At a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea on Saturday afternoon, John Irving gave the background story behind his 1989 novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
The Academy Award-winning screenwriter and novelist visited Yale to attend the Yale Dramatic Association’s Freshman Show, an adaptation of the novel which played at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Friday and Saturday. At the JE Master’s House before an audience of about 50 students, faculty and community members, Irving explored the central themes of his writing, such as faith, religion, war and friendship.
Irving focused his talk on “Owen Meany,” tracing the origins of this novel to a 1975 high school reunion in his hometown of Exeter, N.H., where he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving found himself engaged in a conversation with an old classmate about the friends they had lost in the war and what others had done to themselves not to go to the war .
“[That] was the habit of the morbid Vietnam generation,” Irving said.
During this conversation Irving said he remembered a school friend named Russell, who he later recast in the novel as the protagonist Owen Meany, a small kid with “a rock-dust falsetto” from a highly religious granite-quarrying family who believes that he is God’s instrument.
Although Irving did not serve in Vietnam, he said the lasting impact of the war on his generation motivated him to write the novel 14 years after the war’s end. For some, Irving said, the damage was physical, as with young men who avoided the draft by cutting off their own fingers or shooting themselves in the kneecap. For others, the damage was much more gradual and metaphysical: Vietnam was a soul-crushing experience even for those who did not fight, Irving said, an idea that served as one of the original underpinnings of the novel.
“That was exactly what I was looking for: someone who is a victim of the war, but not the victim you see coming from Vietnam,” Irving said. “[Owen Meany] definitely is a victim of that war, as our country continues to be a victim of that war.”
Reflecting on this idea of victimization, Irving argued that one of the fundamental themes in “Owen Meany” is the loss of friendship. Noting that college students enjoy close friendships which they will rarely find ever again, Irving added that losing a friend in one’s youth, either physically or symbolically, causes irreparable damage to the course of one’s life.
“The last thing you expect is to lose someone of your age,” Irving said to his young audience members. “I lose people of my age all the time. But if you lose a friend at your age, it changes your life.”
In light of the Freshman Show, Irving said that “Owen Meany” is a difficult novel to adapt for the stage. He said that in addition to its length, the novel’s supernatural element, which is very difficult to visualize, makes the novel a challenge to stage.
JE Master Penelope Laurans said Irving’s talk was one of the most riveting Master’s Teas she has hosted.
“It was wonderful that it wasn’t a simple question-and-answer session, but rather spoke much more deeply about parts of yourself,” Laurans said.
Eric Sirakian ’15, who proposed and directed this weekend’s play, said he wanted to examine institutions such as church and government, topics into which the play provides insight.
Otis Blum ’15, an actor in the play, said that the tea allowed him to understand the story on a more fundamental level.
“Meeting John Irving and [talking directly to a screenwriter] is an opportunity that many actors do not have,” Blum said. “I read the play and the novel, but listening to him speak about what his intentions were and what his feelings were in the play was an amazing opportunity and a valuable supplement to the book.”
In 1999, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Cider House Rules.”