Photo by Anthony Rathbun
The name of the writer Donald Barthelme rarely appears without “experimental,” “avant-garde,” or “post-modern” attached. In truth, Barthelme, who died in 1989, at fifty-eight, from throat cancer, is an uncategorizable writer. He was an ingenious collagist, a Duchampian user of found language, a playful smasher and remaker of the short story. He discovered a surprisingly capacious hinterland between fiction and poetry that also overlapped with uproarious humor.
One label he is never given is dramatist. But throughout the nineteen-seventies Barthelme created as many as seventeen dramatic adaptations of his work. (This process frequently required almost no adaptation at all: in his sixth story collection, “Great Days,” published in 1979, seven of the sixteen stories consist of nothing but dialogue.) Sometimes he worked with Wynn Handman, at New York’s American Place Theatre. Their most ambitious effort was an adaptation of Barthelme’s first novel, “Snow White.” A protracted, adults-only act of mischief perpetrated on the familiar fairy tale, “Snow White” first appeared, in its entirety, in The New Yorker, in 1967. Its exuberantly fragmentary form and preoccupation with sex in the shower provoked a storm of critical praise and subscription-cancellation requests. Barthelme worked on the adaptation for two years. On June 10, 1976, the American Place Theatre presented a rehearsed reading, which Barthelme later called, in a letter to Handman, an “invaluable” experience that taught him “what a poor play I had written.” The adaptation of “Snow White” disappeared.
Barthelme was an inveterate thrower-away of things, according to Julie Grob, an archivist at the University of Houston, which obtained the writer’s papers in 2002. (Barthelme, an alumnus, was one of the first teachers in the school’s creative-writing program.) But then, Grob told me recently, his wife, Marion, “started fishing things out of the trash.” At the time of her husband’s death, Marion retained just one early “Snow White” adaptation, dated 1974 and bearing emendations, in Barthelme’s hand: “AWKWARD,” “TOO LONG.” In 1996, she arranged for a private reading of the script at Houston’s Alley Theatre. By then, Greg Dean, a member of The Catastrophic Theatre, a Houston group that staged existentialist drama in a former punk club, had been working on his own adaptation for years, using a posthumously published version of the “Snow White” play that had come from Handman. After the private reading, the artistic director of The Catastrophic Theatre, Jason Nodler, approached Marion to ask for Barthelme’s copy of the script, and the rights. She was supportive but noncommittal. The “Snow White” play vanished again.
Marion Barthelme died in 2011. When The Catastrophic Theatre made another overture about the adaptation recently—this time, Rich Levy, a member of the advisory board, approached Barthelme’s daughter Katharine—they got a more enthusiastic reply. “Sure!” she recalls saying, after consulting her sister Anne. “But do you know where the play is? ’Cause I don’t.” Together Grob and Katharine found the 1974 typescript, with the handwritten complaints. “With this copy,” Katharine told me, “there are often two ways the story could go, and it’s left unsettled as to which way D. B. would prefer. So I said to Greg, ‘When there’s an open question, turn to the book.’ ” This was exactly what Dean had already been doing, on and off, for almost twenty years. “Snow White” will finally have its world première on Friday.
In the decade and a half since they first inquired about “Snow White,” The Catastrophic Theatre has grown a little more mainstream. It’s moved from the former punk club to a new and architecturally significant arts facility in midtown Houston. (It continues to charge patrons only what they can afford.) “Snow White” rehearsals have been held in a large, cold, white room with enormous mirrors and windows. When I visited recently, a gorgeous spring day was going by unnoticed. Cast members took turns sitting at the room’s outer edges and standing, pacing, collapsing, and writhing while speaking Barthelme’s poetic and inexplicably hilarious lines about failure, desire, shower curtains, and other problems. The première was just days away, but the room was very calm. “I think the operative thing here is awkwardness,” Dean said to the actors. “It’s awkward to hang your friend. It’s uncomfortable. It’s ‘Oh, shit. There’s Bill. We’re hanging this guy. I really don’t want to make eye contact.’ ”
In his adaptation, Dean has sought to take no liberties and every suggestion. “It is anticipated that the production will make use of a number of songs,” a note at the start of the 1974 typescript reads. “These tentatively include . . . The Chinese Baby Food Song . . . The Witch Song . . . Love Has Died Here.” There are eight other titles but no music or lyrics. Dean’s choreographer, Tamarie Cooper, has created original musical numbers for the production, including a ravishing fan dance with baby-food jars and a soldierly march using buckets and squeegees.
After the rehearsal, Dean, the stage manager, the actors, interested scholars, civic leaders, and Barthelme superfans convened at a nearby bar for what was billed as a panel on Barthelme but which felt, happily, more like a party. Strings of Christmas lights relieved the darkness, barely. The bar’s proprietor explained to a visitor the origins of the “good daytime beer” he had recommended (he commissioned it, as one might commission a play). Forty-five minutes after the discussion was scheduled to begin, the room was finally called to order.
“Roger Angell, of The New Yorker, tells the story of the hundreds of cancelled subscriptions when he published Donald Barthelme’s ‘Snow White’ in its entirety, fifty years ago, in 1967,” Rich Levy began. “One letter-writer called ‘Snow White’ ‘bilge.’ ” Other speakers followed, united by a rare quality at a panel discussion: delight. David Theis, a former student of Barthelme’s, told of being so frightened in his writing workshop that the student next to him held his hand. “Don would stop you after your first paragraph and ask, ‘Does this get better?’ ” Theis said. “But he was also the only teacher who, if something was good, would lead the class in a round of applause.” Olive Hershey told of Don arriving at her house with a bottle of Scotch and a pencil, to edit her novel. Robert Cremins revealed that, in 1987, Barthelme published an urban-planning paper suggesting revitalizing a seedy and moribund corner of downtown Houston that he thought might one day be as creative and vital as parts of Barcelona. Today, that corner is the site of the new and architecturally significant arts facility in which “Snow White” is being staged.
When Dean spoke, off the cuff—he didn’t know the panel organizers were expecting anything from him—he described years of solitude, “sitting in these rooms in these cities where I didn’t know anyone, reading ‘Snow White’ aloud to myself and then typing—and cackling.” He spoke of taking long breaks, during which the adaptation “marinated in a box,” and then, always, opening the box up again. Outside, on the large and pleasant second-story porch, superfans who had got too deep in their cups before the panel began to realize it had started were drinking and laughing. It was a soundtrack that Barthelme—who, by all accounts, loved a good party, and gave a good party, and who will, posthumously, preside over another in Houston this Friday—would have enjoyed.