In Leap From Page To Stage, UK's Take On 'Catch-22' Gets It Right

In Leap From Page To Stage, UK's Take On 'Catch-22' Gets It Right

7:58pm Jun 05, 2014

Catch-22 is widely considered a great novel; until now, it has been a disaster as a play. Though Joseph Heller adapted his work for the stage decades ago, every production had been a failure. Now, however, a new production of his play seems to have broken the curse: It is touring the UK and receiving strong reviews.

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"Catch-22" is one of those rare books that's so successful, its title has taken on a meaning of its own. As in, catch 22 - a no win situation - damned if you do, damned if you don't. The novel has sold more than ten million copies since it was published half a century ago. The play has been much less successful, until now. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story from London.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In one sense, "Catch-22" feels made for the stage. The World War II novel is intensely verbal. One reviewer in 1961 famously complained the book did not seem to have been written, quote, instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. Even the audio book sounds like a movie without the sound effects.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Reading) Don't interrupt.

Yes sir.

And say, sir, when you do, ordered Major Metcalf.

Yes sir.

Weren't you just ordered not to interrupt, Major Metcalf inquired coldly.

But I didn't interrupt, sir, Clevinger protested.

No, and you didn't say sir either. Add that to the charges against him.

STEPHEN WHITFIELD: It's true that Heller had an unusual gift for dialogue.

SHAPIRO: Brandeis University professor Stephen Whitfield has written about Joseph Heller's "Catch-22."

WHITFIELD: He said that he had no capacity to depict what, for example - the natural world or natural activity would be like. His real gift in that sense is, indeed, for the oddities of the way human beings communicate with one another.

SHAPIRO: So the verbal-ness of the book makes it perfectly suited for translation to the stage or screen. Virtually everything else about the book makes it a beast. The characters are two-dimensional and they number in the dozens. The plot jumps forwards and backwards in time. The scenes feel almost hallucinatory. Despite those challenges, a 1970 movie of "Catch-22" was a critical hit. A New York Times reviewer called it, the best American film I've seen this year. Alan Arkin plays Yossarian, the World War II bomber pilot who doesn't want to fly any more missions.


JACK GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) He has to be crazy to keep flying after all the close calls he's had.

ALAN ARKIN: (As Yossarian) Then why can't you ground him?

GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) I can, but first he has to ask me.

ARKIN: (As Yossarian) That's all he's got to do to be grounded?

GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) That's all.

ARKIN: (As Yossarian) And then you can ground him?

GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) No, then I cannot ground him.

ARKIN: (As Yossarian) Hey, hey, hey.

GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) There's a catch.

ARKIN: (As Yossarian) A catch?

GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) Sure, a catch 22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground them.

SHAPIRO: The theater director, Rachel Chavkin, saw that movie when she was in high school.

RACHEL CHAVKIN: The movie is one of my favorite films.

SHAPIRO: And she had already been obsessed with the book.

CHAVKIN: I mean, I remember being, like, seven and my mom talking about General Scheisskopf.


SHAPIRO: What would she say, when you were seven, about General Scheisskopf?

CHAVKIN: You know, this - just the - being surrounded by these people gone mad with ambition, and the idea that if you have a desk you have power.

SHAPIRO: Fast forward to the present day, and Chavkin is now the acclaimed artistic director of a Brooklyn theater company. When she heard that a friend of hers in England wanted to mount a production of "Catch-22" for the Northern Stage theater company...

CHAVKIN: And I basically threw myself at them, and said, oh you should let me adapt it because I have read that book many, many times.

SHAPIRO: He said yes. She came on board, and then they found out there's a catch. Joseph Heller wrote a theatrical adaptation of his own novel. Anyone who wants to put "Catch-22" on stage has to use Heller's script, which has always been a total flop. Chavkin was undaunted. She has a reputation for doing experimental things with a script. Her plays tend to be physical, musical and as she describes it, constantly on the brink of spiraling off into total chaos, which is a perfect description of "Catch-22's" bureaucratic, incompetent wartime world. In this production, nine actors play dozens of characters.


PHILIP ARDITTI: (As Yossarian) They are trying to kill me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Nobody is trying to kill you.

ARDITTI: (As Yossarian) Then why are they shooting at me?

ACTOR: They're shooting at everyone. They're trying to kill everyone.

SHAPIRO: The actor Philip Arditti plays Yossarian, the bomber who doesn't want to fly any more missions. In rehearsals, Arditti identified a bit with his character. He knew that every previous production of this script had been a flop.

ARDITTI: I did feel like, you know, the artistic director of the Northern Stage had sent me on a mission to bomb. You know, I was like, oh god doesn't he understand I might die on that stage? Doesn't he understand?

SHAPIRO: Opening night was in April, and then the reviews came out. One called it a brilliant production. Another said, it mines the text for every nugget of tragic, comic gold. After decades it seems someone finally managed to escape the catch. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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