A Play for the Enigmatic Henry Darger

Detail from Henry Darger's "The Story of the Vivian Girls" (photograph by cometstarmoon, via Flickr)
Detail from Henry Darger’s “The Story of the Vivian Girls” (photo by cometstarmoon/Flickr)

An independent theater in Chicago is adapting Henry Darger’s life into a play. The effort, currently accepting funds on Indiegogo, aims to draw attention to the life of the prolific outsider artist and creator of the illustrated tale of the “Vivian Girls,” a man whose own story has thus far been relegated to the margins.

The Strange Case of Henry Darger is workshopping this summer, with a plan to show this August at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Directed by David Kersnar of Lookingglass Theatre Company and starring Troy West, the play by Judith Kampfner has a goal to “build awareness about the life and mind of an extraordinary man.” The proceeds will go towards the Intuit, which hosts a permanent installation of Darger’s studio cluttered with comics, children’s books, magazines, and newspapers among the simple furniture.

Art by Henry Darger (courtesy of Kiyoko Lerner)
Art by Henry Darger (courtesy of Kiyoko Lerner)

In this studio’s original location at 851 Webster Street, Darger devoted nearly 40 years to writing and illustrating the vivid narrative, with its 15,000 page novel and hundreds of paintings on a group of androgynous young waifs waging war against the enslavement of children by a league of soldiers. None of it got any viewers until Darger was dead in 1973, but now he’s among the best-known “outsider” artists. He made his work quietly during his life while employed as a custodian in a hospital; the details of his biography are vague and sometimes dark, such as his institutionalization in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children and childhood abuse.

However, while Darger’s life at a glance seems rather isolated and bleak, the team behind the Darger play consider his story to have a “giddily uplifting impact” — art made despite the odds. If successful there are plans to develop the play further and bring it to New York. While Darger is now hardly an obscure artist, rising from cult following to collector favorite, a sensitive look at his life might get beyond the sensationalism of a reclusive genius, to a more real person who found a voice in art, not caring if anyone heard it.

“He was a blue collar worker who was abused as a child, lived a life on the margins and yet was a survivor who made a body of art that was stunningly original and that has inspired people all over the world,” playwright Judith Kampfner told Hyperallergic.

The Strange Case of Henry Darger is fundraising through July 10 on Indiegogo. The premiere is planned at the Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago) on August 8–9. 

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