Notes on the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

Playwright Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird necessarily condenses the many incidents in Lee’s novel. The play concentrates its energy around the trail of Tom Robinson and the children’s interest in the mysterious Boo Radley.

Sergel, who was president of Dramatic Publishing from 1970 to 1993, published a short essay on his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is an excerpt from that essay.

Meeting with Harper Lee to discuss the stage adaptation of her extraordinary book To Kill A Mockingbird was an event about which I felt much trepidation.

My father, Roger Sergel, was had been Professor of English at the University of Pittsburg and who had been close to many leading writers of his day — Sherwood Anderson dedicated a book to him — particularly admired Harper Lee’s book. He died before I met with Harper Lee, but I can still remember his unqualified enthusiasm for her work. When To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, my father said, “This is the first time I entirely agree with the Pulitzer Prize.”

Prior to meeting directly with Harper Lee, I had a number of useful discussions with Maurice Crain who was a creative force in her life, as to some extent he was in mine. Lucille Sullivan of that office was also a source of excellent advice on this project.

The meeting with Harper Lee, as I recall it from twenty years ago, took place at the Hotel Pierre in New York City. It began as an early lunch and lasted several hours. As we discussed the adaptation and the reasons for the choices being made, I had a sense that she felt the work was on the right track, which, of course, was due at least in part to the good advice I’d been given earlier by Maurice Crain. The good discussion continued with Harper Lee as we walked down the hotel corridor. Passing a row of public phones I had an irrational wish that I could call my father and tell him that I’d met with Harper Lee myself and the meeting had gone well.

A taxi stopped in front and I opened the door for Harper Lee. She embraced me and was gone. I’ve never seen her again. Perhaps the essence of what I believe she does better than any writer I know is captured in a brief response Atticus makes to a question from his daughter Scout. In the book as in the play, Tom Robinson, a black man, is wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit and is later shot down by prison guards as he tries to escape. In anguish, Scout asks her father how such a thing could be done to Tom. Atticus replies, “Because he wasn’t ‘Tom’ then.” The special beauty of Harper Lee’s work is that she takes us inside the people in her book, and in their various ways, each becomes “Tom” to us.

-Christopher Sergel


Biography of Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, Lee’s father was a lawyer who also owned a portion of the town’s newspaper. Her mother hardly ever left the house and likely suffered from undiagnosed metal illnesses.

Lee was a self-described tomboy and grew up alongside fellow writer Truman Capote. During high school Lee developed her interest in literature, later enrolling in Huntingdon College for girls in Montgomery, Alabama. Lee was part of the literary honors society at her college and her stringent work habits kept her out of the social scene.

She later transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she continued to study literature and also wrote for the school’s newspaper and humor magazine. Lee was accepted in the University’s law school but didn’t last long there. She soon moved to New York to pursue a career in writing.

It was 1949 when the 23-year-old Lee arrived in New York City. She was reunited with her childhood friend Capote, and was also introduced to Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, who both became close friends. For years the young writer struggled financially, working as a ticketing agent for various airlines. However in 1956, the Browns gave Lee a Christmas present. They offered to support her for a year so she could devote all her energy to her writing. During the year she did a majority of work on To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee finished the manuscript for her novel in 1959 and shortly after went to Kansas with Truman Capote to research the murder of a family there. Capote’s New Yorker article about the murders would later evolve into the non-fiction classic, In Cold Blood.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and almost immediately captured the attention of readers. The Book-of-the-Month Club picked up the book and an excerpted version also appeared in Readers’ Digest magazine. In 1961 the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and playwright Horton Foote was selected to write a screenplay adaptation for the 1962 film. The movie took home four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Though she was rumored to be working on a nonfiction book throughout the 1960s, the work was never published. To Kill a Mockingbird remains Lee’s only published novel, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s she largely retreated from public life. She now lives a quiet life in both New York City and Monroeville, where she lives with her sister and is active in her church and community.

Lee typically avoids any interviews, though she did attend a ceremony at The White House in 2007 during which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the book.