Bringing Walker Percy to the Stage

Walker Percy’s extraordinary parody, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, may be too controversial to produce as a play. Five years ago, as I began to adapt the book into play form, the script evoked responses ranging from profound appreciation to scandalized outrage. One friend of mine, a Baptist who spends a month every summer at the theater in London, told me that he would rather not pollute his mind with such sordid subjects as violence and fornication. I asked what Shakespeare would not include this same content. I also asked how he could read the Old or New Testament and avoid such matters, but he had no answer.

A homosexual theater critic suggested to me that, although he did acknowledge Percy as an accomplished writer, he felt that the late Catholic’s fiction (The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming, and Thanatos Syndrome) painted a narrow-minded picture of happiness as a heterosexual couple, of moderate faith, sharing gin fizzes by the barbecue grill. This was stupidly simplistic, as well as alienating to a person of his personal sexual preference.

On the other hand, a physicist wrote me a letter after he had seen a reading of the “Cosmos” script to say that he had never encountered a play, film, or novel which had so challenged him to examine his own moral life. He added that this challenge had hit him the day after the reading because he was laughing too hard during the actual performance to do any serious reflection. An artistic director for a professional theater company had a similar response to his own reading of the script. He described his reaction to the play as being terrified by the “moral implications of the hilarity.”

As far as I am concerned, the most important fact about the reaction to this new work, is that for all of these readings, the audience paid attention. Perhaps they were offended or perhaps they were challenged, but they gave me, the playwright, the most precious commodity: genuine attention.

In the last five years, I have produced seven staged readings of “Cosmos.” These events are prepared with minimum of time because there is no budget for any real rehearsal. At most, there may be a couple of hours to give some essential notes to the cast before sending them off into a living room or an available theater, scripts in hand, to try and engage a non-paying audience’s imagination.

The importance of these readings to producing a new play has risen in inverse proportion to the declining desire of theater professionals to read scripts, or probably to read at all.

It’s difficult to imagine Shakespeare, Chekhov, Williams, or Shaw today interesting a theater in producing one of their new scripts. Their plays are too long by contemporary standards, but more importantly there’s no immediate political agenda to push in these stories. Of course, length can be desirable in the current theater scene considering the critical, if not financial, success on Broad-\way of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. But, Shakespeare and company never ended their plays, as Mr. Kushner has, with actors’ dropping out of character to pronounce to the audience that what has just been witnessed is the truth. Perhaps this device is a real innovation, but I suspect that if an author of another political point of view should try this, especially if he or she were Catholic, the reaction from audiences and critics would be disastrous.

In addition to trying to garner interest in “Cosmos” in my hometown of Atlanta, over fifty proposals were sent to theaters across the country in the hope that they would respond with an interest to produce it. The standard protocol is to send a one-page synopsis of the plot, a description of the production requirements, along with a self-addressed stamped response post-card. On the card are typed two options: (1) “Yes, please send us a copy of the script,” or (2) “We cannot read any new scripts at this time.” Theaters receive thousands of such inquiries monthly.

Actually in most cases, theaters were kind enough to request my script of “Cosmos.” This moved the whole process into the next phase in which hopes were raised with the request for the script, postage and copying costs mounted, and rejection letters, profoundly polite, were collected. The most familiar rejection euphemism I have received in return is a version of the phrase, “This does not fit with the sensibility of our season.” This is unfortunately true.

I have not received any criticism about “Cosmos” being uninteresting, unimportant, or unfunny. Considering that it can be done with six actors of diverse age, ethnic origin, and gender, and that it can be performed on one set in about ninety minutes, means it does not present highly difficult production demands for budget or casting.

