The fourth show of our upcoming 2018-2019 season, MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD: A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY, sees the return of Playwright Joseph Goodrich's work to our stage. Goodrich previously adapted the Ellery Queen mystery CALAMITY TOWN for our 2016-2017 40th anniversary season. We talked with Joe about the fame of Nero Wolfe, working with Vertigo, and the unique opportunities of adaptations.
Nero Wolfe is perhaps one of the most beloved of fictional American detectives. What drew you to adapt him to the stage?
After Calamity Town, I wanted to bring another of the “Golden Age” detectives to life. (What constitutes the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction varies from person to person, but it refers to works created between 1920 and 1960.) Wolfe was an obvious choice – his popularity is undiminished in mystery circles, and he’s still recognized in the larger world of non-mystery fans. I’ve met a number of Wolfe fans who don’t read any other mysteries; they just love spending time with Nero and company.
You previously debuted CALAMITY TOWN at Vertigo Theatre in 2016, an adaptation of Ellery Queen, another famous fictional American detective. How do Wolfe and Queen compare for you?
Both are super-sleuths and descendants of Sherlock Holmes, the king of all gifted (and often eccentric) detectives. Apart from that, the two are complete opposites.
Ellery Queen’s character went through a number of changes over the years, moving from a bloodless intellectual to a much more human figure – a change which began with Calamity Town. He becomes involved in the lives of the people who come to him for help. Nero Wolfe’s character remains essentially the same over the years, which is one of the continuing pleasures of the series; his foibles endear him to readers. Rex Stout created a world as palpable for Wolfe fans as Victorian London is for the devotees of Sherlock Holmes.
The Queen novels are densely plotted and challenge the reader to solve the crime before Ellery does. This rarely happens! The Wolfe stories, on the other hand, are much less concerned with plot machinations. The heart of the books is the relationship between Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. It’s a classic case of the immovable object – Wolfe, a sedentary figure who almost never leaves his brownstone on W. 35th Street – and the irresistible force – Archie Goodwin, who pokes and prods Wolfe into crime-solving when finances run low. Archie narrates the stories; his “voice” is classic mid-20th century demotic speech. He’s young and breezy. Wolfe is stolid and middle-aged. Readers love the clash of temperaments. It’s the reason the books can be read over and over again even though the reader knows who the villain is.
What are some of the challenges of adapting these stories to the stage? What are some of the opportunities?
The question of “voice” was one of the major challenges. The books are in the first person, whereas the stage is relentlessly third person. I had to find a balance between narration and action.
Another challenge related to plot. The books aren’t plot heavy, but they still have them. I streamlined and compressed the plots in both plays because, unlike the reader, an audience member can’t turn back the page to check a detail. The audience must never lose the thread of the story. The play must always be one step ahead of the spectators.
Rebecca Stout Bradbury, Stout’s younger daughter and the manager of his estate, only stipulated two things: I couldn’t change the title of a book or the identity of the criminal. Readers feel passionately about Wolfe and his world, so I tried to be true to the spirit of the stories, even though I altered something here and cut something there. Any dialogue I invented had to match the language of the books.
Form was also a consideration. Because The Red Box was published in 1936, it was appropriate to use the conventions of the classic well-made play, something you’d have seen on Broadway during those years. Might As Well Be Dead was published twenty years later. The theater scene had changed, which gave me permission to shake things up a bit. Box had one location, Wolfe’s office. Dead travels all over New York City, from Wolfe’s office to Greenwich Village, from mid-town to the City morgue, from a prison cell to a courtroom…and I’m probably leaving a few out.
The main influence on the play’s form was Vertigo’s production of Calamity Town. I was deeply impressed by the staging and the projections. Locales shifted in the blink of an eye – one moment you’re here, another moment you’re there. I kept that in mind when working on the adaptation. I can’t wait to see the Vertigo production!
One of the great pleasures of moving Queen and Wolfe from the page to the stage is the opportunity to introduce them to readers and audience members who may not have heard of them before. They’re classic sleuths, part of a great tradition, and they deserve to be celebrated.