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Harper Lee and Christopher Sergel:
To Kill a Mockingbird

By Marlo Ihler

In 1960, author Harper Lee published what was to become one of the most influential novels in American history, To Kill a Mockingbird. Ironically when it was first published she was told not to expect it to sell more than a couple thousand copies. It quickly became a sensation, and now, over fifty years later, it has never been out of print, has sold over thirty million copies and has been translated into forty languages (Harper Collins, 2008). It also received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, among other awards garnered over the years.

Lee, born in 1926, has stated that her novel is not an autobiography, though the basis of the story and its characters reflect her life growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, during the Great Depression. The central family’s last name, Finch, is the same as Lee’s mother’s maiden name; her father was a lawyer, like Atticus Finch; Lee, too, studied law before pursuing her writing career; her best friend growing up, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill; the trial in the novel reflects a famous trial of the time (the Scottsboro trial); the fictional setting of Maycomb County bares resemblance to Monroeville (Joyce Moss and George Wilson, Literature and Its Times, 1997, vol. 3, p. 390, 395).

Within two years of publishing the novel, it was adapted by director Robert Mulligan into a highly acclaimed film, starring Gregory Peck. The film won three Oscars, including one for Peck’s portrayal of Atticus.  

By 1970, writer Christopher Sergel was working on a stage adaptation. Lee was always very cautious and careful about whom she would permit to use her story. Sergel was given permission to copyright his adaptation, which premiered in 1991 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. During the twenty years it took him to adapt the play, he made countless revisions, and even after it premiered he continued to revise it. Interestingly, it was originally intended for middle schools and high schools, but has since become a popular favorite of regional theatres across the nation (www.talkingbroadway.com).

It also enjoys an annual performance at the courthouse in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville every spring, though Lee, who still lives there, does not attend. She remains “deeply private and defiantly silent” about her novel. The play has basically become a Passion play for the community, and “with its strong moral statement . . . has inspired the citizens of Monroeville” (Albert Murray, New York Times: Long Lives the Mockingbird, Aug. 9, 1998).

Sergel’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird was only one of many stage adaptations he did during his lifetime. He loved the theatre and did dramatic adaptations of other well-known books including Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which ran on Broadway, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Mouse That Roared, Up the Down Staircase, and Black Elk Speaks. He also wrote other plays and musicals, including Fame, Get Smart, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Outsiders, and Pillow Talk.

His personal background was as varied as the plays he adapted and wrote. Born in 1918 in Iowa City, Iowa, he lived a life full of adventure. Following his graduation from the University of Chicago, he served in World War II as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Merchant Marines and taught celestial navigation. Later, he spent two years as the captain of the schooner Chance in the South Pacific. Then as a writer for Sports Afield magazine, he lived in the African bush for a year (www.nytimes.com/1993/05/12/obituaries).
In 1970, the same year he began adapting To Kill a Mockingbird, he became president of Dramatic Publishing, a play publishing and leasing company founded in 1885 by his great uncle, Charles Sergel. According to their website, his “greatest adventures and deepest love” in life was the work he did at Dramatic Publishing (www.dramaticpublishing.com/AuthorBio.php?titlelink=9848). He was considered a “generous and spirited mentor” to numerous playwrights and authors, attracting to the company many fine writers of the 1970s and ‘80s such as Arthur Miller, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, and E.B. White. He once said he “hoped to be remembered as a ‘true friend and a good writer,’” like E.B. White’s famous spider, Charlotte.

Sergel served as Dramatic Publishing’s president until he died in 1993 at age 75 in Wilton, Connecticut, from heart failure.

 


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