There are only a few times in each person’s life where they get to experience something wholly unique and awe-inspiring. Last night was one of those times for me. My wife, Becky, and I went to the first preview performance of 2666 at the Goodman Theater. Adapted from the 900-page novel by Roberto Bolaño, the play is a five-hour epic. In fact, the scope of the show is so large that last night was the very first time the cast and crew had run the play all the way through. Quite frankly, I came into the theater not at all convinced that 2666 could even work as anything but a novel. Its size, density, and conscious lack of reliance on traditional dramatic structure make the novel a bear to read. The idea of breaking it down into a digestible form and then adapting it to the dialogue-driven medium of the stage seemed like madness. Somehow, the Goodman Theater pulled it off. I still cannot quite grasp how, but I have to recommend that everyone who is in Chicago and interested in theater as an artform goes to see it while they can.
For those who are unfamiliar, 2666 started as a novel by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. Writing it consumed the last years of his life before he died of liver failure in 2003. It was published to rapturous acclaim in Spain in 2004 and received similar adulation upon its translated into English in 2008. The novel is divided into five separate parts, each of which is (mostly) set apart from the narrative of the others. The unifying element in all five sections is the fictional city of Santa Teresa on the border between Mexico and the United States. In Santa Teresa, just as in Ciudad Juarez, its real-life inspiration, the 1990’s see hundreds of women murdered, mutilated, and dumped in the desert outside town. These femicides are the horrifying lynchpin of 2666‘s disparate narrative threads and themes.
It’s both the massive size and punishing themes of 2666 that made any attempt an adaptation so difficult. It’s a certainty that this production would not have happened without a stroke of luck. The Goodman was given a grant by Roy Cockrum, a former actor and monk (!) who won the Powerball. Mr. Cockrum decided to spend his windfall supporting ambitious, but commercially untenable artistic endeavors. That largess allowed the Goodman’s artistic director Robert Falls and playwright-in-residence Seth Bockley to spend months of rehearsal and untold millions mounting this quixotic production.
As mentioned, I attended the first preview performance. The planned performance was to take five hours and ten minutes, which included three 15-minute intermissions. The final run-time was closer to five hours and forty-five minutes. Incredibly, I never felt like the time was a hindrance to the performance. The time commitment was certainly massive, but the audaciousness and the quality of the work kept me glued to the action on stage.
Even more remarkable, I found that this stage production furthered my appreciation for 2666. It took me about a year to read the novel. It staggering length certainly played a role in that. It was hard to keep so many characters, plots, and themes straight in my head. As the difficulty of the text increased, I found reading 2666 to be a wearying experience. The impact was diluted when I finally did finish. By contrast, the necessary compression and simplification that an adaptation demands helped clarify Bolaño’s magnum opus for me. His punishing theme is that all money and power are bought by the brutality and exploitation experienced by the world’s most vulnerable. The killing of women in Santa Teresa is the inevitable result of our attempts at civilization.
Act Four,”The Part About the Crimes,” makes this point with devastating clarity. Through the act, a naked woman’s body lies on the back of the stage, a constant reminder of the endless femicides that overwhelm Santa Teresa. Throughout, three nameless female narrators appear again and again to tell the audience of the names and circumstances of the victims. The police seem incapable of solving the crimes at best. At worst, they are actively complicit in the massive crime. Near the end of the act, a police officer has been told to drop his investigation into the femicides entirely. He calls his lover, the director of Santa Teresa’s asylum. She asks if the crime wave will ever end. “No. It will never stop.” He says this and then curls into a ball on the stage’s floor and lays his head on her body. It’s a moment of devastating resignation and despair. I have never seen anything quite like it on stage. I urge you to experience it if you can.