Melville's "Bartleby" Opens At NIU

Oct 1, 2012

The NIU School of Theatre and Dance opened its season this past weekend with an adaptation of a Herman Melville story. Bringing ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ to the stage involved some unusual additions.

NIU Theatre School chair Alex Gelman, who wrote the adaptation, says it’s an odd story to start with, about the relationship between a scrivener, or copyist, and his boss, a master at chancery in a 19th century Wall Street law firm. At first, all goes well.

“Until one day, when he’s asked to participate in proof-reading, he says a phrase that has come to define this particular piece of writing, which is, ‘I prefer not to’ Gelman said.

The list of things Bartleby refuses to do keeps growing, until he seemingly prefers to do nothing - not eat, or sleep, or even leave the office, let alone do any work.

Gelman says his main problem was that the heart of the story takes place in the master’s mind, as he tries to decide what to do about the recalcitrant Bartleby. In order to avoid endless static narration, Gelman decided to externalize that inner struggle, by having three people play the role collectively

“There’s the actual master himself, and then there’s a man and a   women who are, shall we say clowns of sorts, who struggle for clarity, sanity, understanding, and humanity, within the master” Gelman said.

Gelman says what seems a very dark story on the surface can at times be quite fun. He says the result is a play that manages to be both probing and entertaining at the same time.

The NIU production of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ continues its run Thursday through Sunday in NIU’s O’Connell Theatre.