To Kill a Mockingbird is a Broadway juggernaut. Harper Lee’s classic novel is currently one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, setting attendance and box office records since opening in December 2018. Met with positive reviews and a slew of Tony nominations—and a Featured Actress win for Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout—this production asserts the relevance of Lee’s work for modern audiences. The play revises the book’s well-intentioned but oversimplified view of racism in 1930s Alabama, offering a more mature perspective on the novel’s themes by casting adult actors in the roles of the book’s children, Scout, Jem, and Dill.
Gideon Glick plays Dill, a newcomer in the fictional town of Macomb. Dill befriends Scout and her older brother, Jem, by inventing stories of intrigue and adventure—often involving the mysterious Boo Radley. With Scout and Jem, Dill witnesses the trial of Tom Robinson, which frames the action of the play.
The Millions spoke with Glick about his relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird, what it’s like to be an adult playing a child, and how he’s introducing a queer voice into this English-class staple.
The Millions: Can you start by telling me about your relationship with the book? Did you read it in high school?
Gideon Glick: I did. I read it in the seventh grade. I had a really profound experience with the book. The book taught me to be a critical reader; it taught me about metaphor and simile and theme. I’ve taken what I learned from the book, from To Kill a Mockingbird, to all the books I’ve read since then, and I’m a pretty avid reader.
TM: How do you think To Kill a Mockingbird taught you to read with a critical eye?
GG: It was my teacher that really highlighted the themes of empathy and the themes of otherness. You know, some people go, “Oh it’s a YA book,” and some people go, “Oh it’s not a YA book,” and I think it can be both.
TM: I think sometimes people mistake that child narrator as making the book for children.
GG: Well, what I find interesting about the narrator’s voice is that it’s a child narrator but it’s also somebody looking back. It oscillates, and maybe that’s where the tension is. It’s a self-reflective book. It’s a book that is someone looking back on their childhood and it’s also America looking back on itself.
TM: That childlike voice can mask the complexity of the book. It’s deceptively simple. But you got so much out of it that’s not really that simple.
GG: Yes, and it continues to yield so much. I’ve read it a couple of times in the last year, and each coming back to it I’ve noticed different things. I mean, how incredible is that scene—I wish we could have had it in our show—towards the end and Scout’s coming back, and you’re seeing the legs of all the women, and they’re talking about what’s going on in the town. Calpurnia’s in the other room, and there’s all this hubbub going on, and it’s from her perspective as a little girl, but it is so profound, and you’re so placed in that space.
TM: That space of childhood, with snatches of conversation, with Scout trying to find her way through those words. You talked just now about empathy, and in the book, Dill sort of personifies empathy. There’s the scene during the trial when Dill cries about how the prosecutor—
GG: His treatment of Tom—
TM: And that seems to me to transcend the social rules of the town. Dill’s sympathy for Tom overwhelms him there. How much do you think about that kind of empathy for Scout, but also for Dill?
GG: Oh yeah. In this adaptation the courtroom and Atticus are kind of the focal point, so I think that, when the kids are on, we’ve really got to make it count. And so, the way that I saw Dill was that Dill is another Other. He’s not from the town, a stranger. I’ve created Dill as a proto-Truman Capote, as young Truman Capote, a young queer boy in the Deep South in the ’30s. So to carry that around you have to have a strong armor, but there’s also a sensitivity that is—to an extent—your armor. For me that was really important in developing, as the show went on. And I think kids have—and this comes with the loss of innocence—kids have a way of seeing the world as kind of so clear about what is right and what is wrong.
Dill comes from a very hard background. Especially when you imbue Truman’s life. His mom used to lock him in rooms and go meet men. I think there is a world where the adults in Macomb, especially in our adaptation, feel this is not going to be an easy life for you because of who you are, but also the way you see the world. And I think that’s a really important cathartic moment for the audience to witness.
TM: I would love to hear more about realizing Dill as a kind of queer voice in the play. How did you make anchors or footholds for representing that queerness in Dill?
GG: Once I found out he was based off of Truman Capote, it opened the world to me. Capote and Harper Lee promised each other that they would put each other in their first books. So Dill is Capote and then Idabel is Harper Lee in Other Voices, Other Rooms. What an extraordinary relationship that has been existing in our literature for so long. So that was really exciting for me. I was really interested in the idea of this kind of relationship between this tomboy-esque perhaps young lesbian and her queer best friend in the deep deep south. I wanted that to become part of the conversation, and I realized: Oh this book is about identity, it’s about intersectionality. Yes it’s about race, obviously, but it’s also about identity. And that’s also race, but here it manifests in many different ways. I was really interested in how the queerness can imbue the otherness and imbue intersectionality and identity.
