Fifty-five years after Roald Dahl landed James Henry Trotter and his gigantic insect friends on top of the Empire State Building, James and the Giant Peach has become a classic, loved around the world. As fans celebrate Dahl’s expanding legacy in the hundredth anniversary of the author's birth this year, the giant peach is flying towards Cambridge, soon due for arrival at the A.R.T.
At the helm of the A.R.T’s production is director Dmitry Troyanovsky (A.R.T. Institute ’00), whose work has been seen around the US as well as in Russia and China. Troyanovsky admires Dahl's “ability to take tradition and transform it in his own wry, ironic, fantastic ways." Even in James and the Giant Peach, his first children’s novel, Dahl already displayed the signature style—marvelous and malevolent, delightful and darkish—which would make his writing so enduringly popular. James’ parents are eaten by a rhinoceros in the middle of London. Thin Aunt Spiker and fat Aunt Sponge meet a cartoonish demise, crushed by the giant peach. Oversized insects, not fluffy animals, keep James company.
Dahl’s penchant for the grotesque draws Troyanovsky to the work. “‘The grotesque’ is difficult to define as a word, and it provokes very complex reactions," he explains. "We don’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to be scared or to be fascinated, and I think much of Dahl’s world walks that very fine line. The enchanting and the threatening always live side by side.”
Dahl’s relish for the grotesque defined his career. For two decades before James and the Giant Peach was published, his troubling tales had fascinated adults. The transition to writing for children came in the late 1950s, when he decided to write down bedtime stories he had been telling his daughters, Olivia and Tessa. Dahl also cited the real apple trees growing outside his house as an inspiration for James and the Giant Peach. Asking himself, “What would happen if apples didn’t stop growing?,” Dahl considered apples, pears, plums, and cherries before settling on the peach as the centerpiece of his first children's novel.
As it does in the story, Dahl's Peach has grown steadily in the years since the book was published. Besides selling over two million copies worldwide, the book has inspired plays, musicals, and movies. David Wood’s 2001 dramatic adaptation, immensely popular in the UK, is the script used in the A.R.T. production. Prior to Wood, Richard R. George had adapted the book into a play in 1982. A musical with book by Timothy Allen McDonald and songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul premiered in 2010. Disney, which produced the 1996 movie, has just announced plans for a new live-action film.
For Troyanovsky, imagination is crucial to bringing the peach to life onstage. “To represent the peach too literally could take away the magic," he says. "What you come up with is never going to be as good as what you can imagine. We want to use simple theatrical devices to create a marvelous world.”
To do that, the production will use techniques including shadow puppetry to create everything from rhinos to sharks to the peach itself. “The aim is to activate the audience’s imagination,” Troyanovsky says. “Inviting the audience to become co-creators through their imagination is to treat them with respect. Dahl treated his young readers with respect through his sophistication, his irony, his use of dark humor and his love of the grotesque. Onstage, we want to try to do the same thing."
In Dahl’s world, Troyanovsky explains, “Children are exposed to the challenges they have to face when they grow up, like James does when he’s left on his own.” Yet for Dahl’s readers as well as his heroes, great rewards can lie in store. The same can be said for the audiences of the A.R.T. production, and perhaps no reward can be greater than what Troyanovsky describes as “Dahl's sense of tremendous freedom and adventure—that can be liberating and delightful.”
Yan Chen is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.
This article appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.