspired his imagination and allowed him to create his own Harlem in the pages of Invisible Man.

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