There is much to appreciate in University of Illinois’ Professor Tom Mitchell — the Associate Head of the Department of Theatre. He has unearthed the value of five early Tennessee Williams’ plays that many had dismissed and he scored these revelations with student casts. He has also earned a reputation as a fearless innovator.
Beginning September 28th at Krannert Center's Studio Theatre, Tom Mitchell will stage Robert Penn Warren’s own adaptation of All the King’s Men with an all-female cast.
Did I not say he was a fearless innovator? Perhaps Professor Mitchell’s own insights might help here.
Smile Politely: Why did you choose for this adaptation an all-female cast?
Prof. Tom Mitchell: I am doing it with women because, following the elections in November, I found myself frustrated and with a need to express my feelings about the general bias I observed against women in politics. I considered several plays, but All the King’s Men appealed to me because it seems to me that it presents a prototypical American story of a rise and fall.
I thought it would be reavling to consider that play from a different perspective by casting a group of young women in it. A few years ago, I produced our season in which Norma Saldivar was invited to direct an all-female version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. I was very impressed by the opportunities it gave the female student performers, and the way they brought a fresh perspective to that war-like play about a son, his father and his spiritual father (Falstaff).
SP: What adaptation did you choose and why?
Mitchell: I chose Robert Penn Warren’s adaptation of his own play, because I liked the way it is presented in a presentational, story-telling way — not with naturalistic requirements for setting, etc.
SP: During his lifetime, Warren wrote three stage versions, two of which were unpublished, but since 2000, have been collected. There is also a 1987 stage version the Trinity Rep. Company of Providence, Rhode Island, used that they credit as a first. Which are you using?
Mitchell: We are using the adaptation of the novel that Robert Penn Warren did for the Off-Broadway production of 1959, not the Adrian Hall adaptation that was presented at Trinity Rep.
Mark Twain defined a literary classic as a book that people praise and don’t read. This has hardly been the fate of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
. Since its publication in 1946, it has never been out of print; it has spawned two produced stage versions; its has produced two full-length film versions, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947.
In 1949, the first film version of All the King’s Men was released; it was adapted for the screen and directed by Robert Rossen and won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) that year. Crawford’s performance cemented the image of Warren’s Huey Long fictitious stand-in, Willie Stark, for a generation.
That same year, All the King’s Men was adapted and aired as a radio play with Paul Frees as Willie Stark. In 1958, Sidney Lumet directed a television version for Kraft Theatre. Neville Brand played willie Stark.
If that is not enough variety in the incarnations of this classic, composer Carlisle Floyd in 1981 adapted All the King’s Men into a full-length grand opera, Willie Stark.
The version local audiences will experience at Krannert is Warren’s own which he wrote in consultation with legendary German theater director Erwin Piscator in 1947. Its run at the 74th Street Theatre, an Off-Broadwat venue, was successful in 1959.
New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said in his review on October 17, 1959, of the above production, saidL “As a portrait of politics, this is effective and provocative”. But he noted a solo negative observation: “By the time of the third act, the intellectual view of politics looks self conscious and sounds little pious”.
Between September 28th and October 8th, Krannert audiences can evaluate the success of this adaptation as director Tom Mitchell again demonstrates his fearless and unconventional approach to theater.
Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a renewed interest in Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel. In 2000, his three stage versions of All the King’s Men were finally published. Two of these scripts were not published during Warren’s lifetime.
In 2002, Random House and editor Noel Polk published a “Restored Edition” of the novel. In 2006, Steven Zaillian wrote and directed a new film version of All the King’s Men that was supposed to be truer to the book than the 1949 film. It was a critical and commercial failure.
Warren insisted that All the King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics”. This why my article on American political plays (October 15, 2012), did not include this play.