Isabel Allende had not yet discovered the words of a great novelist simmering inside her when she learned on Jan. 8, 1981, that her grandfather lay dying. She was a former Chilean journalist, now administering a school in exile in Venezuela, after Augusto Pinochet overthrew the presidency of her father’s cousin Salvador Allende in 1973. She knew she could not return to say good-bye, so she began what she called a “spiritual” farewell letter.
The most important thing she wanted to tell her grandfather — her mother’s father, not an Allende — was that he could die in peace, because she remembered all his stories. They would not be lost. Yet pecking at the keys of a manual typewriter on her kitchen counter, she realized within a few pages that she was not writing a letter at all. When there were 500 pages stained with coffee and food on her counter, she called this epic first novel “La Casa de los Espiritus” — “The House of the Spirits.”
Now the long letter that became a classic work of fiction has morphed again, landing on stage in Washington, where GALA Hispanic Theatre opened a production on Thursday.
Adapting art from one medium to another is risky business, often ending in disappointment. (See the 1993 film adaptation of “The House of the Spirits,” starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.) When playwright Caridad Svich and director Jose Zayas decided to make a play out of the venerated novel, Allende was privately dubious.
“I thought, okay, go ahead,” Allende, 70, recalls in a phone interview from her home in San Rafael, Calif. “I thought, this is impossible.”
The novelist kept her hands off the script and offered no dramaturgical advice before the premiere at Repertorio Espanol in New York in 2009. She says she believes that an artist from one medium should not meddle with the work of an artist in another.
Sitting in the audience in New York, watching this version of the novel unfold on stage, Allende had tears in her eyes.
“I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I realized Caridad had captured somehow the spirit of the book, which is the story of a country reflected through a family. What happens to the family in a way happens to the country, and somehow she got it. I love that.”
The question is, how do Svich and Zayas make it work on stage? The novel has almost no dialogue, three narrative voices, a time-span of about 50 years and more than a dozen characters drawn from four generations of two families.
A large part of the answer lies in the essence of the novel, informed by that original impulse of the letter drafted on the kitchen counter: Beneath the elaborations of plot, character and style, the story is about the healing power of storytelling, and the urgent human duty to rescue words from oblivion.
“I wrote it by instinct,” Allende says. “It was an exercise in nostalgia. . . . I missed my country terribly. I had lost everything I had. It was a crazy attempt to recover everything I had lost, in those pages.”
As Svich contemplated the daunting monument that is “The House of the Spirits,” she taped an index card to her computer monitor with a stern reminder: “Don’t go where the movie went!”
She was struck by a few lines in the novel’s penultimate chapter. Alba, the granddaughter, has been tortured to the brink of death by police thugs of the unnamed Latin American dictatorship. She has been locked inside a doghouse and wants to die. Her dead grandmother, the clairvoyant Clara, appears to her.
Clara . . . brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. She suggested that she write a testimony . . . so that the world would know about this horror.
It’s a brief passage in the novel, not even a fully realized scene. That was all Svich needed to start typing.
“That line was something I wanted to keep,” the playwright says from her apartment in New York, where she splits her time with Los Angeles. “And that became central to the way I crafted the piece theatrically. . . . One of the tricks of the novel that you catch up with is that Alba is one of the narrators. I thought, okay, why don’t we start with her when she’s in prison?”
Zayas elaborates: “In the novel, it’s something that happens in a paragraph, in a sentence, in a moment that’s meant to be very brief. In the adaptation, it’s the point of the adaptation. The adaptation occurs the moment where Clara and Alba can come together to tell the story.”
Thus, instead of the immortal opening sentence of the novel — “Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy” — the play begins by foreshadowing the torture that the rest of the drama will lead up to. And there’s an early hint at a means to endure. Alba, played by New York-based Chilean actress Natalia Miranda-Guzman, steps outside the initial torture scene and says:
“From bruises, wounds, cuts I don’t recognize, an ocean of words surrounds me, as I walk through the ruins of notebooks that open up into the rooms of an empty house, a great big house on a corner, that once belonged to my grandmother. Clara’s voice echoes through halls of pages that speak of a past, and future, recorded in glimpses of scattered memory.”
