We Tell Ourselves Stories: Didion’s “White Album” Takes to the Stage


Arts & Culture

Photo: Lars Jan

I was told to wait outside a dinged-up stage door on Ashland Place, in Brooklyn. When I rang the bell, the door opened, and I was ushered through a series of winding passages and deposited by the front row of the theater. A monologue emerged from what sounded like a tape recorder. The voice was warbling about an unnamed patient experiencing a mental break:

It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.

The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.

The lines would be instantly recognizable to any fan of Joan Didion’s now iconic essay “The White Album.” It’s the first moment when the reader begins to understand just how unwell and perhaps unreliable the narrator really is, when the kaleidoscope turns and the essay rearranges itself into something darker than expected. “The White Album,” first published in 1979, is perhaps the single work most closely associated with Didion, and 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of many of the events she describes: the Manson murders, the rise of the Black Panthers and Huey Newton’s arrest, the student takeover of San Francisco State College, and the writer’s own breakdown.

In the decades since “The White Album” was published, Didion has written many groundbreaking films, essays, and memoirs (including The Year of Magical Thinking, which was adapted into a play in 2007). A nominee for a Pulitzer and a National Book Critic Circles award, and the winner of a National Book Award, she also has the honor of being the inaugural author in The Paris Review’s Art of Nonfiction interview series. My own copies of her books have been underlined, highlighted, and dog-eared—now, I was hearing her words echo through the cavernous hall of the BAM Harvey Theater.

I had arrived on the set of Lars Jan’s production of The White Album during a period of frantic minor adjustments. Early Morning Opera’s adaptation of Didion’s essay would premiere at the BAM Next Wave Festival on November 28—in twenty-four hours—and the company had started rehearsals in the Brooklyn space only that morning. A white telephone for a surreptitious drug call had gone missing, the lighting during one sequence wasn’t quite psychedelic/psychotic enough, and the keyboard was failing to groan in the correct manner. Actors stretched in a corner while techs circled in the wings; the atmosphere cycled from excitement to tension to boredom and back again.

Jan stopped the action and called from the back of the house to Mia Barron, the voice of Joan Didion’s narrator (and also Jan’s partner). The moment needed tweaking, a beat added or subtracted. Like a ghost, Barron’s Didion wandered through the empty space of an antiseptic box made of metal and sound-dampening glass that occupied the center of the stage. It looked like a trailer designed by Philip Johnson, sparsely furnished with a mid-century wooden desk, a typewriter, records, and a few books.

Jan explained that the box would be filled with a party of semi-coached audience members, who would experience their own “happening” during the performance. This play within a play was meant to recall the house on Franklin Avenue where much of the essay’s action occurs: drug-fueled parties and Easter lunches, a trippy conversation about death auras with a babysitter, and a strange encounter with a thief who pretends to be a deliveryman. “Chicken delight?” he offers feebly, before running out the door. Throughout the show, there would be Super 8 footage from the protests Didion describes, musical performances, and a dance party—all happening against the backdrop of Barron’s narration. The cast refer to the people inside this fishbowl as the “inner audience.”

Jan, who wore a red-and-white beanie and mismatched canvas loafers, greeted me onstage and introduced me to Barron. Since founding Early Morning Opera in 2004, Jan has written and directed “genre-bending performance” pieces that stretch the limits of theater and visual spectacle, performing at venues such as the Whitney Museum and the Sundance Film Festival. Much of his work deals with social or political themes, but this piece was Jan’s first adaptation (and the first time he and Barron had collaborated on a project, “to save money on hotel rooms”). They were eager to get it right.

Adapting a work of such intentional ambiguity, however, presents challenges. The essay is fragmented and explicitly resists the easy formulas and structures of conventional narrative. It races through emotional registers and attempts to encapsulate an entire era in Didion’s life, flitting restlessly from scene to scene. “The White Album” doesn’t lend itself to dramatization.

