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English professor brings Carolyn Gordon novel to the stage

3/5/2001
March 5, 2001

An Austin Peay faculty member has written a play based on fiction writer Carolyn Gordon's 1951 novel, "The Strange Children."

Dr. Steven Ryan, professor of English, with assistance from John McDonald, artistic director for Roxy Theatre, has a working manuscript and will present a staged reading of the work at the theatre at 8 p.m., March 9-10.

Ryan, who spent two years writing the adaptation during his spare time, hopes this initial production will lead to a full theatrical production within a year.

Ryan says that while the novel is fiction, it's based on Gordon's life and her experiences in a Clarksville home known by an intriguing name: Benfolly.

"It's called Benfolly, because people said Tate's brother, Ben, was foolish enough to lend Allen Tate the money to buy the house," Ryan says. (The house, which still stands on the Cumberland River in Clarksville, is the home of Dr. Stuart Bonnington, APSU psychology professor, and his wife, Peggy.)

An unusual woman for her time, Gordon was the daughter of a Clarksville classics teacher and learned Latin while still a child. Although she grew up in and around Clarksville, she and her husband later lived in New York City and Europe.

"The Strange Children" is set in the 1930s, a time when Gordon and Tate hosted numerous writers, including Edmund Wilson. Wilson, one of the most influential critics of American literature from 1930 to 1970, became the prototype for the character Tubby in Gordon's novel.

Ryan says writing a stage adaptation of the novel was "difficult, but it was fascinating to try to give a real sense of what's in the novel, while relying on only about a third of the material. Gordon writes good dialogue and I tried to stay as close to her dialogue as possible."

Gordon wrote "The Strange Children" from a child's perspective, imagining what it must have been like for her daughter to grow up in a world of struggling writers during the Great Depression.

There are multiple layers in the story, says Ryan. "On one level, it's a realistic story about what they were doing here in Clarksville in the 1930s. On another level, it's about a little girl growing up and discovering the world. And on another level, it's about Christianity and the meaning of life in relation to a Christian existence.

"I took this novel because it's her most autobiographical and it's basically her life in Clarksville," Ryan says. "But, most importantly, it's a tightly unified novel that takes place in three days. Most of the novel is set in Benfolly.

Ryan, who usually writes literary criticism, enjoyed his work as a playwright. Does that mean there are more plays are to come? "I'll see how this goes before deciding if I will do another," he says with a smile.