Adapting Bolaño’s Unadaptable Masterpiece for the Stage
The co-diretors of 2666 on translating 900 pages into 5 hours
Early last year, I read that Chicago’s Goodman Theater was producing 2666 for the stage with the help of a six-figure grant from a one-time Episcopal monk turned Powerball winner. A story strange enough for Roberto Bolaño himself—but it’s not fiction. This month [February] Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls and Playwright-in-Residence Seth Bockley premiere their adaptation of Bolaño’s posthumously published masterpiece. 2666 is a 900-page novel written in five loosely connected sections that span from modern-day Mexico to WWII Germany. It follows the narratives of dozens of characters, from four European academics trailing an enigmatic writer to police officers investigating the hundreds of female homicides plaguing the city of Santa Teresa (based on real events in Ciudad Juárez). Falls and Bockley’s adaptation of Bolaño’s novel is five hours long and features an ensemble cast of fifteen actors. Recently, I spoke to the co-directors about the years-long process of turning 2666 into a play—the journey from passion project to world premiere.
Monika Zaleska: Robert, in the New York Times there’s this great anecdote about you being in Barcelona in 2006 and seeing these vivid promotional posters for the paperback edition of 2666. Was that the first time you came across Bolaño’s work?
Robert Falls: Yeah, it absolutely was. As I wandered around Barcelona there were these giant posters—I mean twelve feet by six feet—three, four, five of them side by side on these ancient walls in Barcelona. It was an image of a desert with pink crosses and in blood red letters, just the numbers—2666. His name wasn’t even on the posters. I didn’t know what it was, but I was incredibly taken and haunted by this. I asked my friend about it and she told me about this book by Roberto Bolaño. I read the novel as soon as it came out [in the U.S.] and was really blown away by it. Surprisingly, I saw [the novel] as theatrical, though many people said it’s not adaptable.
MZ: For each of you, is this your first time co-directing? Robert, how did the project become a collaboration? Seth, how did you get involved?
RF: I have not co-directed with someone before, though I’ve done an enormous number of new plays, where I’m trying to get the writer’s vision on stage as clearly as possible. So it wasn’t an utterly unfamiliar process. I worked on 2666 for about a year on and off. It’s important to remember that we didn’t have the rights to do it at that time. I just wanted to experiment with it. I started to edit the book down, creating some new sequences and thinking about how it might be adapted—and then got stuck. That’s when I approached Seth. It was a leap into the unknown, but the book is stylistically varied, so I thought that two stylistic approaches would bring different things to the [five] sections.
Seth Bockley: This is kind of a dream project for me. I’m both a big Bolaño fan and a fan of literary adaptation—it’s a big part of my practice as an artist. Bob approached me in 2011 with this out-of-the-blue question, “Hey, do you know Roberto Bolaño?” I had read The Savage Detectives as well as the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, which was one of my favorite things I had read in many years. I immediately read 2666 and then we began to approach it as co-adapters, and ultimately as co-directors. As far as collaboration goes, I’ve done a number of pieces where I’ve either shared writing status or directing status or both. I really enjoy the opportunity to serve in one role and then switch hats and look at the piece from a different angle.
MZ: When did this play shift from “a passion project” into a concrete production? How did the generous grant you received from The Roy Cockrum Foundation figure in that development?
RF: We ultimately did receive the rights to work on 2666 proper. The Goodman has been a very generous place to work—allowing us to hear readings of the work, to bring actors together repeatedly to read sections, to have workshops and really explore it, without really knowing when or how it could be produced. While its not out of the range of Goodman’s largest productions, 2666 was unusual enough that its expense—the size of the cast, the weeks of rehearsal needed, the five-hour length, the number of costumes, the complexity of adding video and extensive sound design—was daunting. It was only about sixteen months ago that out of the blue, [The Roy Cockrum] foundation representative called us. [After reviewing our proposal] Roy came back and said this was exactly the kind of work he wanted to support. We decided to stage the production in late winter 2016. It is certainly a significant grant and a much appreciated one.
MZ: You have an ensemble cast of fifteen—yet 2666 contains many more narratives. How did you streamline the storylines and create scenes to highlight discrete characters with strong intentions or objectives?
SB: We are approaching each section differently. For example, the first section [of 2666] is about four European academics and their search for the great author Benno von Archimboldi. We have four principle characters and the other eleven actors play a large assortment of colorful personalities. The story of [the academics] is given in the form of a lecture that breaks into scene. So it goes from direct address to the audience, to scene. But in part three, “The Part about Fate,” there is no direct address or narration. We’ve converted it all into dialogue, building on the very vivid characters of Chucho Flores, Oscar Fate, and Rosa Amalfitano. In that section, some scenes are actually translated directly into the medium of film—a few extended sequences are captured entirely on video.
MZ: Robert, you’ve worked with many of the actors in 2666 before, and have said that some of these artists played key roles in developing the production.
RF: I do think [the production] has an extraordinarily unique ensemble feeling, more unusually because of the development process. We’ve been working on this on and off—sometimes a year has gone by before we can get together and do some work on the play. At least three quarters of the cast has been with [the production] for a number of years. You know [this project] is very complicated, at times difficult and at times wildly pleasurable, but having the same company of actors has been fun.
