The Grass Harp

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The Grass Harp
GrassHarp1.JPG
First edition hardback
Author Truman Capote
Country  United States
Language English
Genre Southern literature
Publisher Random House
Publication date
1951
Media type Print: (Hardcover / paperback)
Pages 216 pp
ISBN n/a
OCLC 282815

The Grass Harp is a novel by Truman Capote published on October 1, 1951[1] It tells the story of an orphaned boy and two elderly ladies who observe life from a tree. They eventually leave their temporary retreat to make amends with each other and other members of society.[2]

Conception[edit]

Not wanting to take up his incomplete first novel, Summer Crossing, Capote began writing The Grass Harp in June 1950 and completed it on May 27, 1951. The novel was inspired by memories of his Alabama childhood, specifically a tree house constructed in the 1930s in a large walnut tree in his cousin Jenny's backyard. This large tree house, accessible by an antique spiral staircase, featured cypress wood construction, a tin roof and was furnished inside with a rattan sofa. Capote would spend time in this tree house with his cousin Sook, or other childhood friends such as Nelle Harper Lee.[3] The novel was additionally inspired by his cousin Sook's dropsy medicine, which she made yearly until the age of 62, and whose recipe she took with her to the grave, despite Jenny's wanting first to patent, and then to sell the recipe to a manufacturer.[4]

The Grass Harp was entirely written while Capote vacationed in Taormina, Sicily. The last section was airmailed to the publishers just days after he finished his writing, but it was not published for four months because the Random House editors, specifically Bob Linscott, did not care for the ending of the novel.[5] Specifically Linscott thought the ending was weak because once the characters were up in the tree house, Capote "didn't know what to do with them." He asked Capote to rewrite the ending, and he made some changes, but did not concede to completely rewrite the ending.[6]

Truman Capote initially wanted to title the novel Music of the Sawgrass, but ultimately it was Bob Linscott who named it The Grass Harp. [7]

Plot summary[edit]

The story begins with Collin Fenwick losing his mother, and then his father, and moving into his aunts' (Dolly and Verena) house. Catherine, the servant, also lives in the house and gets along, for the most part, only with Dolly. Dolly is famous for her medicine, which she makes by going out into the woods with Catherine and Collin and randomly picking plants. They then got to an old treehouse, which is propped up in a Chinaberry tree. One day, after Dolly has an argument with Verena (Verena wants to mass-produce Dolly's medicine), Dolly, Collin, and Catherine leave their home and start walking. They go to the treehouse in the Chinaberry tree, and decide to camp out there. Verena, meanwhile, informs the sheriff of her sister's disappearance; the Sheriff organizes a search party, and eventually arrests Catherine. During the course of the novel, others come to live in the treehouse, such as Judge Cool and Riley Henderson. In a climactic event, a confrontation among the search party and the residents of the tree house leads to Riley getting shot in the shoulder. After Judge Cool discusses the situation, everyone agrees that it was a pointless struggle, and old relationships are invigorated once again. Many people leave as friends. The story ends with how a "grass harp, gathering, telling, a harp of voices remembering a story."

Characters[edit]

1961 Signet Books paperback reprint

Collin Fenwick: An orphaned boy who takes up residence in a China tree with Dolly. When the story opens he is 11 years old, but he is 16 years old for the majority of the narrative; he is small for his age. Collin serves as both the protagonist and narrator of the novel.

Dolly Talbo: Aunt of Collin; she takes up residence in the China tree. Her character is based on Truman's older cousin, Sook Faulk.[8]

Verena Talbo: Dolly's sister; she urges the Sheriff of the town to investigate the disappearance of her sister Dolly.

Morris Ritz: A man who woos Verena, and is popularly believed to open a factory with her but soon runs away with her money.

Catherine Creek: An African American servant who runs away with Dolly and Collin, and also takes up residence in the China tree.

Riley Henderson: A boy who becomes friends with Collin. He briefly takes up residence in the treehouse of the China tree.

