A CONFEDRACY OF DUNCES takes the stage


Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and Director David Esbjornson in the French Quarter.

The global sensation published by Louisiana State University Press with millions of copies in print and translated into twenty-five languages now being brought to life on stage in the utterly uproarious, whip-smart adaptation of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and under the direction of David Esbjornson.

Today this most coveted and recognizable of titles enjoys an immense international following. But before the great success came another story altogether, that begins with an end.

In 1969, John Kennedy Toole committed suicide, some would say out of the deep bitterness of rejection. His rejection may have been on many fronts, but surely the heart of the matter was the failure to find a publisher for this work.

It was to be his mother, Thelma, braving again a world of rejection, both real and some of her own fantastical making, who wrestled the ink-stained pages into the hands of Walker Percy (“The Moviegoer”, National Book Award). With his encouragement, Louisiana State University Press would publish the novel, with Percy’s forward in 1980.

In 1981 “A Confederacy of Dunces” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.Since then, the novel has been an huge international best seller, capturing the hearts and minds of millions of readers swept up into the world of 1960’s New Orleans and into the paws of its leviathan hero, Ignatius J. Reilly.

It is a very funny book, a canonical work sitting somewhere near the top of the mountain of great Southern literature. It has famously defied being made into a motion picture. No company has ever held the world theatrical rights until Shelton Street Theatrical.

John Kennedy Toole, Documentary Film, "The Omega Point"

JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE: The Omega Point is a documentary film by Joe Sanford that explores the life of John Kennedy Toole, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Arguably the finest attempt ever to reveal the soul of New Orleans, Dunces has been translated into 25 languages and is a cult classic in modern American literature. PLease watch it here. For more information about the film please visit jktoole.com


“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” So Jonathan Swift prophesied in an essay entitled, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”, written in 1706. Two hundred and thirty-one years later, his words came true. John Kennedy Toole was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1937. He used Swift’s epigraph to open his second novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, which was published in 1980, eleven years after Toole parked his car outside Biloxi, Mississippi and ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window. “Ken”, as friends called him, had always wanted to be a famous writer. He would become one, posthumously, when his grand comic masterpiece won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

John Kennedy Toole came into this world courtesy of John Dewey Toole, Jr. and Thelma Ducoing Toole. His father sold cars, his mother gave private lessons in music, speech and dramatic expression. Thelma was a piece of work, a classic show-biz mom, controlling, bull-headed and more than a little crazy. She adored her son, some would say to death but there is no denying her powerful influence on the budding artist. She made it her life’s work to create a star in her son. If she could never rise to the cultural acclaim she believed to be her divine right, she could damn well make sure John Kennedy Toole ascended those heights and the world knew it was because of Thelma Toole.

Toole was an excellent student from the start. When he was ten, his mother put together a troupe of child stage entertainers called the Junior Variety Performers. Toole was, of course, the star. Thelma drilled the youngsters in acting, elocution and comic impressions. Toole became a superb mimic, and that ear for impersonation served him stunningly well in capturing the many wacky voices of New Orleans in “A Confederacy of Dunces.”

Toole was awarded a full academic scholarship to Tulane University where he initially majored in engineering on the advice of his father (one imagines, to Thelma’s horror). Within a few weeks he had changed it to English, telling Thelma, “I’m losing my culture.” Toole began hanging with a local blues band which performed around the French Quarter and the Irish Channel. Toole’s family looked down on the Quarter as a nest of badly-behaved tourists and the Channel as a den of lowlifes. So Toole kept his nocturnal meanderings a secret as he eagerly absorbed all he could get of New Orleans culture. To make a little spending money Toole filled in for a friend pushing a hot tamale cart around town, generally eating more tamales than he sold. This experience would be grafted to hilarious effect into the novel when the larger-than-life protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, takes a job wielding a hot dog cart for Paradise Vendors. Toole also worked for Haspel Brothers, a family business that manufactured men’s clothing… another real-life experience echoed in “Confederacy” when a desperate Ignatius takes a job working for Levy Pants… and nearly destroys the company in the process.

In 1958 Toole graduated from Tulane with honors. He enrolled in Columbia University in New York on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study English literature. Toole returned home the next year to become an assistant professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. By most accounts this was one of the happiest periods of his life. He was in constant demand socially and was literally the life of every party he attended… unless his clinging mother happened to put in an appearance at which point he would immediately, sullenly shut down. But to Thelma her son could do no wrong, and was destined for greatness - whether he wanted it or not.

Toole’s academic career was interrupted in 1961 when the U.S. Army drafted him. Fluent in Spanish, he served two years at Fort Buchanan in San Juan, Puerto Rico, teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits, drinking heavily… and writing, partly to combat the boredom, partly to give vent to a character with whom Toole had become obsessed, an eccentric, idealistic, wildly creative lunatic, a latter-day Falstaff, voracious slob and arbiter off all things cultural, the inimitable Ignatius J. Reilly.

The novel was finished in 1964… and was promptly rejected, over and over again. Paranoid, severely depressed, Toole returned to teaching to help his economically-challenged family. The manuscript was abandoned, left to gather dust atop an armoire in his bedroom… which is where Thelma stumbled upon it two years after his suicide. Over the next five years she sent it out to seven publishers; each turned it down. Never a woman to let even overwhelming rejection faze her, she furiously campaigned to win over author Walker Percy, who had recently become a faculty member at Loyola University New Orleans. Thelma barraged him with endless phone calls and letters, finally shoving her way into his office demanding that he read her son’s masterpiece. Percy finally agreed, not out of any belief that the novel might be of value but simply to get rid of the author’s overbearing mother. To his disbelief, he loved the book and his efforts finally led to its being published by Louisiana University Press in 1980. For more information please visit the LSU Press website at lsupress.org