It began in 2006.
I was in Barcelona attending a theater festival, and everywhere I went I saw giant posters featuring photographs of pink crosses in the desert, emblazoned with the title “2666.” It was a fascinating, enigmatic and mysterious image; I soon learned that these posters were advertisements for the equally enigmatic novel 2666 by author Roberto Bolaño, his final work before his death three years earlier. Although he was born in Chile and spent his formative years in Mexico City, Bolaño lived in Barcelona during his final years and the book was published there shortly after his death.
At that time, the novel had not yet been published in English. I read it as soon as it became available and was blown away. I marveled at the novel’s scope, audacity and amazing five-part structure—which shifts in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary “fairy tale” section that takes readers on a tour of the 20th century, particularly focusing on the calamities of World War II and the Holocaust. Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely; I was convinced (and still am) that this will be regarded as one of the great books of the 21st century, as much as Moby Dick is considered one of the great novels of the 19th century. The two works have many parallels, actually: they both explore (in highly poetic terms) visions of extraordinary evil – Bolaño’s being a string of hundreds of horrifying murders committed in a small Mexican city. Although those incidents are at the thematic center of 2666, the book is about many, many other issues and ideas, perhaps most eloquently the act of writing and artistic creation itself.
Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely; I was convinced (and still am) that this will be regarded as one of the great books of the 21st century.
2666 is probably the last novel that one would consider adapting for the stage; aside from its epic length and breadth, Bolaño’s writing is primarily thematic and discursive, and not presented in a narrative format. I found myself so thoroughly engaged with the novel after reading it—and, if for no other reason than to figure out exactly why it had such a hold on me, I embarked on a very personal journey to explore this work in theatrical terms.
Throughout my creative life I’ve found that, rather than selecting projects to work on, projects choose me, often because I find them daunting, even overwhelming. This was certainly true of such plays as King Lear and Measure for Measure, both of which fascinated and frightened me when I first encountered them, but ultimately proved to be enormously satisfying artistic experiences. The same has been true of 2666. I have never previously wanted to adapt a novel for the stage, let alone a novel of this complexity; I certainly never thought, during the work’s earliest stages at least, that 2666 could actually be produced on stage. But this became a passion project, and one that has endured for nearly a decade now.
Several years into the work, I realized that I was stymied by my own limitations as an adaptor. I mentioned this to Seth Bockley, a strikingly imaginative writer and director who was then part of the Goodman Playwrights Unit and would go on to become the Goodman’s Playwright-in-Residence. I found that, like me, Seth is fascinated by the writings of Bolaño, especially 2666—and, unlike myself, is also fluent in Spanish. Eventually, I asked him to work as a co-adaptor and co-director; these roles are inextricably linked in my mind. During my nearly 30 years as artistic director of the Goodman, I have never before entered into this kind of collaboration. However, I felt that this partnership would creatively shake me up. Seeing this project through the eyes of a fellow artist, a collaborator, has provided a whole new realm of insight.
The process of adapting this “great, torrential work” has taken on a life of its own; over the course of multiple readings and workshops we gathered together an incomparable group of collaborators – actors, designers, dramaturgs – who, like us, have embraced Bolaño’s vision and shared our passion for creating a theatrical language to communicate that vision. The novel features a rich tapestry of characters, stories and themes that span over one hundred years and dozens of countries; distilling that information occupied many hours of conversation as we honed the script. Each of the novel’s five sections is written in a distinctly different style and tone, so the process of bringing Bolaño’s language to life on stage required us to utilize all the theatrical tools at our disposal – great ensemble acting, inventive design, lush musical scoring and a blending of video and live performance – to create what we hope will be an event that matches the novel in its ambition and reach.
From the beginning of this process, I was inspired by a number of the massively-scaled works that I’ve seen in Europe, particularly in Germany and England—for example, the National Theatre’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. 2666 remains an effort of love, discovery and passion. After spending nearly a decade working on this adaptation, I can honestly say that my 2666 experience continues to be among the most challenging and most important work of my life—as profound and mysterious as it was when I first saw those posters all over Barcelona.