It seems appropriate that Dhalgren, or at least the latest mutation of it, will return this month to the city of its birth. On April 1—Delany’s 68th birthday—the Kitchen will begin staging an adaptation called Bellona, Destroyer of Cities. Its director and writer is Jay Scheib, an MIT professor and rising theater-world star who’s been obsessed with Dhalgren for years. He once devoted an MIT course to the book, and has even adapted it into a play in German.
“It took me roughly a year to read Dhalgren for the first time,” Scheib says. “I would read the same ten pages over and over and over again.” The loop structure impelled him to keep coming back. “You get the feeling that the story has been going on like a fugue for millennia,” he says. “The second time you read it, it’s thrilling. The third time, it makes you high. After that it’s like reading philosophy.” The play’s producer, Tanya Selvaratnam, took the opposite approach, reading the entire book in a day and a half; by the end, she says, she felt like she was hallucinating. One of the actors told Scheib that reading the novel was the hardest thing he did all year. (Delany hasn’t read the book in probably fifteen years and has little interest in doing so; his energy is focused on “futzing” with his next novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, due in November.)
The notion of turning Dhalgren—this disorienting vortex of pure textuality—into a functional play seems, at first, like some kind of literary joke, the equivalent of turning the Tao Te Ching into a murder mystery. Scheib concedes that the task occasionally feels impossible. For the Kitchen show, however, he’s come up with a handful of innovative solutions. He describes the set as “buildings and rooms inside of buildings and rooms,” portions of which will be hidden from parts of the audience. Live cameras will provide glimpses into areas that can’t be seen directly, mimicking the novel’s shifting perspectives and layers of mediation. The way the actors move is designed to evoke Dhalgren’s strange prose rhythms. “We’ve tried to find a physically charged syntax that would stand up to the images and actions of the novel,” Scheib says. “We move through dance and extreme physical actions. Things that aspire to be a kind of poetry in space.”
The surprising thing is that it all seems to be working. When I sit in on a rehearsal, the feel of the novel is unmistakably present: the openness, the casual strangeness, the charmingly aggressive discomfort. Delany, who also sat in on a read-through, agrees. “All too often,” he says, “when creative people pick out someone else’s creative work as an inspiration, what they end up with is very, very far from the original. I was prepared for that. But this felt familiar to me.”
The Kitchen adaptation aims to be the next cycle of Dhalgren: It begins where the novel ends, with a new character—a woman instead of a man—entering Bellona. “In the novel,” Scheib says, “when the narrator shows up, he has sex with a woman who turns into a tree. And then he has sex with a guy, and then with a girl. Then another guy. Then a guy and a girl. So we try to keep that spirit alive.” Scheib points out that, 35 years later, Dhalgren remains improbably contemporary. “We still battle with race and identity and sexuality,” he says. “In the world of Bellona, people seem to have made peace with a lot of that stuff. There’s a different attitude: They talk openly about their problems and wear their prejudices on their sleeve, and it’s somehow okay. Difference produces meaning in a way that it doesn’t sometimes in life.” Which is almost as bizarre, in its way, as a pair of moons in the sky.