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.