First published in 1967, Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age novel The Chosen has become a beloved literary classic. The story of an unlikely friendship between two boys from different worlds growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1940s evokes universal truths about the power of friendship, the importance of relationships between fathers and sons, and the difficulty of holding on to faith and cultural traditions in a rapidly changing modern world. And indeed, the themes in the novel have stood the test of time—it’s a perennial best seller, over three million copies have been sold, and it’s landed on high school reading lists for generations.
Playwright Aaron Posner first adapted The Chosen for the stage in 1999. Posner, a prolific playwright, has written a number of plays inspired by literary classics including adaptations of Chekhov’s The Seagull (Stupid Fucking Bird), Uncle Vanya (Life Sucks) and Three Sisters (No Sisters), in addition to an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (District Merchants) and a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s unpublished short story A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage. And Posner is no stranger to Long Wharf’s stage—his adaptation of Potok’s later work, My Name is Asher Lev, appeared at Long Wharf in 2012 also directed by Gordon Edelstein. Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto recently sat down with Posner to ask him a few questions about The Chosen.
Q: You’ve adapted two of Chaim Potok’s novels, The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, both produced here at Long Wharf. What has drawn you to his work?
A: I love literature of all kinds, but I am most drawn to stories that are deeply personal to the author, and speak to the core questions of what it is to be human. Chaim was writing about a very particular, very Jewish world, but because he was generous and courageous enough to tell deep, difficult truths about his own life and perspectives, his stories have the capacity to cross all kinds of boundaries and reach all kinds of people in really powerful ways.
Chaim was not a stylist, per se. His writing is not flashy or pyrotechnic. He wrote passionately about deep core conflicts between people and cultures. And like all of my favorite authors, there are rarely any villains in his stories…only complicated, problematic, passionate people trying to do their best in the world. Unfortunately, this brings them into deep conflicts with those they love and care about most. That is the emotional territory of most of his works. Stories like this have the capacity to go deep for people and even change lives. That is why I love them.
Q: When did you first read The Chosen, and what was its impact on you? Why did you choose to adapt it for the stage?
A: I first read The Chosen as a teenager and while I remember liking it, I hardly remembered it. In my 30’s I was trying to find a way to explore questions I had about my own Jewish identity. I started reading a lot of Jewish literature. I read a lot that I loved and respected, but as soon as I re-read The Chosen, I instantly fell completely in love with it. I found it very smart, deeply moving, and wonderfully inspiring. It opens a window into a world many people know very little about, and it is a complex and complicated world worth knowing. It speaks with true insight and genuine complexity about finding ways to bridge almost insurmountable differences. I think that is something that is always worth considering… and more important and worthwhile now than ever. Chaim was able to tell a very particular story that had the power to connect with people of all faiths, nationalities, ages and perspectives. That is an amazing achievement.
Q: It’s been almost 20 years since The Chosen premiered at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, and you’ve done a new revision of the script for our Long Wharf production. What have you discovered in revisiting the script after so many years?
A: It has been fascinating to re-explore. While we have made many changes—including eliminating a character—the core of the experience remains the same. Chaim wrote an amazing, moving, worthwhile story, well worth sharing with as many people in as many ways as possible. The core of his story—and my adaptation—are unchanged. It is still a relatively simple story of two fathers, two sons, and their remarkable friendship coming of age at a very complicated time.
Q: There is an idea that repeats throughout the play, “Both These, and These, are the words of the living God,” that raises the question of how two contradictory opinions can both be the words of God. It’s an idea that feels difficult—and important, particularly in these divisive times—to really understand. How is it possible to reconcile and live with two opposing ideas that both reflect truth and righteousness?
A: An excellent, and, as you say, important question. The Talmud says it is possible. I pretend to no particular wisdom on this issue. I certainly know that contradictory emotions are common. I know that beliefs and thoughts and feelings are often contradictory and hard to reconcile in all kinds of complicated ways. I do believe that there are often things that at least seem or feel contradictory, but they can be reconciled. I do believe that we allow all kinds of things to divide us based on a belief that different beliefs or perspectives make us different kinds of people. I believe there is more commonality to be found than sometimes seems apparent. I guess I also think that there is little more important in the world these days than bridging differences and finding ways to come together across real boundaries of damage, mistrust and even hatred.
Q: The play is about two young men from very different backgrounds coming together—over baseball, literature, philosophy, and religion. What facilitates the deep sharing of values in these two young men? What makes their friendship so transformative?
A: I believe some people are powerful for each other. I believe we find our friends, lovers, artistic partners, collaborators and soul-mates of all kinds because we find people that push our buttons, that make us feel more ourselves, that inspire and annoy and stimulate us. I have found this in my life over and over and over again. These boys are incredibly similar and incredibly different. If you want to follow psychology, you would say their issues call out to each other and trigger powerful responses in each other. From a more spiritual perspective, their souls, perhaps, are connected in powerful ways. Whatever the cause, they are connected. They push each other. They learn from each other. They are lucky to know each other.