Last March, Joyce Carol Oates and Ed Herendeen spent a day in Princeton, N.J., with Marilyn Monroe. To be exact, they spent the day immersed in Oates' new play about Monroe, "Miss Golden Dreams," which is making its world premiere, under Herendeen's direction, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., this weekend.
West Virginia might seem an unlikely spot for Oates, a former National Book Award winner, to premiere a play. But the writer has a longstanding relationship with the 10-year-old festival, which has produced two of her previous plays and named her honorary chair of its project for commissioning new works.
Indeed, this was the third time in seven years that Herendeen, producing director of the festival, has made the trip to Oates' Princeton home to confer about a play being produced in Shepherdstown. "We spend a day and go through the script, and she talks about each of the characters and how she sees things," he explains.
Oates has so much faith in the summer festival, which she describes as "wonderful ... imaginative and adventurous," that Herendeen often doesn't see her again until she arrives in West Virginia for opening night. They do, however, confer weekly by phone during rehearsals.
"Joyce is unique in that she really looks at the collaboration between the director and playwright as being 50 percent involved, so she's not very hands-on in rehearsal," he says. "She really likes to come and be surprised by what the company has done."
"I love to work with an imaginative and inventive director, and so I consider that Ed Herendeen is bringing the play to life," says Oates, who has been writing plays since the 1960s. (Her two other Shepherdstown productions were "Black" in 1993 and "Bad Girls" in 1996.)
In addition to "Miss Golden Dreams," Marilyn Monroe is the subject of Oates' novel, "Blonde," which was released in April. The 738-page epic prompted passionate reviews, including divergent responses from the New York Times. In the Sunday Book Review, Laura Miller called the novel a "remarkable" achievement, "seldom less than engrossing" and "perhaps the most ferocious fictional treatise ever written on the uninhabitable grotesqueness of femininity." But in a daily review, Michiko Kakutani described it as "just the latest effort to exploit the tragedy and fame of Marilyn Monroe."
Oates wrote "Miss Golden Dreams," whose title refers to Monroe's notorious 1949 nude calendar photo, at the same time she wrote the book. "When you're writing a novel there are many things you do, sketches, scenes that are just dialogue and outlines," the prolific writer explains. "I was writing scenes that were dramatic as I went along, and sometimes I wrote the dramatic scenes first. It wasn't that I adapted the novel, I was working on it simultaneously."
Cycle of plays
Unlike "Blonde," which charts Monroe's entire life, "Miss Golden Dreams," written as a cycle of short plays, zeroes in on her involvement with five key men -- the photographer who shot the calendar photo, a New York theatrical director, Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller and John F. Kennedy. The last three are identified only as "The Ex-Athlete," "The Playwright" and "The President," a choice Oates made to emphasize what she calls their "mythopoetic" status and to present them as she feels Monroe saw them.
"The play is really a distillation, not her of her life, but of the relationships with these powerful men who played a major role in her life," Herendeen says. "When you look at who they are, even though Joyce doesn't name them, they are all icons in their own right. So, of course, the play deals with exploitation."
It also deals with the themes of transformation and role-playing. As in the novel, the play's central character is Norma Jeane Baker (Monroe's name growing up). "Marilyn Monroe is something that happens to Norma Jeane. Marilyn Monroe is the name of her fame, but it's not her," Oates says. "I would probably never have written a novel about Marilyn Monroe herself. It was basically to focus on the interior person."
To reinforce the distinction between Norma Jeane and Marilyn, she added a brief prologue to the play after her meeting with Herendeen in March. In the prologue, the actress playing the lead (Stacey Leigh Ivey) is seen preparing to portray Norma Jeane, who will, in turn, portray Marilyn Monroe.
Oates' only other major addition to the script was another short scene, which Herendeen received on the first day of rehearsals last month. Called "The Magi," the scene is performed by an all-male Greek-style chorus. "These people basically were gossip columnists who created stars, not just Marilyn Monroe but many others with their excited and exaggerated columns," Oates says.
It is indicative of her trust in Herendeen that even in the case of a rewrite this significant, "She said if you want to use 'The Magi,' use them, and if they don't fit into the production feel free to edit and change," the director recalls. "Because her work is so well grounded in fiction writing, I believe she trusts the magic of theater."
One of the issues Herendeen and Oates discussed in their all-day meeting was that the play would not be staged realistically. "We had been talking all along that this was never going to be a docudrama," the director says. "We really look at it as opera/myth or Greek tragedy and comedy, to do it up in a larger-than-life way."