TM: A lot of the discussion around the Broadway production had to do with the ways in which the book’s representation of race had to be addressed. As much as it’s progressive for 1960, it’s problematic now. So what modern pressures do you feel in terms of representing queerness, and representing the Harper Lee/Truman Capote relationship?
GG: What I find remarkable is perhaps the story couldn’t have been told in this way until now. In terms of pressure, I didn’t feel pressure. I mean, I definitely felt a responsibility to honor this character, and it’s a beloved character, you know, the majority of the characters in this novel are. People come to them in a very transformative time in their lives, in terms of their own development. But again, I was excited about telling this story now. My hope is that this kind of queer narrative is going to be part of how you teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would hope that that is something I could help contribute to.
TM: You talk about how so many people come to this book in adolescence, in a formative moment, and you seem to feel an obligation to honor people’s relationship with this story. As an adult, and as someone with such a history with this book, how does it feel to take on the part of this queer child?
GG: First it was about research. We—all the three kids, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen—we all went down to Monroeville to make sure we understood this town. We wanted to make sure we knew what it felt like to be completely on our own in the Deep South. It’s hot, there’s no television, what do you do? How do you set about your day? The sense of adventure. The way you leap and bound from one place to another without really thinking is part of the physical vocabulary, because their sense of adventure is their only form of entertainment. The stories that are percolating around the town are their television. They’re really invested in their books and the stories they read. They perform these stories. Reading about Capote’s life and Capote’s literature, that was very helpful too. The protagonist of Other Voices, Other Rooms is a 13-year-old queer boy, and that was really powerful for me. I think when you’re older, you have a preconceived notion of what you are, and what people think of you, and you don’t really have that so much as a kid. You’re kind of creating as you go. And what I said before, your morality is almost more intact.
TM: If the kids have symbolism, it’s in that kind of morality. Scout is all passion, she responds to things immediately with her gut, and Jem is the rational thinker of the three, he weighs all the evidence, but Dill is really imagination—
GG: Dill’s a dreamer—
TM: He’s the source of the dramas they act out, the stories they tell about Boo Radley—
GG: They call him “pocket Merlin” which are my favorite descriptive words for him.
TM: And so even though Scout in the book is the main narrator, it’s Dill’s storytelling that really frames the story, really gets the story moving.
GG: Yeah, he’s the one that comes to town and starts the adventure. This is what we played with with our adaptation and the three kids: you have two kids who are writers, two narrators who also believe in their own version of a story, and they are maybe somewhat competitive as well. Supportive and competitive. And that was really exciting to me. Two of our nation’s best writers, are the characters.
TM: So how do you approach that? How do you approach being a narrator as well as an actor in the story?
GG: At first it was the most terrifying aspect of the story, being an adult playing a kid, but also shifting in and out of the narrative. But we found out that what terrified us the most became what freed us up the most. It ended up being the most theatrical aspect of this adaptation, and thus it kind of divorced itself from other iterations. People come with their idea of what To Kill a Mockingbird’s going to be, and all of a sudden this is not it. These are three adults playing kids and they’re talking to us. And so that really freed everything up. What I was really excited about was this literary agency, people taking agency over a story.
In all of American letters there is no tale sadder than the biography of Truman Capote. A true prodigy, Capote was publishing stories in national magazines by his early twenties, and published his first novel at age 24. After dabbling in writing for the theater and the movies, he returned to prose, first with the classic 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and then eight years later, his masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, about the senseless killing of a Kansas farming family.
And then…nothing, or very near to it. Capote lived 18 years after the publication of In Cold Blood, much of which he spent working on a novel with the painfully ironic title Answered Prayers. When he published a few chapters of the book in Esquire, the real-life counterparts of his characters, many of them wives of business titans who had brought Capote into their glamorous circle, were so offended they shunned him. If there was ever any more of that novel than those controversial opening chapters, he never showed them to anyone. Instead, he got fat, grew estranged from his long-suffering lover Jack Dunphy, and bounced from lover to lover, living as a sad, lonely has-been until his death in 1984 from liver disease.
