Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

A Novel Idea

From Page to Stage

With the dramatization of James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy in 1821, the American stage beheld the first successful adaptation of an American novel, initiating a trend that persists in today's theatre and film. The popularity of the novel in the nineteenth century, especially the historical and romantic novel, provided the theatre with a unique set of characters who jumped from the written page directly onto the boards of the stage. Since the theatre-going public was also the novel-reading public, audiences flocked to see favorite characters come to life. Conscious of this bridge between formats, twentieth-century novelists continued to generate plots and roles that easily adapted to the theatre.

From Rip Van Winkle to Uncle Tom's Cabin to Tobacco Road, American audiences have enjoyed nearly two centuries of adaptations, witnessing popular novels translated and transformed on the stage.


Nick of the Woods

Although educated as a physician, Robert Montgomery Bird instead pursued a literary career. In the 1830s, Bird wrote for the theatre, creating many of his plays expressly as vehicles for the actor Edwin Forrest. After a dispute with Forrest, Bird turned from playwriting to fiction writing, only to ensure his books a lasting place in the American theatrical tradition. In Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay, Bird conceived of an eighteenth-century Kentucky frontiersman who avenges the death of his family at the hands of the Indians. It was successfully adapted as a melodrama for the stage by Louisa H. Medina in 1838. Other adaptations of this novel appeared on stage, as evidenced by the George Washington Harley manuscript on display, but the Medina version remained popular for several decades. Throughout the nineteenth century, plays celebrating the history of the American frontier became favorites with audiences.


Autograph manuscript, signed, by D. D. Davis, with corrections, of George Washington Harley's adaptation of Nick of the Woods; or, Kentucky in '82. Ca. 1838.


Boston Theatre ... Wednesday evening, Aug. 16, 1871... "Nick of the Woods." Playbill. [Boston]: F.A. Searle, Printer, [1871].


Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving's beloved character Rip Van Winkle was translated to the stage several times during the author's lifetime. Sometime after 1829, John Kerr's adaptation appeared as the earliest published version. However, not until the dramatization of Rip Van Winkle by comedic actor Joseph Jefferson III over thirty years later was the title character entrenched in American theatre, creating a signature role for Jefferson.

The son of an established American theatrical family, Jefferson, who had debuted on the stage at the early age of four, sought to create his own adaptation of Irving's story but found his 1859 rendition wanting. Five years later, Jefferson contracted with Dion Boucicault to write a version of Rip Van Winkle specifically for Jefferson to perform on the London stage. His performance proved a success both in London and later in New York, and the role of Rip became synonymous with Joseph Jefferson. For nearly forty years, until his retirement in 1904, Jefferson portrayed Rip Van Winkle in his repertoire of theatrical roles.


[Irving, Washington]. Rip Van Winkle As Played by Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1895.


Kerr, John. Rip Van Winkle; or, The Demons of the Catskill Mountains!!! A National Drama. Philadelphia: R. H. Lenfestey, [1830s].


Autographed photograph of Joseph Jefferson, as Rip Van Winkle, by Sarony. New York, 18?9.


Chrome lithograph on canvas of Joseph Jefferson, as Rip Van Winkle. No date.


The Spy

James Fenimore Cooper's second and highly successful novel, The Spy, was the first American novel to be dramatized on the American stage. The play, written by Charles Powell Clinch just weeks after the publication of the novel, adhered very closely to Cooper's original work. Opening in New York City on March 1, 1822, at the New Park Theatre, the play remained popular throughout the country well into the 1850s. A historical romance set in New York during the Revolutionary War, The Spy, with its uniquely American characters and themes, appealed to the audiences of early nineteenth-century American theatre. The novel spurred numerous European adaptations as well.


The Spy; Or, A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Theatre program. [Philadelphia, 1823]


Engraving of James Fenimore Cooper, signed, by Thomson from original drawing. London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831.


Tobacco Road

In 1932, Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell wrote the provocative novel Tobacco Road, which depicted the underbelly of the 1930s rural South-the poverty and the physical and emotional starvation. Adapted for the stage by Jack Kirkland the following year, Tobacco Road ran for 3,182 performances for over seven years, making it the longest-running Broadway drama up to that time. Controversy surrounded the play; critics assailed it as immoral and repulsive, but the public was titillated by the plot and language. In a note in the published version of the play, Caldwell wrote:

In the course of Tobacco Road's slow progress it opened on a windy December night in New York. Those men of America who constitute the critical gentry published the following day in columns deep their indignation. The people on the stage behaved like animals; the play was inept, clumsy, and rudderless; there was too much dust on the stage; the play was too snickery to watch; there was no Southern dialect spoken; it was ruttish and blabby...Jack Kirkland has dramatized Tobacco Road in the manner in which, were I myself a playwright, I should have liked to do it. He has followed the novel from beginning to end just as it was written. I like his work so well that I have just about made up my mind to suggest that I trade him my novel for his play.


Opening page, typed, of "Tobacco Road," by Erskine Caldwell, signed. No date.


Photograph of Gail Borden and Erskine Caldwell. [Selwyn Theatre, Chicago, 1935].


This photograph was taken on the night that Mayor Kelly closed the play.


Kirkland, Jack. Tobacco Road, A Three Act Play by Jack Kirkland, from the Novel by Erskine Caldwell. New York: Viking, 1934.


Typed letter, signed, from Theodore Dreiser to the Pulitzer Prize Committee. 1 February 1934.


Of Mice and Men

American novelist John Steinbeck wrote three plays during his literary career. Two of the plays dramatized his previously written novels, and all three plays were written in, what Steinbeck termed, the "play-novelette" format. In describing this form, Steinbeck said,

It is a play that is easy to read or a short novel that can be played simply by lifting out the dialogue. It gives a play a wide chance of being read and a piece of fiction a chance of being played without the usual revision. I think it is a legitimate form and one that can stand a great deal of exploration.

As Steinbeck's first playwriting attempt, he adapted his novel Of Mice and Men. Produced by George S. Kaufman, the play opened November 23, 1937, at the Music Box Theatre in New York, running for 207 performances. This drama won Steinbeck the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the 1937-1938 season.


Life mask of John Steinbeck, cast by Ritch Lovejoy. 1934.


Autograph postcard, signed, from John Steinbeck to Wilbur Needham. [26 May 1936].


Steinbeck writes to the critic, regarding the adaptation Of Mice and Men,

I'm going into training to write for the theatre which seems to be waking up. I have some ideas for new dramatic form which I'm experimenting with. Of course I don't know yet whether I am capable of writing for the theatre. Just have to learn.


Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts. New York: Covici-Friede, 1937.


Copy is inscribed "For George and Beatrice Kaufman: I wish I could have written as good a play as you directed. John Steinbeck."


All items displayed in this section from the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


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