Lord of the Flies

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.

Me in costume
Me in costume
Another exciting element of the production was the costumes. The characters start out in the white shirts and dark slacks of their school uniforms but soon resort to a uniform more befitting their descent into savagery, animal fur loin clothes – very brief and rather risqué. You can probably imagine our performances – kids on stage from five to fifteen in loin clothes carrying spears smeared with blood and occasionally shouting “F**k (or Screw) the rules”.

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.

4 replies on “Lord of the Flies”

  1. Hi Cooper – I had absolutely no idea what you have been doing, but I was very moved when one of my clients referred me to this article. I often think of AAJLO fondly, and believe me, even though I loved and respected you all, I had no idea how profoundly and uniquely talented you all were until I tried to duplicate JLO elsewhere. So many of you – and you in particular – were huge influences in my life and my career. I have worked in Hollywood in casting, in production, in front of the camera, and for so long in personal management. Had I had you all out here, perhaps things could have been so much different. Anyway, the article is inspirational. Lord of the Flies could never have happened without you, and I will always be grateful for the trust and loyalty you gave me, so much more than I could ever give back. Thank you for everything; I probably never said it enough.

  2. Michael… so great to hear from you after all the intervening years from when I first came to Los Angeles and lived with you in Toluca Lake. I feel like that was such a long time ago. Here’s a link to a short encapsulation of my “bio” from my blog… http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/about/. I have a wonderful soulmate that I’ve been married to for 29 years and we have two great now young-adult kids Eric 26 and Emma 23. Though I did not stay in theater after college, the collaborative and project-based skills I learned helped prepare me for a next life chapter as a political/community activist and then later, to get a good paycheck to help finance a family, as a systems and business analyst, the paid work I still do today.

    But my life’s work is in my writing and my advocacy for young people, youth rights, and our society’s overall transition from hierarchies of control to a more egalitarian circle of equals. It was JLO where I first experienced that circle and how capable we young people could be! And I thank you so much for making that enterprise possible, letting it be ours and not just yours as the “adult”.

    Anyway, if you are interested, I have my blog site http://www.leftyparent.com, and on the right column are a bunch of pieces I’ve written about my life in roughly chronological order. There are some specific pieces about you and JLO as follows…

    http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/2009/02/08/lord-of-the-flies/ (which you read)

    And then a combination and rewrite of all of the above in… http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/2012/02/15/unschooling-in-the-art-of-theater/

    Tho I’ve dabbled with writing throughout my life, I finally found my groove with it about four years ago when I was laid off from my job at the time, but with five month severance, and started going to a little coffee place every day and trying to write about my life so far. After a couple months I finally got the bug and now it is my favorite thing in life, and I structure my weeks to try and have at least two or three days to write.

    Anyway… I’m posting this on my blog but will also email it to you so you have my email. I’m also on Facebook as “Cooper Zale”.

  3. I love the description of what you have done with Lord of the Flies. I am a sixth form student from The Lady Eleanor Holles School in the UK. For quite some time some sixth formers at my school have been interested in putting on The Lord of the Flies as a play at our school and the way in which you have adapted the story is really inspiring. Would you please consider allowing me to look at your script and possibly borrow some of your ideas such as “F**k the rules” which quite frankly I find ingenious! Please get in touch if you have any advice or warnings about putting on the play of Lord of the Flies. Thanks,

  4. I’m responding to your comment about our production of “Lord of the Flies” and the script I wrote. I would be happy to share the script with you, though I don’t know what if any intellectual property issues you would have doing a version of the book on stage. We did the play back in 1971 and I don’t recall us getting any permissions.

    I would be happy to share the script with you but all I have is a hard copy. I would either have to scan all of the 60 or 70 pages or make a hard copy and mail to you. Let me know what you would like to do!

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