In the months leading up to the start of Broadway previews for Breakfast at Tiffany's—then titled Holly Golightly—Playbill spoke to Truman Capote about it and the also upcoming The Grass Harp musical; his work on House of Flowers; why he would never write for the theatre again; and his post In Cold Blood project: Answered Prayers.
966 has been a big year for Truman Capote. His non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, published last January by Random House, has sold over 325,000 copies and generated more excitement than any book since Gone With the Wind. (The film rights were snapped up well before publication date.) His charming childhood reminiscence A Christmas Memory has become both a book and a tasteful color television special (December 21 on ABC), and two of his works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, alias Holly Golightly, and The Grass Harp have been adapted as musicals. In this “year of Capote,” Playbill editor Joan Alleman Rubin bearded the lion in his den (a glorious Victorian cave carved out of one of Manhattan’s newest apartment buildings) only to find him a gentle, disarming, and thoroughly likable lamb.
PLAYBILL: Mr. Capote, did you ever want to be an actor?
CAPOTE: No, not really. As a child, though, my greatest ambition was to be a tap dancer in vaudeville and in the movies—sort of a white Bill Robinson. In all the shows in school I used to do my routine. Then when I was about 12 years old, I started writing and stopped being interested in tap dancing.
PLAYBILL: You’ve written for the stage only twice—the musical House of Flowers and the adaptation of your novella The Grass Harp. Why haven’t you written more plays?
CAPOTE: Why? Because I don’t like team sports. I’m kind of a loner, you know, and once I’ve written something it’s very hard for me to see other people tampering with it!
PLAYBILL: Did you find your experience with The Grass Harp and House of Flowers disappointing or frustrating?
CAPOTE: Well, I liked The Grass Harp, I really did, though I thought it was a little slow and a little heavy hanging. The director, Robert Lewis (who is somebody I admire) and I had a basic disagreement on the point of view, and he set what was the tone and tempo of the play. He said to me that it is a well-known fact that playwrights never know what their things are about! I don’t know who it is well known to—Robert Lewis, I guess.
PLAYBILL: What about House of Flowers? Were you pleased with the production of that?
CAPOTE: House of Flowers was originally a short story of mine set on [an] island in the West Indies, and i just thought it would make a very good play with music. So I wrote the play and then Harold Arlen and I did the score together—he wrote the music and I did the lyrics. Now you would think the way people talk about it that it was one of the great treasures of the American theatre. But that was not true. It was beautifully produced and had marvelous decor by Oliver Messel and if they had brought the show to New York the way it opened in Philadelphia, it would have been more or less alright. But it was ruined out of town.
PLAYBILL: Really, how did that happen?
CAPOTE: The show was in some trouble—but not that much trouble—and they proceeded to fire the choreographer, who was George Balanchine, and to switch directors, and as a result the show didn’t have any point of view.
PLAYBILL: Were you there on the road?
CAPOTE: Sure! I was there having a nervous breakdown! I watched while somebody broke all the bones of my child.
PLAYBILL: How had you originally envisioned the production?
CAPOTE: Well, I imagined it first of all being much smaller. I could imagine it being done with only seven musicians and mostly native instruments.
PLAYBILL: Would you like to see it revived that way?
CAPOTE: Producers who want to revive it are always calling up, but I was so sick of it by the time it finally opened I never wanted to look at it again. And I’m very tempted to go and mend it and put its poor broken bones back together and have a revival because it did have a beautiful score.
PLAYBILL: How did you find waiting for the reviews of your plays compared with waiting for the notices to come in on one of your books?
CAPOTE: Well, the thing is that with a play you know you’ve got the answer all within a few hours. It’s unveiled. Wham! It’s all over. With a book, it goes on and on for months. I don’t really pay much attention to book reviews but you have to pay attention to theatre reviews—though they are really not worth paying attention to. With the exception of Walter Kerr, who I think is very fair and temperate, they are all written by potheads.
PLAYBILL: Do you think that the importance of the critics in the American theatre discourages serious writers from writing plays?
CAPOTE: Oh, I find it completely discouraging. It is ridiculous to put time and effort into something that is produced for the judgment of four or five people of absolutely no taste or sensibility of any kind.
PLAYBILL: This year there have been two musical adaptations of your works—Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a musical version of The Grass Harp that is to be done by the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. How deeply involved have you been with these two shows?
CAPOTE: I was involved to the extent of giving advice. But I didn’t stay on the road meddling. I didn’t sit in a room all night long rewriting scenes. All that was somebody else’s responsibility. I said after House of Flowers that that was going to be my last—positively last—confrontation with the boards! And I still feel that way so much that I don’t even like to go to the theatre particularly.
PLAYBILL: Do you like the musical Holly Golightly?
CAPOTE: Yes, it’s really a faithful adaptation, I must say. I mean it’s taken literally from the book.
PLAYBILL: And what about Mary Tyler Moore. Is she your idea of Holly?
CAPOTE: When I first watched her play this part in the musical I didn’t like her and then gradually I realized that she (just like Audrey Hepburn in the movie version) was not my own physical idea of Holly. Holly was based on a real person, so I can never quite get away from that. And then I realized how wrong I was, because the truth of the matter is, Holly Golightly isn’t one girl. She’s kind of a universal girl. The moment I made that adjustment in my head, I began to like Mary Tyler Moore very much and see she has a great quality.
PLAYBILL: Did you ever come across an actress who came close to your personal vision of Holly?
CAPOTE: Well, when Shirley MacLaine was first around, you know 15 years ago, she would have been very good. And I would have liked to see a kid called Tuesday Weld play it.
PLAYBILL: Does Holly Golightly come close to what you think the ideal musical should be?
CAPOTE: The ideal musical should be very naturalistic, I should think. In Holly Golightly there’s an excellent number called “Hot Damn.” This man starts to sing the song “Hot Damn” and there’s a very good reason why he should—he’s sitting at a table with Holly Golightly and out of the character situation the song appears. But there is no logical reason why all the other people in that bar should start dancing.
PLAYBILL: Do you find writing for the films as disturbing a team effort as writing for theatre?
CAPOTE: The three times I have written for films were always for friends, with whom I was very much involved in the actually making of the film. For example, I did Beat the Devil for Bogart and john Huston. But the thing is that I was not terribly interested in the end product. For me to be utterly involved, my ego, my vanity as an artist has to be on the line. In a group operation like a film somebody might say Capote wrote a lousy script, but I don’t care because I wrote the script only because I wanted to—because it was sort of fun. But with a book like In Cold Blood, I was just hysterically concerned. It was my life. It took five years of my life to do that thing and involved everything that I believed in as an artist.
PLAYBILL: Do you plan to take an active part in the filming of In Cold Blood?
CAPOTE: Yes. It’s got to be right. For many reasons. One of them is that it’s obviously about real people and all of these people who are in my book trust me very much and I owe it to them to see that the movie is right.
PLAYBILL: If somebody wanted to make a play of In Cold Blood, would you let them?
CAPOTE: No, I wouldn’t let them. Anyway I don’t think it would be possible to make it into a play.
PLAYBILL: Mr. Capote, do you think you will ever again write a play?
CAPOTE: No, because basically I’m a prose writer. I see and think and feel everything in terms of words and images. What matters to me is the language itself—the actual tension of the language, the writing the sentences and paragraphs. That’s my portrait—the thing that’s on the page.
PLAYBILL: One last question. What are you writing now?
CAPOTE: A novel called Answered Prayers. The title comes from St. Theresa who said that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. It’s about what happened to eight or nine people all of whom more or less got what they wanted out of life.