To Kill a Mockingbird, Then And Now

Getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to catch the bus to New York was not easy, but it was well worth it. We were going to see the Broadway production of To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Shubert Theater on 44th Street is beautiful in a soft and old fashioned way, with the musty air of old wood and upholstery, pallid lighting, bas-reliefs on the walls and on the ceiling, narrow seats in narrow rows, steep stairways and a bar on every level. This venerable hall took me back in time, closer to 1936, the year in which the action of the play takes place. The show was sold out. How they manage to pack in so many people for a matinee show in the middle of the week, I don’t know, but such is New York. There are people everywhere, all the time.

60 Minutescalled the show “the most successful American play in Broadway history.”

Sorkin’s adaptation is remarkable. After successes like The West Wingand The American Presidentthat sent the heads of his tree-hugging audience like myself happily spinning, I didn’t expect anything less. The production of the play at this moment in time is not a mere coincidence and its somber political message resonates. How much has racist America changed since Harper Lee wrote her Pulitzer winning novel? The answer is not much at all.

I was interested not only in the way Sorkin managed to preserve the feel and texture of the novel, but also in how he extracted its essence, reducing and squeezing a 325 page story into a much shorter play. Sure, some scenes had to be eliminated (most notably the one with Atticus shooting the mad dog, which reveals qualities Atticus hid under his calm demeanor) and others were moved in the sequence of events without giving up an iota of what was important. Sorkin analyzed the book, disassembled it, found its heart and then put it together again as a tight, engaging 155-minute play. As writer myself, I learned a lot.

I had heard about the play To Kill a Mockingbird watching Stephen Colbert interview actor Jeff Daniels. Apparently, Sorkin wrote the play with Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus in mind. Colbert and Daniels discussed the image that the novel, and later the movie with Gregory Peck, had seared into our collective conscience. How does one dare step into Gregory Peck’s huge shoes? How does one revive something that had been as successful without it being stale? How do you breathe new life into it?

Sorkin did it. When I saw the play, Ed Harris had replaced Jeff Daniels as Atticus. And Harris’ performance was flawless. Why? On one hand, because he’s a great actor, but on the other hand, this was because the script was magnanimous and versatile enough to accommodate someone new. When Ed Harris first stepped onto the stage the audience applauded. At the end, they rewarded the cast with a standing ovation.

Since we bought the tickets months before the show, I prepared for it. We watched the movie with Gregory Peck. I read the book, again. The novel existed forgotten in me, in that place where the books to be read in adolescence and which subliminally shape your life forever usually go. I mean, those like the Catcher in the Rye or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Tom Sawyer or Lord of the Flies.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a teenager in Romania in the mid 1960s, in what I thought was an outstanding translation from English by Tatiana Malița. I remember walking from the tram station to a Bucharest literary workshop for high school students and talking to my friends about the book. I don’t recall what was said, besides the fact that the book was a must read. We were looking for literary perfection, and much of the Deep South reality and lingo had to have eluded us, being as far away from Maycomb as we were, and reading in a different language. We often thought that the well-reported racial tensions in the US were mostly communist propaganda.

I enjoyed the book then, and I liked reading it now. I googled some of the typical Southern expressions and, to my surprise, discovered that there is an entire, chapter-by-chapter vocabulary on line. I admired the interactions described by the youngest character in the book, only to detect hidden irony, the fact that the people weren’t innocent in the least, and that everyone paid a price in the end. I loved the delicacy of the storytelling, and the impression that at any moment, the polite and neighborly friendliness would break like a porcelain teacup. But in fact the entire novel is resilient. The flaws it describes are not delicate. They cut deep. People die.

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