Did you drift off to sleep last month thinking of how you’d spend your Powerball millions? What’d you come up with? The Edge’s Malibu mansion? Twitter dot com? The next Wu-Tang album? A night with Ted Danson? That’s cute. Roy Cockrum, a former monk, won a $249 million Powerball jackpot in 2014, and has been redistributing his newfound wealth by funding plays: “The Glory of the World” in in Louisville and New York; Tracy Letts’ “Mary Page Harlowe” at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago; and a five-hour, three-intermission adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which starts its five-week run this weekend.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to Robert Falls and Seth Bockley, who adapted and directed the play, about the production’s history, how they got involved with Cockrum, and the difficulty of translating a five-part, nine-hundred-page novel into a stage production.
Who first wanted to do this adaptation, and why?
Robert Falls: I didn’t know anything about Bolaño until 2005 or 2006. I was in Barcelona, and was struck by these posters: A desert, a field, pink crosses, and just the numbers 2–6–6–6. They were all over the place. I don’t speak Spanish, and I asked a friend what was going on, and he explained it was the publication of the paperback of 2666, which had already been a huge success in Spain and throughout Europe when it was originally published. He told me about the book, even more about Bolaño, who was in the last years of his life. I found it an extraordinary story. When I finally read it, something about it struck me as quite theatrical. Even the fact that it’s in five parts seems to imply an epic quality that could be done in, let’s say, an hour an act. I worked on it, on and off for a couple of years, then I sort of said, “Well, I should get serious about it. But I need a collaborator, someone who knows more about adaptation than I do.”
Seth Bockley: Robert approached me out of the blue and asked if I was familiar with Bolaño. I had read The Savage Detectives,and the short stories in The Last Evenings on Earth, which I loved. And he said, did you read 2666? I had not. It was really kind of an open-ended question at that point. I’m a writer and director, but come from a literary background. I studied comparative literature, specifically Spanish as an undergraduate, so this project was a direct hit for me. I love adaptation. I really, really love the work of Bolaño. And of course this enormous challenge, which is how to bring this sprawling, kaleidoscopic, surreal, literary work to the stage.
Logistically, what are the first steps in taking a nine-hundred-page book and turning it into a production?
Falls: I began that process by trying to identify — emotionally and, in many ways, intellectually — what the themes were. It’s incredibly complex, but it wasn’t difficult for me to get it down to which characters seemed to be the most important. It’s not entirely character driven. It’s almost more thematically driven: It mirrors itself, there are echoes, the book goes off in incredibly different directions for hundreds of pages — things that, for a theater artist, it’s obvious you might want to lose. I did the first carving away, then passed it over to Seth.
Bockley: Form is a big question when you’re adapting literature for the stage, meaning, what are the theatrical devices you’re using to translate the mood, the intention, the narrative. That’s always my starting point, in addition to what characters may be our protagonists. The sense of place and world is what I love about this novel. I think theater is a wonderful medium for creating worlds, and the approach has been to craft these really different approaches. So, for the world of the academics in Part One (“The Part about the Critics” in the novel), we approached it as a universe of lecturing. That’s very much opposed to the brutal world of Part Four (“The Part about the Crimes”), where we’re presenting a series of scenes and forensic reports taking place in a hostile and sterile police office.
A five-hour play seems daunting from the audience’s perspective. Is that a tough length to work with?
Falls: I actually just came off a five-hour play, a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. I almost used that as a model. I knew how that works, and also what keeps the audience in their seat. Can an audience see a five-hour play every week or month? No, I don’t think they can. We live in a time where lots of plays are eighty-five or eighty minutes long, single acts, but we’re also living in a time where the epic is part of our diet. It’s not a meal you want to have all the time. But it’s an interesting bonding experience when an audience comes in knowing they’re making a commitment of four, five, or ten, twelve hours. There’s a bonding they do with the performers, the piece itself, and the audience with them going through the experience.
