Felipe Alfau Doesn't Want You to See Thisby Trish Harnetiaux
This is all Mac Wellman’s fault. He fully admits that all his favorite writers are fascists. So when talk was starting earlier this spring about the Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival, he pulled out his copy of a little known book by Felipe Alfau titled Locos: A Comedy of Gestures—and I like to think literally threw it at playwrights Scott Adkins, Normandy Sherwood, and Richard Toth. Mac discovered the book when it was re-published by Dalkey Archive in 1988, and was at once drawn to Alfau as a remarkably odd and isolated figure in literature.
Alfau migrated to the United States from Spain when he was 14. Though Spanish was his first language, he later chose to write his prose in English. He came from a family of journalists, translators, and academics, viewing his own fiction as frivolous in comparison. Locos was published in 1936, celebrated, forgotten, rediscovered some sixty years later, celebrated, then forgotten again.
In the book’s introduction, Alfau tells us there is no need to read it in sequential order (there are ten interlocking stories), and actually, in his opinion, there’s pretty much no need to read it at all. But, thankfully, we do read it and the world that opens up is that of a unique voice who is powerless over his characters’ strong will and ambitions, often allowing characters to run in their own directions while he masterfully pushes the plot forward—keeping the stories twisting and soaring.
Alfau has been compared to Calvino and Borges, though he precedes them both (and by his own admission he had “no idea what those men did”). If you left it up to Alfau, he’d say he just wrote, that’s it, and he didn’t work particularly hard at it. He told his stories completely unconcerned with criticism. In an interview in 1993 for the The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he told interviewer Ilan Stavans, “I am not a professional writer. Only by necessity have I ever received payment for my work. Dalkey Archive Press offered money for my two novels, but I refused to accept it. For my poems, I received $500 because I needed to pay the monthly payment here, in the retirement home. The truth is, I was never interested in writing, nor did I ever dream of making a living at my craft. I hate full-time authors. I hate intellectuals that make a living from abstractions and evasions. The art of writing has turned into an excess. Today, literature is a waste. It should be abolished, at least in the form we know: as a money-making endeavor.”
The reader never feels comfortable with a character in Locos because they are constantly changing into others, there is no concern for consistency. When you think you have something figured out, you are told you don’t, everyone is an unreliable narrator. But, it is in these abrupt shifts of perspective, when the stories surprise even themselves, that it becomes clear that behind all this seeming chaos lies a master puppeteer who prefers to stay in the shadows.
This year’s festival playwrights are Adkins, Sherwood, and Toth. Adkins explains that four years ago, the Weasel Festival “started off as readings—scripts in hands. But as the production side of it got streamlined, each writer started taking it further. And each director started taking it further and pushing it harder.” The only rule of thumb for the festival has been that it is produced by playwrights one year (all current and former Brooklyn MFA students of Mac), then, in turn, their work is presented the next time. Adkins, Sherwood and Toth decided to present a united front. Each of them selected a story from Locos, and all three plays will be presented together fully staged as an evening of theater.
In the madness that is Alfau’s work, each playwright had to find his own way in, to decide what sort of adaptation was necessary. “My first impulse was to stay very close to the text,” says Sherwood, who is adapting Necrophil. “I think one of the reasons that Mac was excited about this book is that the stories are already so dramatic, they’re just waiting to be adapted to theater. I found as I’ve been working on it, I’ve been getting farther and farther away from it [the original text]. For some reason that had seemed like the right point of entry, to say ok, what would it be like if we were just going to stage this… then I felt annoyed with it, started wanting to poke holes and change it.”
Adkins had similar feelings about the strength of the original text, explaining that his adaptation of The Character is “almost a literal adaptation. I didn’t write that much at all, I used most of the language from the story as much as possible. There was so much dialogue already, I just pulled all the dialogue out and was like, ok, what’s there? It’s very similar to my aesthetic anyway, there are lots of stories within the stories—so I utilized that as the key to it. I feel like it’s really important to me to say that he wrote this. I really feel strange putting my name on it. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like a playwright versus a writer.” Adkins feels like a lot of the adaptation work in The Character will come from director Meghan Finn on this piece, but he’ll be right there with her, discovering the dramatic moments in rehearsal.
Toth’s approach to his piece, Identity, was to lift the story and café setting of the initial Alfau piece, but personalize it. “My point of entry is that Alfau uses himself a lot,” he says. “He talks about his struggles as a writer. He talks about how HE wants something to happen but the characters want something else to happen. So I thought it would be interesting to use myself. So instead of Alfau talking about something, it would be me talking about something. And he uses his friends. So in my play, the characters are Richard Toth, Normandy Sherwood, and Scott Adkins. It keeps true to the story I think, the idea that the guy doesn’t have any sort of identity whatsoever, or any personality. He comes to two of his friends that say they will make a personality for him – but the guy’s got to jump off the bridge and pretend to be dead. And then somebody else takes on his identity. So there’s a former Richard Toth and a new Richard Toth.”
Playwright Amber Reed, one of the festivals producers, is also creating a short stop animation video that closes the evening and will introduce the audience to Alfau. She explains that the “text for the video is entirely from Ilan Stavans’s interview with the 90-year-old Alfau at his Queens retirement home…The video isn’t meant to do anything more than present Alfau in his own words, with all his terrible particularity, and then send people on their way.”
Finn’s role as director, as Adkins mentioned, will be crucial not only to complete the adaptation, but to present the audience with unifying themes that they can hang onto while embracing the differences between the pieces. “All three stories are clearly adapted in the unique style of each writer,” Finn explains. “It’s necessary to both support the vision of each playwright individually, while creating a cohesive journey for the audience. It demands a flexibility on the part of the actors as well. Ultimately, I think that the three different voices will be what makes the evening work. Ideally, it will work as Alfau’s novel does: just as the reader grasps a character or a relationship there is a shift that occurs to always keep them guessing. This will be the experience for our audiences. They’ll just have to go along for the ride.”
Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival runs July 17 - 19 at 7:30 pm at the 13th Street Theatre, 136 E 13th Street, NYC. For tickets or additional information, email firstname.lastname@example.org