Norman Mailer: “An Unemployed and Unemployable Hamlet”


Writing is revising.  Most professional writers will hold to some variation on this lesson.  For many, revision is where the real meat of writing cooks – by the next day, the end of the week, or even the end of a full draft, a writer has a basic framework or scaffolding to build around, “flesh out,” or cut, change, kill, and so on.

Writing/Revising for performance is a different beast altogether.  You see, the Norman Mailer Society conference will soon be upon us; I will spend this first week of November in a more southern clime, at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee.  My aim: to dramatize Mailer.  For the past five years, Wilkes University students and faculty have presented Mailer’s prose as Reader’s Theatre.  Now, the team of talent that comprises the 2010 Wilkes Reader’s Theatre group is deep in the mire of performance – or as I like to think of it, active – revision.  Needless to say, it’s exciting to return as one of this groups tried and true members.

READER'S THEATRE GROUP - Mailer Conference, 2009, Washington D.C.: (left to right) Bonnie Culver, Jim Warner, Ross Klavan, Matt Hinton, Juanita Rockwell. (Not pictured: Ken Vose)

As fellow writing alums know, the art of the “cutting” is a fine and delicate one – as far as the presentation of one’s work goes, editing for readings (especially dramatic ones) is comparable to the work of a jeweler.  A writer is a bauble-hound (given his penchant for crystals, the metaphor is one that Mailer would’ve either jovially defended, or laughingly and effortlessly dismembered), shaving the gemstone here, chipping away at it there, and expanding or contracting the band to hold in the panoply of color and light.  With Mailer’s work we already have the benefit of vetted (if at least by himself) and sculpted publications; we have the stone, the “color and light” – now the game is afoot to create a concise and effective script of his thoughts on boxing, bullfighting, writing, and women (and somehow work Hemingway in – fortunately, they shared all of said interests).  We must refine a band that gives this gemstone perspective.

Writing by cutting.  Deeply.  This means getting to the bone, then cutting even deeper.  Getting to the marrow of the bone.  At the same time, we must focus on paring Mailer down without trying to “misunderstand [him] too quickly.”

Puppetry?  Yes.

Really?  Well, no.  It is Reader’s Theatre, and we have the opportunity to once again present Mailer the “literary

Armies of the Night - Source material for the 2009 conference READER'S THEATRE script

character” – which he was known for (he refers to himself in the third person in Armies of the Night, The Fight, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and more) – and the responsibility to avoid turning him into a caricature – which he was all-too-often mistaken for.

So it is an exercise in concision, yes.  Good concision, by definition, includes the demands of depth, as well as breadth.  One cannot simply forgo the devil-swish of the man’s pen, the swagger and detail of his projections and hypotheses on America.  Here is man – a writer – who dared to run for mayor of New York City, predicted a heady (and unfortunate, by his measure) future for plastics, and made three independent films well before it was fashionable and affordable.  As a man of letters, he was a giant; as a boxer, he was diminutive (but effective).  And still, Mailer was so much more than the sum of these few parts.  Indeed, on the whole, these few fun facts seem tawdry and cheap when you consider the small library he produced and his accomplishments at large.  In no simple terms, he was a lion of a man with a soul that must’ve been on fire for the next new experience, that existential moment that sets the mind to roaring and prods one until he can find a way to understand it through ink on a page.

I often (at the beginning of the semester, for introduction’s sake) try to convey to my students just how much Mailer did in his nearly 60 years as a professional writer, and the impact he’s had on my writing life.  This trailer just became available, and I think it makes for a nice 2 minute flash of Mailer’s fire (complete with “misunderstandings” and controversial characterizations):

It is that fire, roaring, and prodding that we have been charged with channeling at the conference.  So far, we made such fine work of it that we have been welcomed, yearly, to return with more.  As the editing goes now, next year should prove no different.

The point should also be made that the art of such editing comes also with the consideration of talent.  The assigned actor or reader brings different affectations to the material.  In this regard, the process is something like that of an artist who paints a portrait with an eye toward capturing the “essence” of the subject.  When the essence escapes the reader, either because of a failed delivery or poor editing (oh, it’s possible), the image goes flat, lifeless, and is therefore seen as dull.  It is the painting that you cruise by with little-to-no contemplation; “average, at best” you mumble to yourself and continue to the rest the exhibit.  With guts, talent, and a shaving of luck, however, the results can be like the natural light that fills a proper gallery – a gallery where the paintings come to life with scenes of shipwreck, exploration, love, murder, humor, passion.  At that point, the presentation ceases to be “Reader’s Theatre” and morphs into something nobler: it becomes, simply, theatre.

As it currently stands, I will be portraying the “voice” of Mailer, while friend/producer/colleague Ken Vose will convey both men’s “thoughts,” or narration.  Poet and confidante Jim Warner will take on the role of interviewers and writer counterparts, with screenwriter Ross Klavan (Tigerland) playing the counterpart in our narrative – Papa Hemingway.  Wilkes Program Director Bonnie Culver will take on female roles and other voices.

Again, I return to the metaphor: in November, we will present the conference-crowd-cum-audience with a ring.  I’ll post our performance and progress, of course, and we shall see if our band and gem offers the prism-like spectacle of the world seen through Mailer’s eye, or if it is simply a hoop forged of cheap ore and faintly holding zirconia.

I PRESENTED IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS! - Mailer Conference, 2009, Washington D.C.: If you squint hard and look to the left, you can see me presenting my paper, entitled: "Advertisements for Others: The Blurbs of Norman Mailer"

One Response to “Norman Mailer: “An Unemployed and Unemployable Hamlet””

  1. October 2010 – The Write Life Says:

    […] Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment » […]

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