The Awakening (1899) by St. Louis author Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was perhaps the most controversial novel of its day. Her frank, unsentimental depiction of a New Orleans matron who leaves her husband and takes a lover set off a critical fire-storm 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.
This month, the Performing Arts Department 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 will begin at 8 p.m. Oct. 14-16 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 16-17 in Edison Theatre. They will continue at 8 p.m. Oct. 28-29 in the Missouri Historical Society’s (MHS) Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum, at the intersection of Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue.
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 vacation 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 as-sumed it to be,” Schvey said. “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.
Related talk, discussion, exhibit
By Liam Otten
In conjunction with the performances of The Awakening, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences will host a lecture by Emily Toth, one of the world’s foremost Chopin scholars, on “The Awakening: A Woman’s Drama of Love and Freedom.”
The talk will begin at 4 p.m. 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).
In addition, Britt-Marie Schiller, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of philosophy at Webster University, will lead a discussion after 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 either lecture, call 935-5858.
Finally, the Missouri Historical Society — which houses the Kate Chopin Collection — will present a mini-exhibition of reproduction documents from the writer’s archives Oct. 25-29. The display will be in the Bank of America Atrium Foyer on the history museum’s lower level.
For more information, call 454-3150.
“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 said, “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, “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.
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 Ballet Program. Lighting is by junior Bret Myers. Dramaturge is D.J. Hopkins, the Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Drama and English.
The Awakening is produced by the PAD with support from American Culture Studies, The Center for the Humanities, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures and Women’s Studies, all in Arts & Sciences.
Born in 1850, Chopin was raised in St. Louis but in 1870 married New Orleans businessman Oscar Chopin. The couple had six children and their marriage was by all accounts happy until Oscar’s death of yellow fever in 1883.
Chopin returned to St. Louis, where she embarked upon a literary career and became a charter member of the Wednesday Club. She released her first novel, At Fault, in 1890, followed by the story collection Bayou Folk (1894) and the novel A Night in Acadie (1897).
The Awakening was savaged in the press yet also made Chopin a local celebrity. Still, the controversy led nervous editors to suspend publication of Chopin’s next collection, A Vocation and A Voice. It was finally released 1991.
In 1903, she moved into a small house only blocks from Forest Park, where she regularly visited the 1904 World’s Fair. There, one hot afternoon, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two days later at the age of 54. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis.
For the Edison Theatre shows, tickets are $12 — $8 for students, senior citizens and WUSTL faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
For the MHS performances, tickets are $12, or $8 for MHS members. For more information, go online to mohistory.org or call 361-7229.