Court Theatre’s world premiere gives College students new insight into Invisble Man.
Discussions in Kenneth Warren’s undergraduate course Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Problem of Democracy begin with students raising questions based on themes in the novel and related essays. At the start of one class in January, Warren asked his own question first to frame the conversation about individualism versus collectivism and the contradictions of democracy.
The previous night, the group had attended Court Theatre’s world-premiere production of Invisible Man, a challenge of dramatic adaptation—and not only because the novel is nearly 600 pages long and opens in a cellar with 1,369 light bulbs burning, a detail incorporated into the set. Ellison resisted adaptations, insisting that none be done until after he and his wife had died.
The author died in 1994 and his wife in 2005, after which playwright Oren Jacoby began working with Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, to bring the classic to the stage. Court Theatre had some advantages in securing the rights to produce Jacoby’s script, including support from Warren, a leading Ellison scholar and the author of So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor in English, consulted on the production and incorporated it into his class, asking his students how seeing the play shaped their thinking about the book’s themes: “Does the problem of staging the novel produce questions for us that maybe the novel on its own doesn’t raise?”
“This novel is profoundly about an individual life,” one woman said. A phrase in the play’s program was “particularly odd,” she thought, “where it says something about the everyman’s journey. I thought, ‘This is not about an everyman. This is about a very particular character.’”
That character journeys from a southern black college, where he’s cast out for failing to uphold an unspoken arrangement with its white benefactors, to the Brotherhood in New York, where his oratorical power makes him a leader in a Marxist movement. The invisible man’s isolation even within those organizations and the story’s precise historical setting in the late 1940s prompted Warren to amplify the woman’s point: “As you say, it’s not an everyman, not even a sort of Christian everyman; he’s sort of a particular individual at a particular time. But that may raise the question, why should we be concerned with this particular individual? Can he do away with representativeness altogether?”
In the humid warmth of Cobb Hall, with the January snow shaken off their coats and stomped off their boots, Warren’s students teased out answers to those questions. Both the college and the Brotherhood exist, ostensibly, to advance the causes of collective equality and of individual freedom. Focusing on the tension between those goals, the class noted that Bledsoe, the college president, expects students to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the race. Yet Bledsoe’s bombastic rule over students belies his own subordination to the college’s wealthy white patrons.
One woman’s reading led her to see Bledsoe as perpetuating white society’s power structure, providing limited opportunities for African Americans within parameters that kept them subservient. On stage, though, Bledsoe’s circumstances reminded her of Primo Levi’s essay “The Gray Zone,” describing concentration-camp prisoners who assumed favored status. “People in this sort of privileged position are, in fact, oppressed in an even sadder way, in that they are not only oppressed, but they come to mimic and look just like their oppressors. Seeing it in the play, it seemed a lot more sad. I almost felt sympathy that Bledsoe was in this position.”
The invisible man himself seems caught between the forces of individual and racial progress—overlapping but occasionally conflicting ends that weigh him down each time he rises in social status. Warren noted that the ideal of a college education is to produce critical, independent thinkers, but “it’s precisely that type of individual who ends up being a threat to the order that the college and, I guess presumably, the Brotherhood are trying to impose. So what they want is to produce individuals who reflect a particular take or view on reality.”
A man added that any organization, no matter how open-minded, has certain ideals, and anyone whose thinking does not align with them risks being oppressed. Warren distilled the idea: “Is thinking, by its very nature, antiorganizational?”
“Oh, man,” a woman said, “that’s a question.”
The invisible man’s experience suggests that an individual who sets himself apart from a group, in thought or in action, risks becoming a pariah. Even when he believes he’s conforming, ignorant of the forces that interpret his actions as hostile to the college or the Brotherhood, the result is the same: he’s ostracized. Warren asked what the two organizations represent in the novel.
“Is, say, the college under Bledsoe the same as or different from the Brotherhood? … Are they different geographically located instances of the same thing?” Sociology, Warren added, would be interested in the differences between a southern black college and a northern political organization. He asked if Invisible Man could be read as an anti-social-science novel because it equates the two institutions. “Is the force of Ellison’s novel to say this is like the other?”
No, said the man who prompted the question about the nature of thinking. “One person can think in isolation, but that causes no change. The invisible man goes down into his cellar and [thinks] about it, but none of his realizations would have happened if not for his several accidents and key events that contained people, that contained society, that impact him.”
Society’s effect on him is punishing. His sincere attempts to succeed within its boundaries fail again and again. One man identified a pattern of “trying to do the right thing and always ending up in a fight … as he continually struggles to attain individuality and equality within society.”
The degrading battle royal he endures as a high-school student—thrown into a ring to brawl with a group of boys—repeats itself in different forms throughout the novel. In physical and verbal altercations, he’s forced to assert himself against people who would strip him of his identity and dignity.
“In the play he says he feels like everyone he has come across has manipulated him in some way,” a man says. “This pressure on him takes on very different disguises, but it ultimately boils down to the same sort of loss of individual autonomy.”
During winter quarter Kenneth Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor in English, included a requirement never before available to his course Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Problem of Democracy: attending Court Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of the 1952 novel.
Attendance at the play and writing a three- to four-page essay on the relationship between the book and the adaptation added new layers to the class’s literary interpretations. In addition to Invisible Man, students read The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library, 2003), Conversations with Ralph Ellison (University Press of Mississippi, 1995), and Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995).
Class discussions, which made up 20 percent of a student’s final grade, explored, among other questions, “whether a novel that so powerfully addressed the problem of democracy in a society that was still legally segregated can continue to speak for our post–Civil Rights world.” Each student was expected to pose questions for a session, posting them to the course’s online discussion board 24 hours before the class met.
In addition to the essay about the play, students wrote a five- to seven-page paper analyzing a chapter of the novel, and another examining the connection between fiction and politics in Ellison’s work.
Scenes from the world premiere of Invisible Man at Court Theatre.