Other work which I have adapted for the stage has been realized into full production easily and quickly compared to the “Cosmos” venture. For example, in the late seventies, I left a musical theater job unwilling to perform a song entitled, “For Unto Us a Child is Porn,” a satire on the publisher of Hustler magazine, and proceeded instead to tour a one-man play I had adapted from the writings of C. S. Lewis. In two years, “C. S. Lewis On Stage” had over one hundred productions in more than thirty states, Canada, and a night at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The next idea I had for a one-man play developed within eighteen months into an off-Broadway musical with a score by the late singer-songwriter and humanitarian, Harry Chapin. It was based on Dr. Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch” paraphrases of the New Testament. Like the “Lewis” script, it not only succeeded in being produced, but it made, and continues to make, a contribution to the spiritual lives of theater professionals and audiences wherever it is performed. Actually, inspired by the example of Harry Chapin’s fundraising to end world hunger, “Cotton Patch” has also contributed money to a variety of causes, especially Habitat for Humanity.

But, this kind of swift timing from concept to production has not been the case with “Cosmos.” As I wait for the right time, I am reminded of Thorton Wilder’s description of the playwright’s task: to communicate in a clear and understandable way to the group mind of the audience. Consider the realities of today’s “Group Mind” facing the mind of Walker Percy on stage.

Following is a sample of some of the characters and questions presented in Percy’s “Cosmos:” “The Last Phil Donohue Show” (Cosmic Strangers invade it on a day’s discussion of sexual preferences “to announce that our destructive race is just about to succeed in obliterating itself from the earth); a scientist who uses pornography to assist in his contribution to the U.S. sperm bank, while concluding a deal with the government to perfect “Project Peace,” a catastrophic weapon for ending World War III; the contemplation of suicide as a cure for depression; an Orlando housewife who loses her husband and television set to a mud slide, and feels better for it; the vaporization of Omaha by aliens; the exclusion of doomed American astronauts from a benevolent solar system; addictive sex therapists; the last Methodist; and a Fifth Millennium complete with an atheist feminist arguing with a Black Jewish Pope about whether to resettle earth’s few human survivors in Lost Cove, Tennessee or on one of the moons of Jupiter.

Such content makes presenting the life of Christendom’s most popular author in a ninety-minute play, or producing the homespun melodies of Cotton Patch Gospel, seem like child’s play. As a dramatist, I figure that as long as no one is bored by the work, then I’m on the right track. As a Catholic, I am following a hunch that the conflicting reactions I have heard about the script thus far are a visible sign that on an invisible level more is at stake than the development of a new play.

It has been helpful regularly to conjure mental images of Walker Percy cutting a sort of heavenly Hollywood Agent/Packaging deal with St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to insure that this play successfully smuggles, through the medium of theater, an urgent message to the survivors of the late twentieth century. Actually, there have been times when I thought it was time to abandon my dream of realizing this book into a play. Then, I would be astonished to witness a completely unforeseen turn of events take the project on to the next step.

In March of 1990, I wrote to Walker Percy to ask for permission to adapt his book for the stage. I knew he was sick with cancer, but I didn’t realize that he was close to death. I had postponed writing to him because of acute shyness. It was always comforting to me to remember the story that when Percy was a young man, he and his friend Shelby Foote drove to Faulkner’s home in Mississippi and Percy remained in the car. For several years, in the early eighties, my wife and I had frequent occasion to drive past New Orleans, near to where Percy lived in Covington, Louisiana, but the thought of driving to his home to meet him seemed in the same league with ringing Queen Elizabeth for coffee.

I had written to Percy one other time, the previous fall, because I had wanted to thank him for what his work and life had meant to me. Sadly, it took learning that he was sick to muster the courage to write him a letter of appreciation. Included in my list of gratitude to him was his help in attracting my family and me into the Catholic Church. I did not receive a reply.

When I wrote with the specific request for permission to dramatize his book it was, of course, in order to receive a response. The next news I heard was not a letter from him but the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution article reporting Walker Percy’s death. This was devastating. It didn’t help at all to know he had terminal cancer. The fact of his death was as shocking to me as if he’s been struck by a car and killed at half his age. I used to get through months, years, stages of my life, with a hope grounded in the knowledge that Walker Percy was working on another book. Now he was gone, and I began to curse my fears and shyness which had prevented our meeting. Hadn’t every interviewer of Percy spent at least a paragraph remarking on what a gracious host and attentive human being he had been? I’m a new Catholic and not very familiar with categories of moral failing, but I felt certain that my not contacting Percy must have been a sin of omission. I buried any hope of pursuing rights to “Lost in the Cosmos.”

