The idea of making a theater piece out of Faulkner's most difficult novel sounds outlandish, although in fact it was made (at least, the title was) into a very bad Hollywood movie with Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner (throwing out the plot of the novel, though, as Hollywood usually did with Faulkner). Furthermore, I myself used to dream myself to sleep (like Benjy seeing "shapes") imagining a turgid modern vaguely atonal opera on the subject to be staged at the City Opera with a set of a mansion built around a staircase mounted on a turntable, so Dilsey (contralto) could haul herself up while Caroline (mezzo) stood at the top muttering, "Dilsey! Dilsey! Dilsey!" at interminable length - aren't you glad you all missed that? Caddy (soprano) sang a lovely serenade to Benjy (tenor, but with only two notes, a wordless wail).
When the Times gave a rave review to the Elevator Repair Service's staging of the first of the "days" of Faulkner's novel, I raced over to New York Theater Workshop to grab a ticket, and put off reading Michael Feingold's review, which is just as well as he panned it. And I went and the performances are amazing, and the book came back to me (which is more amazing), and the many friends of mine who happened to be there were impressed (though they found it a bit long), but the thing I cannot quite figure out is how comprehensible the story would be to anyone who has not read Faulkner.
I fell in love with Faulkner in that gray year when I had not quite graduated after four years at Columbia and was trying to decide if graduate school made sense. I spent a lot of time reading. My parents had sold the old homestead, and I felt torn up at the roots. I read Sartoris, and enjoyed its view of a Gothic, past-focused society that could hardly have been more different from the one in which I had grown up, and then I read The Sound and the Fury, and then lots of commentaries on it, and then - in the course of a year - every other work of prose Faulkner ever published, except A Fable, which is unreadable. (I often met other Faulkner fiends back then; almost every one of them confessed to stymie in the face of A Fable. A Fable, with its Christ symbolism set in World War I trenches, was the result of winning the Nobel Prize.)
For years I said Faulkner was my favorite American novelist. (All my Southern friends glared and said, "You only like him because he's exotic to you. It's all real to us." I loved McCullers and O'Connor and Walker Percy too.) Then one day it occurred to me that I'd never REread any of these books.
Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury right after two events that shaped his life: he married the racy divorcee he'd been pining for since they were kids together, and he read Ulysses. Both of these things, and his Southern heritage, somehow clicked. He'd already invented Yoknapatawpha County in Sartoris; now he let it take him places like a barnstorming biplane. This had a disastrous influence, in its turn, on a boy like me, already all too inclined to overwrite and elaborate and parenthesize. (Does anyone still read Faulkner? Except when assigned?)
Well, unread for thirty years or not, it all came back to me: a terribly dysfunctional family (plus Negro retainers) in the fading turn-of-the-century South.
For those who might be going (and I do recommend it - for that matter, I recommend the book, too), Jason Compson has married the neurasthenic passive-aggressive Caroline Bascomb. She invalids herself to life while he drinks himself to death. They have four children and a square mile of plantation property that will eventually be sold and become a golf course. It is 1898. (But it's also 1928 and 1911.) The couple have four children, plus a family of black servants. The three chapters of the book are told (stream of conscious) by the three Compson sons; the fourth chapter is omniscient. The focus of the book is the Compsons' only daughter, Caddy (Candace), who represents the South: she is beautiful, high-spirited, affectionate, kindly - and impure. Her sexuality is stronger than she is, and this emasculates the men around her, who think it is their job to protect her, as an aspect of Southern Honor, all they have left since they lost their money during the war and reconstruction.
Quentin, the eldest son, inherits all his father's failings - he's an ineffectual intellectual, and his inability to preserve his sister from dishonor drives him to suicide. (He's even ineffective at that - Faulkner brought him back to narrate Absalom, Absalom, his most operatic novel, the one with both incest and miscegenation.) His last day occupies Chapter Two. Chapter One is given to Benjy, the youngest child, who is autistic or something of that sort - unable to speak, or think, unaware of time and inclined to jump back and forth around it - he adores Caddy and the housekeeper, Dilsey, and is regarded as a family disgrace by his mother. His recollection of Caddy as a child climbing a tree and getting her drawers filthy was the image that started Faulkner writing. Dirty drawers stand for sex. Oh, you got that, did you? The play dramatizes - and includes a full reading of - Chapter One. The p.o.v. moves, and different actors play different characters with complete fluency and identification - and I always found them not merely convincing but easy to figure out, as they changed gender and race and age and accent with the same fluidity as their text.
Chapter Three belongs to Jason IV, the third child and second son, the one who is neither an Old Southern Gentleman nor an Idiot, but who attempts to belong to the new, ugly, racist but successful South - and who fails at that, even though he has no heart and loves no one but himself, which Faulkner thought the prerequisites of survival in the ugly new world. In this section we learn that he has blackmailed his sister, gelded his idiot brother, and defrauded his sister's illegitimate child - who has the last laugh, however.
In Chapter Four, Dilsey takes Benjy to her church - which is a black church, of course, but is used to her bringing him along. (No one in the white family believes in any sort of God.) It is Easter Sunday - Chapter One was Good Friday, Three was Holy Saturday, Two was the day of Quentin's suicide 17 years before. And we only now find out that the night before, young Quentin (Caddy's daughter) has broken into her uncle Jason's room, stolen his life savings, and run off with a traveling salesman. The family is ruined; the Southern traditions are dead or debased; the South has not risen again, but Christ has - as an idiot howling at a black church.
When last heard of (in a 1945 epilogue) Caddy had become the mistress of some Nazi bigwig. I used to assume she ended her life as an apparatchik in the DDR. The family estate, of course, has become a golf course - allowing Benjy to scream every time one of the golfers calls, "Caddy!" and he remembers everything.
So the Old South is dead except for writing up stories, which Faulkner had just gotten started doing - and then he inspired Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Donoso, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Amado, Rushdie and Pamuk. So you can't say it didn't lead to anything constructive.