Junius Candle: The town Sheriff; he is persistent in finding perpetrators and organizes a massive search party to find Collin and Dolly.

Judge Cool: He is considered the free thinker of the town and helps Dolly and Verena come to terms with one another. He is the "wise man" of society, and in general, solves conflicts posed in the novella.

Reception and critical analysis[edit]

The New York Herald Tribune lauded the novel as "Remarkable...infused with a tender laughter, charming human warmth, [and] a feeling for the positive quality of life." The Atlantic Monthly commented that "The Grass Harp charms you into sharing the author's feeling that there is a special poetry - a spontaneity and wonder and delight - in lives untarnished by conformity and common sense." Sales of The Grass Harp reached 13,500, more than double those of either A Tree of Night or Local Color, two of Capote's prior works.[9]

The Grass Harp was Truman Capote's favorite personal work, despite that it was critiqued as being overly sentimental.[10]

Adaptations[edit]

1952 Play Adaptation Cover

Play[edit]

Capote's stage adaptation of his novel, directed by Robert Lewis, opened on March 27, 1952 at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre, where it ran for 36 performances. The cast included Mildred Natwick as Dolly Talbo, Ruth Nelson as Verena Talbo, Jonathan Harris as Dr. Morris Ritz, Sterling Holloway as The Barber, Gertrude Flynn as The Baker's Wife, Val Dufour as The Sheriff, Jane Lawrence as The Choir Mistress, Lenka Peterson as Maude Riordan, and Alice Pearce as Miss Baby Love Dallas.[11] Music was by Virgil Thomson and scenery and costumes were by Cecil Beaton.[12]

Musical[edit]

