You may have read all of William Faulkner's novels, or maybe his tangled, modernist prose was too much. No one ever said Faulkner was easy. But the truth is that Faulkner is one of our great Southern and American writers. In fact, his chronicles of life in Mississippi are so important it could be argued that you can't understand the Magnolia State unless you understand Faulkner. "Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?" a one-man play at New Stage Theatre, offers a rare and thoroughly pleasurable means of getting to know the great writer.
The show stars John Maxwell and opens in an intimate setting. The stage is made up to look like Faulkner's room, which you can still view at Rowan Oak in Oxford. There is a typewriter, a bed and replicas of portraits that hung in Faulkner's study. If you look carefully, you can see both a hat and a pipe that actually belonged to Faulkner.
Maxwell's entrance is captivating: He comes out and immediately conveys Faulkner's personality by staring at the audience and demanding an explanation for their presence. For a surreal experience, try to sit in the front row. The show is intimate that Faulkner—er, Maxwell—offers ginger snaps to the audience.
Maxwell's performance makes you laugh in one act and breaks your heart in the next. The play doesn't focus too much on Faulkner's writings; he was famously taciturn about them and, in any case, they are familiar territory. Instead, we hear from Faulkner about himself, particularly his struggle in 1950 over whether or not he should accept the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The first act goes on with Faulkner continually refusing to accept the coveted prize, while the second half brings him to the tearful conclusion that he is obligated by all those he loves to travel to Stockholm and accept. Though Maxwell has said that no one knows exactly why Faulkner had a sudden change of heart, this play makes an impressive effort to reconstruct his reasons.
The speech Faulkner gave in Stockholm, mumbled so quietly that some members of the audience could hardly hear it, became one of the most famous Nobel Prize acceptance speeches ever. This scruffy Southern writer captivated the world by sounding one of the earliest, most impassioned warnings about nuclear weapons.
"There are no longer problems of the spirit," Faulkner said. "There is only the question: When will I be blown up?"
There are, of course, also plenty of lines from Faulkner on whiskey and the Baptist church in this play. Faulkner's sardonic wit will keep you laughing even as you are moved by his unique personality.
Theaters all over the United States, as well as in 12 other countries, have produced the show. I felt privileged to see a play that is renowned throughout the world. After the performance, Maxwell told fans that when he started this show 25 years ago, he never imagined this kind of feedback or success.
"Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?" is wonderfully written and beautifully performed. The show has been sold out for most nights, so New Stage has extended its run until August 12.
Call New Stage Theatre at 601-948-3533 for tickets.