SB: We have an ensemble portraying Bolaño’s kaleidoscopic, poly-vocal universe and its intentionally enormous cast of characters. But part of what we can do with that is find echoes. I feel that Bolaño’s work, 2666 and his other work, is full of echoes, moments that recall other moments—a sense of rhythm and a sense of doubling in some cases. For example, in the first section we have an actor play a seemingly insane painter, who has been imprisoned in an insane asylum in Switzerland. Then, later, this same actor plays a German murder suspect imprisoned in a Mexican prison. This allows the audience to see those literary echoes in-scene, translated to actors’ bodies and voices.
MZ: 2666 starts with a Charles Baudelaire quote, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” I was wondering how you tried to capture that atmosphere—the feel of Bolaño’s universe—in this production.
SB: We want to honor Bolaño, to convey the feeling we got when reading the novel. It’s a book that calls to mind the word “uncanny” quite a bit. We’ve talked about David Lynch and the feeling his movies have—the feeling that something just off-screen, or just below the surface is lurking, some kind of threat, and that provides a kind of ominous tension. What is beautiful about that Baudelaire quote, of course, is the contradiction. “An oasis of horror”—how can horror be an oasis? How can we put the worst aspects of humanity, that is to say, a propensity towards evil, the propensity towards mass murder as evidenced in Santa Teresa or in the Holocaust, next to humanity’s greatest accomplishments, or greatest attempts at beauty? Bolaño’s looking at those extreme contradictions and we want to put those juxtapositions into the room, as best we can.
MZ: Conversely, Bolaño has a great sense of humor and there’s a great sense of irony in this novel, how do you balance these aspects?
RF: Well, we’re trying. [laughs] It’s an attempt. I think we just put a foot in front of us every day like soldiers coming into work. I think we were both drawn to the novel because of its very instinctive sense of humor and irony, just how it plays with literature, and how it turns back in on itself in a sort of meta way. I found that first section about academics extremely funny when I first read it, and I still do.
MZ: Yes, me too.
RF: It’s a wonderful comic, campus novel in a way, a literary parody and a brilliant satire. So we try to mine the irony and the humor throughout. As Seth said, that’s part of honoring Bolaño.
MZ: Part four, “The Part about The Crimes,” has very lengthy, journalistic descriptions of women murdered in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa. How did you chose to handle that part of the book artistically—it’s repetitive, it’s overwhelming, it’s very graphic—how do you perform that on stage?
RF: Visually, it’s centered on the world of the cops, some corrupt, some not so corrupt, all them overwhelmed by the murders that are going on in Santa Teresa. Then the other main story is this sad but beautiful love story between an older woman, Elvira Campos and a police officer Juan de Dios Martínez. I’ll let Seth speak to the forensic reports.
SB: I also saw there was a lot of humanity [in those two stories]. That’s why we chose to show the humanity in the face of inhumanity. We do absolutely want to convey—almost like rain beating down on the audience—the relentless litany of names and details of the murders, what we’re calling forensic reports. We have chosen to convey a lot of the text that’s in the original. [The women of the ensemble] deliver those forensic reports to the audience, in juxtaposition with the often-ineffectual police work happening.
RF: The desire is to recreate the experience the readers of the book are having. You become numbed and numbed and numbed, overwhelmed by the number of these forensic reports. But yet when the cops tell these horrible anti-woman jokes you are really horrified. I find that a fascinating juxtaposition and we’ve held onto that. There’s no representation on stage of any violence towards women at all, in that section. You get the same effect hearing those words, the way it is when you read it in the novel.
SB: Among other things 2666 is a book about writing, the act of writing, and the importance of writing, whether shown through the journalist Oscar Fate or the author Benno von Archimboldi. It is very much, I believe, Bolaño’s intention to hold up journalism as a worthy, noble, and brave activity. He does have a strong female journalist character, Guadalupe Roncal, which we’ve chosen as one of our central characters in part four. For me, it is important to have the perspective of a female-writer character in that act, as well as with the forensic reports themselves.
MZ: If you aren’t a Bolaño fan—if you haven’t read 2666—can you enjoy the show without that context?
SB: I always feel that a great story doesn’t need any explanation or context, and this is no exception. It is absolutely and undeniably a sprawling, ambitious, some might even say experimental text. But I find it to be absolutely relatable and accessible. We have always included people from outside the literary world, as well as those who have no familiarity with Bolaño, in every reading [or workshop] we’ve done.
MZ: I’m curious what you think about this mysterious title—2666. After working so closely with Bolaño’s text, do you have any insight into what he might mean?
SB: In Bolaño’s novel Amulet, there is a relatively obscure and poetic passage where he talks about a cemetery the year 2666. Again that’s an echo. My personal interpretation is that it’s a vanishing point: a point at which everything that we’ve known, and everything that’s been created, and all of the events that occur in this amazing novel have been forgotten, or turned back into whatever they started out as.
RF: I love that it’s simply mysterious, the same way it held my attention on that poster in Barcelona. It feels very, very important, doesn’t it? 2666. But it’s also absolutely meaningless. There isn’t a single reference to it [in the book] or a connection that can be made by anyone watching the play. I think that’s sort of funny and sort of disturbing, which fits Bolaño’s worldview.
2666 runs from February 6th to March 13th on the Goodman’s Owen Theater stage.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Feature photo, Sketches by Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic for 2666 at Goodman Theatre