Then, as if in a novel by Percy or O’Connor—grace. A month after his death I was in rehearsal for a play when my wife entered the room. Her appearance during rehearsal was very unusual. She sat next to me and whispered that Walker Percy’s agent had contacted my agent with the news that shortly before his death, a few days apparently, he had telephoned to extend permission to dramatize “Lost in the Cosmos.” We soon learned that a mutual friend, William Sessions, had written to Percy only about a week before his death, and, in his letter, he had, without my knowing, kindly included an introduction of my work to Percy and described my keen interest in adapting Cosmos. It’s at moments like this in my life that I understand why angels always have to announce their presence saying, “Don’t be afraid.” I trembled at the astonishing circumstances that resurrected a creative dream.

It took about two and a half years to reach a level with the script that was ready to proceed into production. The idea of the adaptation was simply to adapt this parody of self-help books into a parody of self-help seminars. Lost in the Cosmos always struck me as a lot closer to the mark of describing who we are than, say, a generation at the dawn of the “Age of Aquarius.”

But, Percy’s scouring of our society was so thoroughly complex, and the book managed to rise so deftly above the level of mere parody, reaching toward a higher and brighter view of the cosmos, that transferring it to the medium of live performance proved more challenging in execution than in prospect.

The solution was found in one of our living-room readings of the play’s first draft. The actors solicited audience members to participate in one of the multiple choice questions presented by the seminar hosts:

Why is it that the Self—though it professes to be loving, caring, to prefer peace to war, concord to discord, life to death; to wish other selves well, not ill—in fact secretly relishes wars and rumors of war, news of plane crashes, assassinations, mass murders, obituaries, to say nothing of local news about acquaintances dropping dead in the street, gossip about neighbors getting in fights or being detected in sexual scandals, embezzlements, and other disgraces?

When a real person from the audience was brought into play, a wonderful shift of interest- and perspective occurred. Suddenly, there was a representative of ourselves, the audience, society, taking this crazy and profound seminar for us. We could watch to see how we would answer the questions, or play out the different roles required by the seminar games-with-a-life-and-death-purpose. It suddenly became a play about watching this man’s experience of a seminar with cosmic consequences. When he returned to the audience, the audience returned to being present for Walker Percy’s send up of society.

By creating a character to take the seminar, the play changed from a seminar satire to a play about an Everyman trying to complete “The Last Self-Help Seminar.” In the next revision, I added just such a character named Harold Pierceson. He is a thrice-divorced dentist from Anaheim, California, despairing of self-help philosophy. At one time he thought his problem was shyness, so he read Leo Buscaglia who so forcefully advocates being loving and caring. He felt suicidal after reading the books. Pierce- son comes to this seminar with the hope that it will be his last. However, instead of finding self-actualization, the ability to make love better, or how to make more money, he receives a message in a bottle offering him a chance to rescue the human race from an impending disaster.

Shortly after creating “Harold,” I was invited to speak about “Cosmos” to an adult education class at the Catholic Cathedral in Atlanta. Two days later, I received a remarkable letter from a relative of Percy’s who, unknown to me, was in the class that day. He wrote to me of a dream he had that night after I had spoken. He realized he was in a place full of light, perhaps a garden, and slowly a human figure took shape from the light. It was Walker Percy. He jolted with recognition at his relative and asked, “Well, Walker, are you lost in the cosmos?” Percy, after a loud laugh, replied, “Heavens no!” Then more seriously, he asked, “Have you seen God?” Percy also became more serious and said, “Yes, and you see the face of God everyday in the love of your family.” That reply sent a surge of joy through the dreamer waking him up, to sit up straight in bed.

After I was told this dream, even if Walker Percy himself had slipped a message in a heavenly bottle and sent it to earth for me, I couldn’t be any more motivated to pursue this work until, like him, I am delivered of shyness forever, and am found sitting up straight for joy in the Cosmos.


  • Tom Key

    Tom Key is the Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outlet in Atlanta.

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