Don DeLillo, one of the world’s most celebrated novelists, sits at the end of two long folding tables that have been pushed together. He is listening, pressing his right hand against his nose and forehead or writing on a yellow legal pad, his face expressionless except for an occasional nervous smile.
The author of “Libra,” “Underworld” and other books is not in a lecture hall or a bookstore, but in a large, windowed meeting room of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Seated around the tables are four actors giving a first reading of his play, “Love-Lies-Bleeding,” scheduled to open in late April for a monthlong run.
“I saw a dead man on the subway once,” begins John Heard, who stars as Alex Macklin, a painter incapacitated by a stroke whose family is deciding whether to end his life. “I was 10 or 11, riding with my father. The man was in a corner seat, across the aisle. Only a few people in the car. A dead man sits there. This is the subway.”
The reading is low-key, tentative, a dip into a very deep body of water. The 69-year-old DeLillo, wearing large-framed glasses and a gray sweater, has told the cast he considers the play to be “saturated with the idea of the preciousness of life.” Director Amy Morton, who sits next to the author, has advised cast members against being “precious” about the words.
“It’s not a colloquial language,” she says, “but it’s a language these people are used to speaking.”
Heard, known for such movies as “Home Alone” and “The Pelican Brief,” may be the most famous face to the general public, but DeLillo is the room’s acknowledged star and elder statesman. Cast members address him as Mr. DeLillo until asked by the author to call him “Don.” A passage from his fiction is quoted from memory by understudy Levi Holloway, who sits off to the side.
Heard, with just a hint of fun, compares DeLillo to Shakespeare.
“It’s an actor’s dream,” Heard says of the dialogue. “But at the same time, the language is his language, so you get scared if you start to paraphrase. I’m constantly going back to the script, ‘I saw a dead man on the subway once.’ It’s not like, ‘There was once a time I saw a guy on the subway.”’
The cast assumes DeLillo’s greatness as a playwright, but there is no guarantee that audiences and reviewers will do the same. Judging from the past, chances are good that they won’t. From Henry James, booed off a London stage after the opening night performance of his “Guy Domville,” to Saul Bellow, whose farce “The Last Analysis” closed after a brief Broadway run, great fiction writers have a long record of making little impact in the theater.
“If you think of a lot of those writers, none of them are especially dramatic,” says literary critic James Wood, whose books include “The Broken Estate” and “The Irresponsible Self.”
“James, Bellow, DeLillo: They’re writers who seem to need quite large canvases, or really need the expository prose the novel provides. Bellow needed all of his descriptive capacities because that’s what was so wonderful about his writing. He needed to write some dialogue, but then move back from that and describe the physical shape and aspect of the person who’s doing the talking.”
Some plays by major authors were modest in scale and soon forgotten, like John Updike’s “Buchanan Dying” or E.L. Doctorow’s “Drinks Before Dinner.” Other novelists had grander plans, like Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose satire “The Vegetable” was written for Broadway, but instead opened — and quickly closed — in Atlantic City, N.J.
“The problem for Fitzgerald was that drama is a collaborative form and Fitzgerald was a terrible collaborator,” says Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli. “His problems in the theater anticipated his heartbreak in Hollywood. He didn’t want people changing his prose.”
Over the past 20 years, DeLillo’s novels have established him as a defining narrator of modern alienation, of the soul surrounded and swarmed by technology. At the same time, he has quietly — and he likes it that way — completed three plays, including “The Day Room,” a two-act piece set at a hospital and a motel, and “Valparaiso,” a satire about celebrity and the loss of privacy.
DeLillo has never endured the humiliation of James, or imagined that the theater would make him rich, but so far his stage work has mostly reinforced his status as a novelist. In 1987, a dismayed Frank Rich of The New York Times compared “The Day Room,” DeLillo’s first play, to “‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ as it might be rewritten by a pretentious undergraduate who has just completed the midterm.”
A decade later, the Times’ Peter Marks found “Valparaiso” to be “flawed and only mildly provocative.” Ed Park of The Village Voice was more impressed, saying the play reaffirmed DeLillo as a spokesman for “our American magic and dread.” DeLillo’s new work was released in book form early this year and was praised by Harper’s critic John Leonard as a “brilliant” play that expresses “the mute heart’s murmer and the bone-deep grief.”
The author himself insists that plays come second to his fiction — “I think of myself as a novelist first, always.” He is aware of what has happened to other authors-turned-dramatists and wonders if success in one format makes it that much harder to work in another.
“I think a writer’s greatness may well be defined by his lack of adaptability to other forms,” DeLillo tells The Associated Press during a post-rehearsal interview. “A writer may have a narrow range of interests, even a narrow sight line into human complexity, but if he writes a certain way, and with a certain intensity, for a certain period of time, this may well be what constitutes greatness.”
DeLillo sees his plays and his novels as belonging to separate worlds. While “Underworld” offers a vast, open-ended setting for post-World War II culture — from a baseball game to a nuclear test site — DeLillo prefers confined spaces as a playwright. His work is usually set in a single room, with a handful of characters. “The smaller the better,” he says.
“For my plays, I tend to see action happening in a stage format, rather than in the real world, which is where I see things when I’m doing a novel. In ‘The Day Room,’ I imagined a hospital room, but I imagined it in the context of a stage.”
Theater is an adjustment for DeLillo, and not only because of the writing. He is a private man who doesn’t give many interviews and shows his novels to just a handful of people before they’re published.
“With a novel, the book is done, it’s finished and it stays the same,” he says. “With a play, there’s change, not only over a broad span of time, but from night to night; the play changes from one night to the next. ... This is something I am very open to, probably because I am not exclusively a playwright.”
On this first day of rehearsal, the dialogue is left untouched, except by DeLillo, who asks that a few words be cut. His play is read through once, then started a second time, with the actors stopping frequently for analysis, taking advantage of the presence of DeLillo, a New York resident in town for just a few days.
“It’s unnatural for me,” the author says later of the discussion. “But I can understand why actors need it.”
DeLillo had been asked by cast members about Alex. On whom is he based? A painter he knew, DeLillo says, “sort of a middle-range artist.” The actors note that the play moves back and forth in time and question DeLillo about the chronology. Louis Cancelmi, who plays Alex’s son, Sean, wonders if there is an Oedipal tension between the two characters.
“It’s not in there,” the author responds.
After the actors have left, DeLillo says that “Love-Lies-Bleeding” began with what became the play’s opening line, words that simply popped into his head, “I saw a dead man on the subway once.” For years, he had thought about that line before deciding to build upon it, writing another line, then another.
“What I began to understand was that this was an older man speaking about himself as a young boy, witnessing this startling moment on a subway,” he says. “It wasn’t a scene I would describe, but a scene a character would describe, in the first person. And I began to understand this may be a play.”
The play is a somber meditation on what it means to be alive when technology can prolong your existence indefinitely, but there’s enough humor, especially about Alex’s numerous marriages, to draw laughter from the cast, if not DeLillo.
Morton, the director, acknowledges that she had a hard time connecting to the play until she came to appreciate its humor. “It’s so great to finally hear it,” she says during a break after the first reading. “When I read it for the first time, I thought, ’I don’t know if I can do this. ...’ This took like three readings before I went, ‘OK, OK,”’
DeLillo calls writing plays a “very elusive sort of art” that he has yet to master, and his next project is a novel. But he will not confine himself to a single art form; it depends on where an idea takes him.
Long ago, he recalls, he even wrote a screenplay.
And how did that go?
He laughs. “I’ll talk about that off the record.”