But before his wilderness years, before his cringeworthy turn in the Neil Simon movie Murder by Death, before the six years it took him to write the true-crime thriller that made his name and destroyed his health, there was the charming, coquettish boy-man whose bedroom eyes stared back at readers in the famous jacket photo for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. “A Beautiful Child,” is the title of a gossipy memory piece Capote wrote about Marilyn Monroe, but his descriptions of his female subjects always contained more than a few brushstrokes of self-portraiture, and for more than a decade, from the publication of his first stories in the mid-1940s until he set out for Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate the quadruple-murder of the Clutter family in 1959, that’s who Capote was: American literature’s beautiful child.
This month Random House is celebrating the work of this gifted and tragic boy genius with a handsome new Modern Library edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices, Other Rooms. In May, the Modern Library will bring out a new edition of his Complete Stories, many of which were written during his early career. The justification for these new editions is slim at best. Breakfast at Tiffany’s turns 55 this year, but today many more people know the movie with Audrey Hepburn than have read Capote’s original novella. Capote himself is now best known as the flamboyantly gay elf with a squeaky voice played first by Philip Seymour Hoffman and then by Toby Jones in the competing movie versions of the tale of Capote’s experiences reporting and writing In Cold Blood.
If Capote the writer has been eclipsed in the public mind by Capote the Hollywood movie character, no one is more to blame than Capote himself. An incurable glory hog, Capote lived as much of his life as he could in the limelight, hopping onto the sofa of any TV talk show host who would have him and jetting around the world in the company of glamorous women from Babe Paley, wife of CBS President Bill Paley, to Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy. Capote, in his way, was a reality TV star before there was reality TV, always on stage, gossiping and backstabbing, forever plotting to push other people off the island.
Behind all that needy self-display, though, there was a serious, preternaturally confident author, one of the most naturally gifted America has ever produced. In his excellent and unbearably sad biography,Capote, Gerald Clarke recounts the story of the day in 1945 when Capote appeared at the offices of Mademoiselle with a short story he had had written. Capote was by then 21, but with his delicate features and high, girlish voice, he looked and sounded like a child, so when he told the fiction editor’s receptionist that he had a story he wished to submit, she told him, “That’s fine, little boy. Have you got your name and address on it?” Capote’s answer, now legendary, but also in keeping with his boundless confidence in his talent, was: “I’ll wait while they read it.” Within months, the magazine had published one of Capote’s best-known early stories, “Miriam,” a spooky little tale about a girl with an evil temper.
The only child of an alcoholic mother and a big-talking traveling salesman father who landed in jail for writing bad checks, Capote spent much of his early life with relatives in the rural South and never went to college. His only real job, a brief stint as a copyboy for the New Yorker, ended when he was fired for walking out of a reading at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference by poet Robert Frost, a frequent contributor to the magazine. Without an education or meaningful connections in the literary world, the man-child who sat waiting for the editors at Mademoiselle to read his work, and the young writer who turned out stories those editors couldn’t ignore, was entirely self-invented, which may help explain the high-strung tone and quirky subject matter of the early stories, which seem designed to shock the reader into attention as much as to entertain or edify.
This is certainly true of Other Voices, Other Rooms, a self-consciously lurid tale of 13-year-old Joel Knox who sets off in search of his missing father and ends up in a kind of Warner Brothers back-lot stage set of Southern-fried weirdness, all swamplands and ruined Gothic splendor. Other Voices would be a forgettable bauble of mid-century Southern fiction had its author not gone on to be Truman Capote, and were it not so revealing of the passions and demons that fueled his later work. The novel’s hero, a transparent stand-in for its author, has been effectively orphaned, and when asked to pray, is stumped:
[A]ll his prayers in the past had been simple concrete requests: God, give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved.
This is the leitmotif for Capote’s entire life and career. All his characters wish only to be loved, and finding it impossible to be loved in any conventional way, seek love wherever they can find it, sometimes creatively, sometimes in ways that destroy themselves or others. In Other Voices, Joel’s father is alive, but reduced to a pathetic grotesque, a quadriplegic kept in a box who can communicate only by dropping red tennis balls to telegraph his distress. Instead, Joel finds his father figure in his deliciously odd Cousin Randolph, who watches him from an upstairs window wearing a woman’s dress and towering white wig. At the novel’s end, Randolph in drag beckons to Joel from the window, and Joel, finally understanding who he is, goes to him “unafraid, not hesitating,” pausing only briefly to look back “at the boy he had left behind.”