At this point the stage-set is covered with screen projections of flowing words drawn from the novel, words as a presence and an environment. Only then does the scene shift to a garden, with Barrabas the dog, and Clara, who is played by stage and film actress Monica Steuer. Alba remains present, out of time, watching in her bloody shirt. For an instant, she and Clara catch each other’s gaze — “a look across time,” according to the stage directions.
In this way, Svich and Zayas establish the narrative rules of the drama, in which the past unfolds simultaneously with the future consequences of that past. Alba is always on stage, absorbing stories that took place before she was born.
The director’s challenge is to accomplish smooth transitions between the 39 short scenes that make up the play of 2 hours and 20 minutes, recreating the fluidity of the novel.
“To me, this whole play is a transition,” says Zayas, co-founder and artistic director of the Immediate Theater Company in New York. “It’s all driven by the actors. Really, it’s a director’s gift and challenge, and it’s scary.”
Svich, who received an Obie award last year for lifetime achievement in the theater, is the sole author of the script but considers Zayas such a close collaborator in launching the project and realizing the final staged result that she dedicated her adaptation to him.
Allende applauds their choice of dramatically building on the doghouse epiphany. “In a very simple way, Caridad picked up on that, which for me is very important,” she says. “The whole book at the end makes sense because the girl [Alba] is writing with the notebooks of her grandmother, and with the things that she has been told in the family.”
While the play is inspired by the image of Clara teaching Alba to write, it is also preoccupied with dramatizing the relationship between Alba and her grandfather, Esteban Trueba, one of the great literary antiheroes, played here by Nelson Landrieu, who originated the role at the New York premiere. The sins of Trueba’s past bring on the torture of Alba’s future.
These characters are based on Allende’s family members, to a point. Clara resembles her grandmother, a spiritualist who held seances that Allende watched as a child. She credits her grandmother with making her a novelist, because “I grew up with the idea that the world is a very mysterious place, and anything can happen.”
Her grandfather, to whom she started writing the farewell letter at her kitchen counter, was “a very strong authoritarian, conservative man,” she says. But unlike Trueba, her real grandfather abhorred violence and “would never have raped or killed anybody.”
Allende is the granddaughter who learned to write by setting down the family stories. But unlike Alba, she was never tortured.
At the end of the play, Alba’s grandfather has shared his stories before he dies, and Alba is poised to write. Clara appears on stage, followed by Barrabas. Clara whispers in Alba’s ear, as if to confirm the gift of storytelling promised in the opening scenes.
At that moment, the stage directions call for words to rise from Alba’s notebook, via screen projections. The words are drawn from the last chapter of the novel, and they “slowly fill the space until the entire stage is illuminated with miles and miles of handwritten words.”
“Through all the mess, and there’s a lot of it, somehow the act of writing is positive . . . and can save you,” Svich says. “That’s what I want the audience to feel at the end. And also to think about the stories that they have buried in their past, or that we as a country have. How do we retrieve them? How do we look at them? And how can we retell them, to save ourselves?”
This past Jan. 8, Allende sat at her wooden writing table and once again began summoning words for a new novel. Beside her computer monitor was a lighted red candle and two fresh red roses in a vase. Ever since that enchanted Jan. 8 of 32 years ago, she has devoted nearly every anniversary of the date to starting a new book.
“Yeah, I’m locked away writing like a madwoman,” Allende says on the phone, with the sound of her puppy, Dulce, a white terrier, yipping in the background.
Her next novel “Maya’s Notebook,” about a California teenager whose Chilean grandmother sends her to a remote Chilean island to escape drugs and crime, will be out in English in April. Another, a crime thriller called “Ripper,” is in manuscript for upcoming publication in Spanish. The new project is a love story.
“It’s very hard to write a love story that is not sentimental,” she says.
The tools and the location have changed — her writing studio is attached to the picturesque home she calls “La Casa de los Espiritus” overlooking San Francisco Bay — but the process continues, the endless cycling of words into stories, to be told and retold, reimagined and transformed.
“The House of the Spirits,” GALA Hispanic Theatre, performed in Spanish with English surtitles, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 10. Tickets $20-$40. 202-234-7174.