After five previews (October 26, 1971), a Theatre 71 musical play adaptation, with a book and lyrics by Kenward Elmslie and music by Claibe Richardson, opened on November 2, 1971 at the Martin Beck Theatre, where it ran for only seven performances (November 6). The cast, directed by Ellis Rabb, choreography by Rhoda Levine, included Barbara Cook cast as Dolly Talbo, Carol Brice as Catherine Creek, Karen Morrow as evangelist Miss Baby Love, Ruth Ford as Verena Talbo, Russ Thacker as Colin Talbo, Max Showalter as Dr. Morris Ritz, John Baragrey as Judge Cool, Kelley Boa, Trudy Bordoff, Colin Duffy, Eva Grant, David Craig Moskin as Miss Baby Love's orphans, known as the "Heavenly Pride and Joy", Christine Stabile as Maude Riordan, and Harvey Vernon as Sheriff Amos Legrand. The musical previewed and opened during a major New York City Newspaper strike preventing advertising and reviews, with no advance theater party ticket sales guarantee. During the previous year, The Michigan Universiy Professional Theatre Program presented the "Grass Harp" musical with the university's music and drama departments supplying musicians and performers. Initially as an evaluation by the Broadway Producers Richard Barr, Charles Woodward[disambiguation needed], Michael Harvey[disambiguation needed], and Associate Producer Michael Kasden. in a development test, tryout, prior to moving the production to Broadway. Celeste Holm, a close friend of Claibe Richardson, appeared in the Michigan University Professional Program's production as "Miss Baby Love"; was replaced by Ellis Rabb with Karen Marrow for the Broadway production, because of Holm's weak voice and Celeste's age. (Celeste Holm was "forced to withdraw" which created a split with her friendship with Claibe Richardson). Orchestrations were by Jonathan Tunick and Robert Russell Bennett; Theodore Saidenberg was musical director; musical arrangements by J (Billy) Van Planck; dance and incidental music by John Berkman; scenic design and lighting by James Tilton; costumes by Nancy Potts; production stage manager Bruce A. Hoover; Charles Kindl Stage Manager. Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Michael Harvey, and Michael Kasden gave the company the option of maintaining three more weeks for the productions' performance schedule, or closing after only seven performances, using the show's banked funds to produce a Broadway cast album. The musical orchestration was recorded in Cologne, Germany, with the Cologne Symphonic Orchestra ensemble. Returning to the States, the original cast was recorded in New York City, with the Painted Smiles "Grass Harp" vinyl album released a year after the musical's closing date. Because of timing, one musical number was forced off the vinyl, but added when the Painted Smiles "Grass Harp" audio CD was released. The Grass Harp album cover art was designed by Kenward Elmslie's fine artist-painter friend Joe Brainard. Claibe Richardson's Advertising Agency Art director-designer friend jim Pearsal designed the Chappell Music Publishing's sheet music design-cover art work. Pearsal's twisted chinaberry tree house design, the Chappell Music Publishing sheet music cover art, replaced the original Brainard vinyl record "Grass Harp" cover art work when the Painted Smiles audio CD was issued. Initially, criticism of the show's sound system caused problems, with Truman Capote declaring "mike it". The producers could not afford to "mike" each member of the ensemble. The Grass Harp production was the last musical presented on Broadway without mikes for the cast. The scenic designer had incorporated "burlap fabric" in the production's wing and border designs, causing the deadening of the performer's vocal projections. This poor choice of stage material in the set's design with the absence of microphones for each cast member, especially the children, was the one major technical problem for the producers. Celest Holm must be acknowledged in her power and relentless drive to push the Grass Harp musical, getting an initial performance production, and to the Broadway stage. The "Grass Harp" musical presentation rights are controlled by the Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein Organization management team in New York City. The "Grass Harp" orchestration score folio, ignored by Richardson and Elmslie when they were offered to purchase the musical's orchestration package from their music publishing organization, have been lost. Efforts to have Jonathan Tunick recreate the musical's orchestration folio have never been finalized because of financial reasons; The Richardson Estate will not agree with financing additional expenses involved with "The Grass Harp". Barbara Cook and the cast appeared on a CBS television Sunday morning talk-interview show, presenting several of the musical numbers with Claibe Richardson at the grand piano, during the musical's preview week and opening night performances. The CBS television "Grass Harp" promo interview segment can be located on the internet site "YouTube". The initial 1967 trial of the musical was performed by Trinity Square Repertory Company at the Rhode Island School of Design auditorium, in Providence, Rhode Island. Directed and staged by Adrian Hall, the cast included Barbara Baxley as Dolly Heart Talbo, Carol Brice as the black maid Catherine Creek, Carol Bruce as Verena Talbo, Elaine Stritch as the evangelist Baby Love. After the Providence show trial, Larry Fineberg optioned the property for Broadway, casting Mama Cass as the evangelist Miss Baby Love; Fineberg was unable to raise capital funds, the producing reigns were optioned by Richard Barr. Regrettably, "The Grass Harp" was Barbara Cook's last appearance in a Broadway musical's cast as a performer!

Film[edit]

In 1995, Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis adapted the novel for a feature film directed by Charles Matthau. The cast included Matthau's father Walter, Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Edward Furlong, Nell Carter, Jack Lemmon, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Patrick Flanery, Joe Don Baker, Bonnie Bartlett and Charles Durning.

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), page 224.
  2. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), page 219.
  3. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), pages 92-94.
  4. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), pages 91&93.
  5. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pages 220-224.
  6. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), page 86.
  7. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), page 86.
  8. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), page 85.
  9. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), page 224.
  10. ^ Rudisill, Marie & Simmons, James C. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2000), page 86.
  11. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pages 229-230.
  12. ^ Capote, Truman. The Grass Harp: A Play by Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 1952), introduction.
Bibliography
  • Capote, Truman (1973). The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0394487519. 
  • Clarke, Gerald (1988). Capote, A Biography (1st ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0241125496. 
  • Davis, Deborah (2006). Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (1st ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0471659662. 
  • Plimpton, George (1997). Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385232494. 
  • Rudisill, Marie; Simmons, James (2000). The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (1st ed.). Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House. ISBN 1581821360. 

External links[edit]