“I think one of the most inspiring aspects of working with the material is it’s an incredible piece of collage,” said Jan. Rather than literally reenacting scenes, a small chorus rotates through the other speaking parts, with Barron’s Didion “surfing in a visual and energetic landscape.” Jan wanted to heighten this sense of chaos and juxtaposition through a layering of media.

“It’s not a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum where there’s somebody playing Huey Newton, or any of the characters in the essay,” Jan added.

Barron came to the material from a much more traditional theater background, having for many years written and performed on and off Broadway. “I’m much more a performer rooted in psychology and language, and that’s my pull to enter a world,” Barron explained. Though Didion has come to saturate contemporary culture—her image appears on everything from merchandise at the Strand to Céline ad campaigns—Barron’s goal is to get past the aura and find the occasionally aloof writer’s emotional core. “I have a deep interest, appetite, and compulsion to live inside her thoughts, and bring this language to life,” Barron said.

The primary challenge of adapting “The White Album,” however, has been not the text itself but getting permission to use it. For years, Jan and Barron had unsuccessfully tried to reach Didion: emails, through agents and friends, even sending typewritten letters on LP sleeves from the Beatles’ White Album. Through a mutual friend, the couple met Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, who in 2017 released a documentary about her life, The Center Will Not Hold.

“Because our staging is in no way traditional … I think one of the selling points in our pitch to her was: We’re going to perform every word,” said Jan.

“It sounded really interesting, so I told Joan,” Dunne explained, calling from a room at the Chateau Marmont. Dunne feels the play brings out the way history rhymes with the present. Though many of the protests, murders, parties, and trials in the essay took place fifty years ago, the issues that sparked them have smoldered on: structural inequality, drug addiction, racism, police brutality, random acts of violence—a general feeling that we are watching the end of the world. “Maybe people are finding comfort in reading about a time that was just as fucked up as these times are,” said Dunne.

As the cast broke for dinner, I followed Jan outside. We walked through Fort Greene (where he used to live before he and Barron moved to Los Angeles), discussing the day’s rehearsal and the work that still had to be done that evening. Jan tried to shield his cigarette against the November wind while answering my questions about the timing of the show, and how the issues Didion raised in her essay still animate contemporary life in America.

“One of the questions that I want the piece to ask is: What is our trajectory? And how do we see ourselves headed toward 2068?” he said. “I think anniversaries are interesting because they give us the moment to reflect on the past, on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed.”

Would he have handled the material in the same way if he were staging The White Album on the essay’s fortieth anniversary, to coincide with Obama’s election?

“If we’d done it ten years ago, I probably would have been missing a big story,” he replied. “The divides and resistance to systemic change were actually still foundationally there in the country, and because of the promise of the moment, I would have just missed it.”

A young man carrying a duffel bag interrupted Jan to ask whether he’d be willing to trade a smoke for a tallboy of beer. “You can drink it later,” the man suggested.

Jan declined, but extended a cigarette from his pack.

“Thanks, man,” the man with the duffel bag replied, flashing a peace sign. It felt like a moment out of another time, something Didion herself might have witnessed in Berkeley or San Francisco or Los Angeles decades ago.

“I first read The White Album when I was sixteen,” Jan said. “I was excited about her connection with the counterculture. She was in the Doors’ recording session! She was meeting the Black Panthers! … I was into that nihilistic, almost cruel remove that characterizes Didion’s writing … She tends to cast a withering gaze in all directions.”

But in the intervening decades, Jan’s impressions of the text have changed.

“As I’ve grown older, though, really the very famous first sentence, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ has taken on more complex shades,” he said. “I went through feeling like: I am an artist, and I can create meaning, and that’s a source of power, to a version that’s more akin to, We create delusions to get by. And I find myself constantly pivoting between those two.”


Daniel Penny writes about art and culture at The New Yorker, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing and visual culture at Parsons School of Design.