The play and the novel "Blonde" aren't the first time Oates has fictionalized an American tragedy. Her 1995 short story, "Zombie," is about a serial killer with decided similarities to Jeffrey Dahmer, and her 1992 novella, "Black Water," is a fictionalized account of the 1969 Chappaquiddick accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne was killed in a car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. (The novella was subsequently turned into an opera for which Oates wrote the libretto.)
In a departure from those works, however, "Blonde" and "Miss Golden Dreams" retain the real name of the protagonist, a woman with whom Oates unexpectedly found herself strongly identifying.
"I started off thinking I would be writing about Norma Jeane Baker, who was somebody different from myself, but when I got into the novel, I identified with her so emotionally," she says. "I see her as an artist. She's creating characters the way a novelist creates characters. When she goes into a movie she does a lot of interpretation, a lot of work. She was somebody who really studied and meditated her roles.
"So I felt that this was a person very much like myself -- a famous actress, but at the same time, very insecure [wanting] to do scenes over and over again. I think of myself as a perfectionist, but she became an extreme perfectionist out of deep insecurity."
A faculty member at Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, Oates, 62, is the author of more than 30 novels, two dozen plays and hundreds of short stories. She's currently concentrating on short stories, the genre many critics feel is her best. "I'm doing many short things now because of the spiritual exhaustion of writing a long novel," she says.
CBS is planning a four-part miniseries of "Blonde," but Oates isn't involved in the project. She has read the first draft of the screenplay, however, which she says begins when Monroe is 6 years old and ends with her starting to rehearse the movie "Some Like It Hot." In addition, one of several chapters she excised from the novel is being published in England as a short story.
Oates spent two years working on "Blonde," and far from being eager to move on, she welcomed her weekly telephone conferences with Herendeen about "Miss Golden Dreams." "I love the idea of, on the phone, somebody says, 'You know, Joyce, why don't you add one page where Norma Jeane is doing this?' And I say, 'I'd love to do that,' because for me it means bringing her alive again."
She even welcomed suggested cuts, the most dramatic of which involved eliminating the final scene, called "The Shrine."
" 'The Shrine' was a one-page scene I had written in which the Ex-Athlete comes to Marilyn Monroe's gravesite in Westwood, and he places some roses near the grave, and he sort of looks around. He says something, and he waits to see if she will answer, but there's no answer because she's gone. [It's] sort of a fade-out. [Herendeen] didn't want to do it because he wanted to focus on Marilyn Monroe instead of the Ex-Athlete, and I think that's really right. What I was doing was more literary," Oates says.
"That's what's wonderful about working with a director who will frankly say to a playwright, 'I don't think this is the best ending.' "
Now the play concludes with "The President and the Blonde Actress," in which Monroe is seen singing "Happy Birthday" at the 1962 Madison Square Garden fund-raiser for Kennedy's 45th birthday. While Herendeen doesn't want to give away the details, he says he has come up with a symbolic way of conveying the impact this event had on Monroe and that Oates embraced his suggestion. "She said, 'That's great. That's what I like about directors, they see it in a different way -- you're looking for the drama,' " he says.
Although Oates may have had some reluctance about leaving Norma Jeane behind, she finally sounds ready to pass the torch. "There will be an actress and now she will interpret Norma Jeane, and I can sit in the audience and watch this, and she's sort of taking it over," she says.
"I'm not Norma Jeane anymore. If you're a playwright or in the audience, all the focus, the spotlight, is on stage. I am very comfortable that way."
Contemporary American Theater Festival
What: Four plays in rotating repertory:
* "Miss Golden Dreams," by Joyce Carol Oates. A cycle of short plays about Marilyn Monroe.
* "Hunger," by Sheri Wilner. A romantic fable about an engaged woman who finds herself drawn to a mysterious stranger who emerges from the sea.
* "Something in the Air," by Richard Dresser. A macabre get-rich-quick scheme is at the center of this dark comedy about greed, betrayal and corruption.
* "Mary and Myra," by Catherine Filloux. Baltimore actress Rosemary Knower portrays Mary Todd Lincoln in this play about the first lady's commitment to an insane asylum, and the friend and lawyer, Myra Bradwell, who helped get her released.
Where: Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W.Va., about 85 miles west of Baltimore
When: Wednesdays through Sundays, through July 30
Tickets: $20 and $25
Call: 800-999-2283 for show times