Playwright’s Notes For Around the World in 80 Days
Years ago I was asked to write playwright’s notes for the playbill for the Colony Theatre’s production of Around the World in 80 Days. I wrote my notes and gave them to my wife to read. She read about 3/4 of the way and thought “My husband has lost it. He’s rambling. He’s all over the place.” And then she got to the last paragraph and said to me “I can’t believe you tied all of that together.”
And almost every review of the show said, “read the playwright’s notes.” Here’s what I wrote:
There’s no balloon! First and foremost. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but there’s no balloon. I cannot stress this enough. I’ve said this from the very first day when several of my friends and I sat around discussing one of our favorite subjects—what novels would make good stage adaptations—and Around the World in 80 Days came up. Someone said, “It’ll be great. We’ll follow the balloon from country to country.” I piped in with, ‘There’s no balloon.” I hadn’t even read the novel but somehow I knew there wasn’t a balloon in it. How I knew this little bit of trivia I’ll never know. It’s like my knowing that Hack Wilson holds the single season RBI record. It’s just something I know. There’s no balloon. There’s no balloon in the book. There’s no balloon in my script. It’s the curse of the movie, really. The first one. The one with David Niven. It won five Academy Awards. The film had a balloon. It’s what everyone remembers. But there’s no balloon in the book and there’s no balloon in this show. So if you’ve come to see a trip around the world in a balloon, get out of your seat right now and demand your money back. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you stay.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve been a lifelong Jules Verne fanatic. That I’ve memorized every one of his novels…in French. That I spent my childhood trying to dig to the Center of the Earth. That I go to Jules Verne conventions dressed as Captain Nemo. That I’ve decorated my bedroom to look just like Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. I’m sorry. I’d be lying. But I once went on the Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ride in DisneyWorld…well I got in the sub, got panic-stricken with claustrophobia, and got right out. And I was in the Tom Hanks-produced mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. That should count for something.
My first draft of the script was nearly as long as Fogg’s journey around the world. (Oh, I should probably note here that it’s Phileas Fogg. Not Phineas. Almost everyone thinks it’s Phineas. It’s not. It’s Phileas. I don’t know why people think that. But they do.) It felt like eighty days. I was almost forced to put in a dinner break and serve food from around the world. Which brings me to the first bit of historical information. In 1872, the year this play takes place and the year Verne wrote the novel, the first diner was started in Providence, Rhode Island. I note this not only because you can order almost anything in the world to eat in a diner, but also because I’m from New Jersey. The Garden State, my eye. It should be renamed the Diner State. New Jersey has more diners than any other state in the union (and in the world, for that matter) and is sometimes referred to as the Diner Capital of the World. Also, the first baseball game was played in New Jersey, as was the first intercollegiate football game. New Jersey also has a Trash Museum, a Spoon Museum, and the State Shell is the Knobbed-Whelk…but I digress.
So through a series of readings and workshops at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival in Orlando, Florida, I was able to get the script down to two hours. Among the many scenes I cut, I ended up cutting a very funny (at least I thought it was funny) scene with a Mormon. Although people laughed, the general consensus was they thought it was poking fun at Mormons. Okay, it was. But wait ’til you see this play. I poke fun at nearly everyone. How the Mormons escaped unscathed I’ll never know. But now that I think about it, the Mormon scene was right out of the book. So Verne is the one to blame. I mention this because I’m about to come to the second bit of historical information. In 1872, Brigham Young, Second Prophet of the Mormon Church, was arrested for bigamy. He had 25 wives. I’m undecided as to whether Young was the luckiest man for having 25 wives or the dumbest. I have one wife and I can’t decide which I am. (My wife is reading over my shoulder and has just whispered, “You better say you’re the luckiest or you’re a dead man.”) I’m the luckiest.
Which brings me to the third bit of historical information. In 1872, in defiance of the law, Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time. At the time, it was illegal for women to vote. She was arrested, taken to trial, and fined $100.00. She never paid it. I also believe she originated the saying, “I’m sticking it to the man,” but don’t quote me on that.
And I’d like to think that Susan voted for Victoria Woodhull. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman nominated for the U.S. Presidency. Victoria, who used to perform a spiritualist act with her sister, Tennessee, advocated an eight-hour workday, graduated income tax, and profit sharing. Scandalous. She was also the first female stockbroker on Wall Street. Ironically enough, I hear tell that Susan voted for Horace Greeley.
And now, in a desperate effort to tie all of this together, let me come back to the non-existent balloon. The balloon you won’t see in this production. In 1783, a sheep, a rooster, and a duck (I know, it sounds like “walk into a bar” should follow) became the first hot-air balloon passengers in Versailles, France (France being Jules Verne’s birthplace). Verne worked as a stockbroker (like Victoria Woodhull) until he wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon. (Not to be confused with the forty-five-day-longer journey Around the World in Eighty Days). Verne’s inspiration for Around the World in Eighty Days was most likely George Francis Train (if only his last name was Balloon), who in 1870 traveled around the world in (there are conflicting reports here) sixty-seven or eighty days. George Francis Train was jailed on obscenity charges while defending Victoria Woodhull. The first U.S. manned hot-air balloon flight was by Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a Frenchman, in 1783. He flew from Philadelphia to Deptford Township, NJ. (New Jersey being my birthplace). Deptford is also home to the fabulous Five Points Diner. And in a moment of truth-is-stranger -than-fiction, I was born in Deptford Township, and their slogan is “First Flight in America.”
I hope you enjoy the show, but whatever you do, don’t whisper to the person next to you, “Where the heck is the balloon?”