‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ on Broadway: Not Your Mother’s Holly Golightly

With all due respect to Ford Madox Ford, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the saddest story I’ve ever read. Black hats and mid-century New York aside, the story of “living by your own rules…loving on your own terms…and wearing your heart on your sleeve” (as the official Broadway site enthusiastically describes the plot) was never meant to be happy. Expecting it to be, as the heroine Holly Golightly herself might have said, would be tres fou.

The popular Audrey Hepburn / George Peppard movie abandoned gloom in favor of a happy ending but now, thank goodness, with the Sean Mathias directed production that premiered last night, there is finally a play that encompasses the intended pathos of the novella.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is, at least in my mind, always a story about Truman Capote’s fantasy of having a relationship with his mother.

On the book’s release, there was great controversy over who Holly Golightly was modeled after. Capote basically told every woman he knew that she was the inspiration for Holly, but he also contended that anyone who really knew him would recognize the character easily.

Since Truman, like Holly, had few real friends, not many people considered the fact that Holly clearly seems to have been based on the author’s mother. While Holly’s original name was Lula Mae Barnes, his mother’s was Lillie Mae Bart. She was a Southern orphan who, after a brief teenage marriage, left young Truman behind with relatives and fled to New York. Truman claimed his earliest memories were of her having affairs with strange men in hotel rooms. In New York she did have a successful run as a social climber. She changed her name to Nina and married a dashing Cuban businessman who, unfortunately, later ended up in Sing Sing. After she ran out of money, she committed suicide.

His lover later recounted Truman waiting to take a bus home—he could only afford a bus—to attend her funeral, plaintively saying, “She didn’t have to do it. She didn’t have to die. I’ve got money.”

If that’s true, it’s an autobiographical tale—and a terribly sad one.

Truman always said he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly. I don’t think that’s because she would have made a good Holly—she wouldn’t, even in the much cheerier movie version there is a certain toughness to Holly that the actress could never have summoned—but because Marilyn Monroe also understood what it was to be motherless. She might not have embraced the character, but would have understood the themes of the story perfectly.

The novella works very well because it plays so closely upon the themes of loneliness and the desire to belong that Capote experienced throughout his life. The movie works very well because Audrey Hepburn looks dishy in a black dress, and because Henry Mancini composes lovely music.

The play works well—very well—because it is true to the original theme.

Emilia Clarke is playing a very different character than the one Audrey Hepburn made her own. Hepburn’s Holly charmed the viewer, Clarke—and Capote’s—Holly is faceted; she charms one minute and then repulses the next. She is astonishing in her ability to seem utterly warm and convivial with Fred (Cory Michael Smith), and then convincingly turn on him, telling him that he’s an intellectual snob, or she finds his stories boring, or has no desire to support him.  

Much of the play, and the novella, hinges upon Fred’s unsuccessful attempts to convince Holly that she should feel some manner of connection or loyalty to him, a goal in which he never quite succeeds. She is not, as Hepburn’s Golightly, simply playing at being a wild thing. She is truly feral, and giving everyone around her sound practical advice when she tells them, “If you try to love a wild thing, you’ll just end up looking at the sky.”

She also has an utterly insane voice, which is fitting if you assume that this is a character desperately trying not to be from any one particular place. And she is naked in a tub at one point. You’ll see much more skin on any episode of Game of Thrones, but if you are the kind of person who looks for nudity at the theater, well, it is there.

Cory Michael Smith, similarly, is not playing a dashing George Peppard character although, mercifully, neither is he channeling Truman Capote directly. (There are moments in the play, such as sending out a deliberately provocative picture of himself to go along with his stories, that are pulled straight from Capote’s life). He plays Fred as a fresh-faced young lad excited to be in the city. You are left wondering why Fred remains so desperate for Holly’s approval. If the character is heterosexual it’s enough simply to say that he desires Holly. However, having him, accurately, played as a homosexual demands a greater explanation as to why he remains so devoted to a woman who so frequently turns on him. There is something about Smith’s entirely likeable performance that seems, perhaps, not quite damaged enough to answer this question.

“Abandonment was the theme of the evening,” Fred says at one point in the play, when Holly has, only recently, abandoned him. “Oh, were you abandoned? By who?” she replies.

So: abandonment and its lasting impact are the theme of the evening and that of the play. You should expect to hear many women, all from Dubuque, leaving the theater and murmuring forlornly that it was not a happy play.

It may be best to combat that reaction by not expecting it to be a happy play. It is not a love story. It is a story about longing for love. And it plays that out perfectly.

Jennifer Ashley Wright is Editor in Chief of The Gloss. Follow her on Twitter.

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