Lord of the FliesFebruary 8th, 2009 at 9:17
Michael Harrah, the prime mover of our Junior Light Opera theater company, had an inner circle of older youth in the company who he bounced ideas off for what shows we would do. I recall one day, he and I returning in his station wagon from the Tobin Lakes Studio outside of Ann Arbor that rented or sold various props, costumes, lights and lighting supplies that we needed for several of our productions. I was telling Michael that I had recently read William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” in my British Literature class and fantasized about doing it as a play.
To give you a little background, Michael was always looking for the challenge of an unorthodox theater piece or doing a more traditional theater piece in an unorthodox way. For example…
* Since our company had nearly two females for every male youth while most plays had more male than female leads, he was known to cast young women to play parts written for males – so when we did the musical “Fantastiks”, the parts of the two fathers of the leads he changed to two mothers, with great added comic value.
* He added a love scene to our production of Hamlet where Hamlet takes Ophelia into his bed, something that is only implied in Shakespeare’s dialog.
* He hired a young rock composer to rescore the musical “Flohooley”, with an original score written in the 1940s.
If you read and remember “Lord of the Flies”, it is a very provocative story about British school boys, crashed on an island with all their accompanying adults killed, who quickly lose their veneer of civilization and descend into mayhem and savagery. When I broached the idea, I am guessing that Michael immediately saw this as a potential production that would raise more than a few eyebrows when staged. He told me it was an inspired idea and he thought we should do it. Only problem I told him, was that to my knowledge no one had written an adaptation of the novel for the stage.
“Why don’t you write it,” Michael suggested. Now I was a fifteen year old kid at the time who had never attempted anything close to a project of this magnitude. I struggled to type a three page school paper on my little portable electric typewriter. But like a good teacher or mentor, Michael had a way of inspiring us to do things we would not have otherwise thought we could do. After much discussion the rest of the way back into town, I finally agreed at least to give it a try writing the script.
I spent most of my free time for the next three months pounding out a script on my JC Penney’s portable electric typewriter. It was certainly no great work of adaptation, since I really had no idea what I was doing, but I kept at it until a draft was finished.
One of the issues I encountered early on was that the characters were English and spoke English swear words and other slang. I decided to Americanize the dialog, mapping the English slang to its American equivalent or near equivalent, as best I could figure out. The phrase “Bollocks to the rules”, used several times in the book’s dialog, was a particular challenge. “Bollocks” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for testicles, and is used in English slang to mean nonsense or to otherwise demean the object of the sentence. What would an American kid say in the same situation? After some thought, the two Americanized phrases I came up with were “Screw the rules” and “F**k the rules”. Profanity for a fifteen year old is pretty heady stuff. I decided to go with the later of the two phrases.
When I showed the eighty page script to Michael and he read the passages with the Americanized expletives, he did not flinch at all. He felt the script would work, “F word” and all. He mimeographed copies of the script and we began the process of assembling our production team and casting the show. Later on the “F word” would lead to controversy and a hearing with parents, a school board and recreation department representatives. Artistic freedom versus the appropriateness of the material for school age youth was discussed. In the end I think we agreed to leave “F**k the rules” in the evening performances, but change it to “Screw the rules” in the school matinees.
As I have said before, most youth theater companies including JLO, have more females than males. “Lord of the Flies” had some 15 male speaking parts and not a single female. This was a bit of a challenge because some of the males in our company who often did key backstage jobs were recruited to be in the cast. So to staff all the positions, we ended up with an almost all female stage crew supporting the all male cast.
The person in the show’s production team responsible for publicity got in touch with the theater critic of the Ann Arbor News who agreed to do a story on me, the 15 year old youth who wrote the script for the play. Later the same critic came to the show and wrote a review, calling the play “flawed but suspenseful”.
The whole thing was an incredible experience for me. Taking an idea from conception through script writing and language controversy, and then participating in the production as one of the scantily clad and blood spattered cast. Heady stuff for a teenager with low self esteem but delusions of grandeur.
One final thought on Golding’s book. Though I loved the experience of writing, mounting and performing in the play, the book is an interesting tale of the inner savagery of British school boys. It is an interesting discussion between some who believe that men in particular are innately savage and need to be “tamed” by civilization, others who believe that children have the devil in them until it is beaten out of them, and still others (like myself) that believes that our patriarchal society with all its mores kindles violent behavior in boys (to be good soldiers someday perhaps) and then tamps it down with conventional parenting and schooling. Whatever the source, Golding’s is a dystopian tail of the release of that savage energy.