The Awakening (1899) by St. Louis author Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was perhaps the most controversial novel of its day. Chopin’s frank, unsentimental depiction of a New Orleans matron who leaves her husband and takes a lover set off a critical firestorm that effectively ended her career.
Yet today, The Awakening is considered an American classic, required reading in literary courses and a touchstone for contemporary, particularly feminist, authors.
In October, Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will mark the centennial of Chopin’s death with an original stage adaptation of The Awakening by Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., chair and professor in the PAD.
Performances, presented as the PAD’s fall Mainstage production, begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14, 15 and 16, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 16 and 17, in Edison Theatre. Tickets are $12 — $8 for students, senior citizens and Washington University faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets. Edison theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
Performances continue at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Oct. 28 and 29, in the Missouri Historical Society’s Lee Auditorium, located at the intersection of Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. Tickets are $12, or $8 for MHS Members. For more information, visit www.mohistory.org or call (314) 361-7229.
Set in two acts, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans wife and mother who undergoes a powerful emotional and spiritual transformation. While on holiday at a seaside resort off the Gulf of Mexico, Edna — previously afraid of the water — learns to swim under the tutelage of a young man, Robert Lebrun. Upon returning to New Orleans, she finds herself unable to resume her socially acceptable roles. She takes up painting. She separates from her husband, Léonce. She moves into a tiny house of her own. She begins an affair. But in the end, none of these paths truly fulfill her.
“Edna discovers that her place in the world is not what she assumed it to be,” Schvey explained. “She is not a ‘mother-woman,’ like her friend Adele Ratignolle, nor is she an artist like Mademoiselle Reisz, the gifted pianist whose playing moves her to tears.
WHO: Performing Arts Department
WHAT:The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, adapted by Henry I. Schvey
WHEN: 8 p.m. Oct. 14-16; 2 p.m. Oct. 16 and 17; 8 p.m. Oct. 28 and 29
WHERE: Oct. 14-7: Edison Theatre, Washington University, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.; Oct. 28-29:Missouri Historical Society’s Lee Auditorium
COST:$12; $8 for seniors, students and Washington University faculty and staff. Available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and the MHS, (314) 361-7229.
INFORMATION: (314) 935-6543
“But who in fact is she?” Schvey continued. “Is Edna’s story tragic, a study in weakness and failure? Or is The Awakening a tale of a woman somehow born at the wrong time, in an age that cannot accept her independence of spirit?” Ultimately, Schvey concluded, “The Awakening dramatizes a quest for freedom that is as authentic today as it was when it was written more than a century ago.”
Director Annamaria Pileggi, senior artist in residence, has worked with Schvey throughout the adaptation process. She noted that the greatest challenge in staging The Awakening is that “Edna’s journey is largely an internal one — it takes place in the mind. In the novel, you are able to read her thoughts. But I think Henry has rather brilliantly found ways to allow the audience into that world of feeling and memory.”
The cast of 15 stars junior Cory Coleman as Edna, sophomore Rob Klemisch as Robert and graduate student Justin Rincker as Léonce. Also starring are seniors Laura Harrison as Adele Ratignolle and Lindsay Brill as Mademoiselle Reisz.
The elegant, minimalist set design is by Christopher Pickart, artist-in-residence. Costumes are by senior Sally Dolembo, who spent much of the summer in London researching period dress. Choreography is by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, senior artist-in-residence and director of the PAD’s Ballet Program. Lighting is by junior Bret Myers. Dramaturg is D.J. Hopkins, the Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Drama and English.
The Awakening is produced by the PAD with support from The Kate Chopin Society of St. Louis and the American Culture Studies Program, the Center for the Humanities, the Comparative Literature Program, the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures and the Women and Gender Studies Program, all in Arts & Sciences.
In conjunction with the performance, Schvey and Pileggi will present a public discussion on the adaptation process at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29. The talk, titled The Awakening: From Page to Stage, takes place in Graham Chapel, located just north of Mallinckrodt Center.
In addition, the PAD will host a lecture by Emily Toth, one of the world’s foremost Chopin scholar, on ‘The Awakening’: A Woman’s Drama of Love and Freedom. The talk begins at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, in Edison Theatre. Toth, a writer and professor of English and Women’s Studies at Louisiana State University, has published five books about Chopin, including two biographies: Kate Chopin (1990) and Unveiling Kate Chopin (1999). She is also the author of five other books, including Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia and Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious, recently sold for a movie starring Sandra Bullock. Toth also writes a monthly academic advice column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Britt-Marie Schiller, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of philosophy at Webster University, will lead a post-performance discussion following the 2 p.m. Oct 16 show. Schiller is an Advanced Candidate at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and a Practicing Psychoanalyst.
For more information about any of the lectures, call (314) 935-5858.
Finally, the Missouri Historical Society — which houses the Kate Chopin Collection, the writer’s archives — will present a mini-exhibition of reproduction documents Oct. 25 to 29. The display will be located in the Bank of America Atrium Foyer on the History Museum’s Lower Level. For more information, call (314) 454-3150.
Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in 1850 at 801 Chouteau Ave., now the site of the Ralston Purina Complex. She was raised at 1118 St. Ange Ave. and attended the Sacred Heart and Visitation academies but left St. Louis in 1870 after marrying New Orleans businessman Oscar Chopin. The couple had six children and their marriage — unlike that of Edna and Léonce Pontellier — was a happy one until Oscar’s death, of yellow fever, in 1883.
Chopin returned to St. Louis the following year, buying a house at 3317 Morgan St. (now Delmar Boulevard) and embarking on a literary career. An accomplished musician, her first publication was a musical work, Lilia. Polka for Piano (1888), followed the next year by a poem, If It Might Be, and a short story, A Point At Issue, the latter appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1890, Chopin became a charter member of the Wednesday Club and self-published her first novel, At Fault, to mixed reviews. Bayou Folk, a short story collection released in 1894 by Houghton Mifflin, New York, received generally positive notices, and was soon followed by A Night in Acadie (1897).
The Awakening, published two years later, was savaged in the press yet also made its author something of a local celebrity. Six months after its own review (which called the novel “sad and mad and bad, but … consummate art”), the Post-Dispatch ran a profile titled “A St. Louis Woman Who Has Found Fame in Literature.” Still, the controversy led nervous editors to suspend publication of Chopin’s next collection, A Vocation and A Voice. (It was finally released 1991.)
Despondent, in 1903 Chopin moved to a smaller, rented house at 4232 McPherson St., just blocks from Forest Park, where she regularly attended events during the 1904 World’s Fair. There, one hot afternoon, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two days later, at home, at the age of 54. She is buried in North St. Louis, at Calvary Cemetery.