BBC News

Story of Joseph Heller's 'forgotten' Catch-22 script

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

image copyrightTopher McGrillis
image captionJoseph Heller's stage adaptation of his novel Catch-22 is having its UK premiere in Newcastle

After Joseph Heller published his seminal war novel Catch-22 he adapted the book for the stage. He hoped it would go to Broadway - but more than 40 years on, his script has rarely been performed.

Catch-22 is one of the few books with a title that is so well known and well defined that it has taken on a life of its own in the English language.

Even those who have not read the novel or heard of Joseph Heller will have heard the phrase "catch 22".

All your options lead to the same frustrating outcome. Whatever you do, you cannot win. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

In Heller's book, an American World War II bomber pilot called Yossarian was caught in the original catch 22.

Yossarian's nightmare

Stationed in Italy and afraid of being shot down, he wanted to be declared insane and sent home.

But military rules said that fear of death was a rational response, so anyone who asked to be grounded could not possibly be truly crazy. And those who were insane would not be aware of the fact, and therefore would be unable to ask to be grounded.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHeller hoped his stage version would reach Broadway - but it never happened

In the book, Yossarian is trapped in his own recurring nightmare as more comrades get killed and the hierarchy continually manipulates the men under their command.

It is an epic, savage satire on the absurdity and futility of war and the corruption and incompetence of those in positions of power.

The book became a huge success after its publication in 1961. Ten years later - before Heller had even published a follow-up - he adapted Catch-22 for the stage.

'Neglected' script

The stage version made its debut with a two-week run at a theatre in East Hampton, New York. The author hoped it would move to Broadway.

But 43 years after he wrote his script, it only appears to have had a handful of professional productions.

Now, Northern Stage in Newcastle is having a go with an ambitious production that will tour the UK this spring.

Catch-22 is a masterpiece and Heller a giant of American literature. So why has his script been so rarely performed?

image copyrightMark Savage
image captionDirector Rachel Chavkin believes her experimental methods can bring the story to life

The original East Hampton run did not go well enough to persuade Broadway producers and, with 29 actors in the cast, smaller theatres may have been put off.

Amy Rose Marsh, literary manager for Samuel French, which publishes the script, says falling budgets and attendances mean "it's become harder for regional theatres to produce works with the vision and scope of Joseph Heller's script".

Plus, in squeezing 550 pages into two hours, there is a suggestion that Heller's adaptation just did not work. Perhaps the depth and complexity of the book just did not translate. Maybe it was un-adaptable.

'Out of hibernation'

So can the Northern Stage version succeed in bringing the full absurdity and desperation of Yossarian's nightmare to life? Director Rachel Chavkin believes it can.

"I think it's crazy that it hasn't been done more," she says. "Maybe this production will help draw it out of hibernation."

image copyrightTopher McGrillis
image captionThe new version of Catch-22 incorporates music and movement

Heller's script was actually ahead of its time, she argues.

"There's something about Heller's adaptation that really likes a postmodern sensibility," says the director, who is artistic director of New York's Team theatre collective.

On paper, the Catch-22 script reads like a series of sketches, with zany characters coming and going at a rapid rate.

"There's something about the adaptation that on the surface feels like easy slapstick," Chavkin agrees. But she insists her more daring directing style allows her to dig deeper.

"There's something about experimental performance that actually really lends itself to taking his adaptation and keeping the surface humour but also finding the despair underneath it."

Other directors may have been hampered by a "limited imagination" when it came to putting Yossarian's world on stage, she suggests.

In her version, the action takes place in and around a giant B-25 bomber that looks like it has crash landed on the beach where Yossarian and his fellow combatants are stationed.

image copyrightTopher McGrillis
image captionNine actors play a total of 40 roles in the new stage adaptation

The word Chavkin uses to describe her vision of the set is "purgatory".

"There's a real feeling of no exit, [that] it's this world where you can just walk out of one door and immediately pop back in another," she explains.

"There is a quiet absurdism to the world, but I've tried to avoid wackiness in all forms."

Rather than 29 actors, Chavkin has a cast of nine who switch between a total of 40 roles.

The play features music from the period, too, and while her version sticks to Heller's words, the director admits taking liberties with his stage directions.

And she is confident that the "institutional hypocrisy and bureaucratic insanity" Heller depicted will still strike a chord.

Corruption and bureaucracy

"I think the war aspects of the book are certainly relevant - the relationship between corporations and war, and war as a major capitalist venture at times," she says.

"But also the war becomes a metaphor for so many different aspects of corruption and bureaucracy in life, and it's on that front that I find it to be the most relevant still today.

"The book found its stride with the Vietnam generation, which was so disillusioned with the actions of its government. And I think that's only got worse.

"These men - and the book is very male focused - have set up this system whereby they profit on the backs of people willing to make sacrifices and consistently reinforce their power structure through these language games and mind games.

"All of that remains profoundly relevant to today."

Catch-22 is at Northern Stage in Newcastle and will tour to Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Oxford, Derby and Richmond.

More on this story

  • Catch-22: Is the novel still relevant to modern soldiers?