Bockley: It is a form of binge-watching, isn’t it? I see it that way, as a chance to get lost in something, the same thing we do when we watch the entire season of Transparent in one sitting or one day. You’re giving yourself over to a big work or experience, and letting yourself get lost in it.
When I read reports about this, there was the mention of a Powerball lottery winner funding this. How important was that to the production?
Falls: That was essential. Even with the rights, which allowed us to pursue the writing and adaptation, we were never sure how to actually produce it. It’s extraordinarily expensive, a rather large cast of fifteen, a large physical production. I was worried about it being done in our main house of nine hundred seats because of the length, but I also couldn’t conceive of it in our smaller, two-hundred-and-fifty-seat theater because it would be too expensive. So we’d been going back and forth about how to produce this, and along came Roy Cockrum, who was a theater person who devoted himself to a monastic life, left that, and won the lottery.
Bockley: It’s a story worthy of Bolaño. The former actor and former monk supporting his parents, and one day, just buying a lottery ticket, winning hundreds of millions of dollars, and the first thing he does is support this adaptation.
Falls: Once he got the money, he said to himself, “I’ve always thought if I came into a load of cash I’d love to support ambitious and unusual theater productions.” He had been really taken with the work of the National Theater in Great Britain, adaptations with a lengthy rehearsal process. He said, “Why don’t I see more of this in the United States?” He realized, it’s resources, it’s money. So he created a foundation that was invitation-only. He knew my work, he knew the work of the Goodman, and we were among the first to sit down with him. He said, “Do you have any big, ambitious projects that can’t be produced without support?” And I said, “Boy do we have the project for you.”
Falls excused himself to leave for a meeting — not really worth mentioning, other than it explains his not answering the next batch of questions.
After Bolaño’s death, there were rumors about a sixth part of 2666. And the posthumously-released Woes of the True Policeman has crossovers with 2666. Also, there are the actual murders in Juarez that much of 2666 was based on. Did you use any of these or other outside materials?
Bockley: I have not read Woes of the True Policeman because, from what I understand, it is in some sense a first attempt at this novel. It has some of the same characters and overlaps, but I regard it as something of a first draft. 2666 is complete and has its own internal integrity, so I didn’t want to muddy the waters. That being said, I’ve read all of Bolaño’s other fiction and it does belong to a coherent universe. People call it the Bolañoverse. You’re asking if there were sources outside, and indeed, yes. For example, there’s a small moment in Part One where we’ve interpolated the figure of Auxilio Lacouture, the self-appointed mother of Mexican poetry, the leading character of his novel Amulet. As far as Juarez, as you know, Bolaño was never in Juarez around the time of the crimes. Bolaño’s own source was his friend Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, who appears as a character in Part Four. His book The Feminicide Machine was a major point of research and inspiration for us.
What’s been the most difficult part of the adaptation process?
A big challenge we’re just finally solving — that’s taken us years — is the timeline. Even something basic like, does Part Two happen before Part One? In an ordinary work, it would be extremely clear. In Bolaño’s, it’s thorny and difficult. For example, Part One begins with a bunch of dates. In 1993, they meet at a conference. In 1994, they meet up again. About halfway through, Bolaño stops using dates, so there’s an amount of detective work to figure out the literal chronological sequence. The second challenge is translating that to the audience.
You’ve been sitting with 2666 for longer than most people. Do you have an opinion of what the title actually means?
This is my pet theory. Two things: In Amulet, there’s a reference to the year 2666. It’s a very mysterious and poetic passage that talks about a cemetery in the year 2666. It’s completely oblique, poetic, dreamlike, but it suggests a kind of vanishing point, a point at which everything is forgotten. 2666 is a year in which everything we’ve seen is forgotten, all the people, all of the people’s names, everything about them. Another thing I like to think about is 1666 was called annus mirabilis, the Latin term for “the miraculous year,” by the English. It was a year in which many good things happened in the British empire. It’s a possibility Bolaño chose 2666 as an inversion of that construction. It’s a diabolical year, the opposite of the annus miabilis. It’s my crazy theory.