If Other Voices allowed Capote a vicarious coming out, by the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s ten years later, his sexuality was largely a settled issue. Readers coming to the novella for the first time – especially those who know only the movie version which turns Capote’s narrator into a sort of heterosexual rent boy who falls for the party girl Holly Golightly – may be surprised how unambiguously gay the novella’s narrator is. It is so obvious, so integral to his non-sexual intimacy with Holly, that it hardly bears mentioning, which allows Capote to focus on a different kind of doppelganger, the pretty young society girl who, like her creator, survives in New York on her ability to charm herself and those around her into believing she is as charming and beautiful as she wishes herself to be.
Yes, yes, Hepburn created an icon in her portrayal of Holly Golightly, with her little black dresses and her cigarette holder, but Capote’s original is so much richer, so much more interesting. The novella, with its cartoonishly named central characters, Holiday Golightly, Rusty Trawler, and Sally Tomato, is no more a realistic portrayal of New York in the war years than Other Voices is of the Depression-era South, but here the distortions bring one closer to the truth of what Manhattan meant to creative-class strivers of Capote’s generation. In Capote’s telling, New York is a kind of Emerald City, where all those hurt or looked down upon in their hometowns can come to reinvent themselves, except that here Dorothy herself is the Wizard of Oz, pulling the levers of fashion and witty talk that create the beautiful mirage.
Holly Golightly, Capote’s most enduring character, represents the creative side of his obsessive need to be loved. Born Lulamae Barnes in Tulip, Texas, and married off at the age of 14 to a local country doctor whom she soon abandons, Holly is a wholly self-invented figure. She makes her living off “tips” from her gentleman suitors, but she is not, strictly speaking, a whore, nor is her appeal merely sexual. She makes a place for herself by being a feminine chameleon, at once a sex kitten to the men who pay her tips, a surrogate daughter for the lonely mobster Sally Tomato whom she visits every week at Sing Sing, and a would-be American trophy wife for a Brazilian diplomat. When her act fails, and the police come after her for helping Sally Tomato run his criminal gang from behind bars, she vanishes, leaving behind nothing but her pet cat, resurfacing years later in Africa where a tribal artisan has fallen in love with her and carved her image into wood.
This, one senses, is the trick Capote himself was trying to pull off in his constant, almost compulsive, self-reinventions, from seductive boy-genius novelist, to Broadway playwright, to screenwriter, to journalist, to public personality and court jester of the most privileged circles of New York’s financial elite. But people, unlike fictional characters, are always themselves, and eventually their pasts catch up to them. This, for me, is the hidden story behind In Cold Blood. The book focuses on the murderer Perry Smith, yet another orphan with artistic tendencies – he wrote poetry and painted – but Smith, ugly and runted, doesn’t possess the talent or capacity for self-belief of a Holly Golightly, and when his dreams fail, he can’t take on a new life and so instead he destroys life. His target is an obvious one: a good, clean Kansan farming family whose love for one another is as real as it is conventional.
Looked at in this way, it isn’t hard to see why In Cold Blood so completely shattered Capote: in Perry Smith, and his check-kiting partner in crime Richard Hickock, Capote was encountering his nightmare image of himself, what he could become if he ever lost his chameleon-like talent. And, God love him, he reported it all honestly. Capote may have fudged a few details, but he stuck it out till the bitter end, telling in excruciating detail the events of that bloody November night in the Clutter home, and then staying with Smith and Hickok until they were hanged for their crimes.
In the sweeping narrative of twentieth century American literature, Capote is typically reduced to a colorful footnote, a young star who flared early and then collapsed in on himself, becoming a black hole of grasping need. In part, this is due to a prejudice against true-crime nonfiction, the genre in which he did his greatest work and indeed helped invent. There is probably no greater book on the darkness lurking in the American heartland than In Cold Blood, but because it shares a shelf with schlocky thrillers, it doesn’t get the critical respect it would if it were purely a work of imagination.
Ultimately, though, the damage to Capote’s literary reputation is mostly self-inflicted. True, he wrote two genre-defining works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, along with some truly great stories, including the heartbreaking “A Christmas Memory.” But he could have done so much more. Capote is hardly alone in coming to a sad end. Ernest Hemingway shot himself in despair; Tennessee Williams, a contemporary and close friend of Capote’s, choked on a bottle cap after more than twenty years of creative failure. But they got their major work done. Capote didn’t. Yet for all this, he remains worth reading because unlike most self-deceiving people he was also a genius, and part of that genius was a capacity to look honestly at his own deceptions, even if in life he couldn’t help being misled by them.
Illustration by Bill Morris