Some thoughts on Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (1911-83), lifted from my notebooks, in honor of his natal day. Most of these jottings were written about a dozen years ago when I made a concerted effort to read most of his available work. There are still a handful of plays, shorts stories, etc that I haven’t gotten to. There’s always tomorrow! At any rate, we have had many occasions to reference the playwright here, so we can now link to this. This is less a biographical post than a collection of personal and critical thoughts and impressions.
Like a lot of people in my generation of theatrical artists (at least the pack I run with) I’ve always been somewhat dismissive of the traditional pantheon of Great American Playwrights. Compared with the Greeks, the Elizabethans and the Neo-Classicists their accomplishments had always seemed small, unimaginative or formally short of the mark for one reason or the other. But In order to be a more objective critic (ha!) a bunch of years ago I undertook to overcome this prejudice (for that is what it was and is) by reading every play by O’Neill, Odets, Wilder, Miller, Inge, Williams, and a number of lesser lights whose names have now become obscure. I walked away with newfound respect and appreciation for just about all of these writers (Miller’s the one I still have the hardest time saying anything good about, although I can even do that).
For sheer reasons of volume, Williams was one of the hardest mountains to climb, with only O’Neill having a larger number of plays available on the shelves at the New York Public Library. When the smoke cleared (it was coming out of my ears), I had read 63 of Williams’ plays covering his career from 1930 to 1983, with another two dozen still unaccounted for. (Many of Williams’ plays are one-acts, by the way). Not, sure, but I’ve probably added to the total since then.
Aside from O’Neill, one would be hard pressed to find a playwright who produced a greater quantity of memorable, lasting and important plays than Williams. Let’s not slight “important”. George S. Kaufman and Neil Simon are associated with a phone book’s worth of comical hits, but they are trifles. Williams wrote dramas that get under our skin, with characters so fully realized they seem to transcend the vehicles that gave them birth, speaking dialogue so steeped in rich, American poetry they live in our consciousnesses permanently, not just on the ride home from the theatre. If anyone wants to argue that Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy or Maggie the Cat aren’t up there with Falstaff, Hamlet, the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Oliver Twist as CHARACTERS, well, good luck to you.
One danger with Williams, among theatre artists and critics alike, is reducing him to a caricature. The Everest of Williams’ oeuvre has become Blanche Dubois. Many people, for good or for ill can’t see past her. Everything he subsequently did is measured against this character. The (unjust) critical consensus is that he wrote her again and again and again (or that when he abandoned her and tried to experiment, the results were terrible.) But I’m here to tell you that that’s preposterous. And I’ve read 95% of it.
Along with O’Neill and Shepard, Williams comes up with the best titles for plays—a nearly infallible signifier for great plays, in my experience, for it reveals writing ability. How to say it ALL in the shortest possible way? (August Wilson also rates high in that category. Arthur Miller flunks). Williams created the most memorable characters in American drama—no one else comes close. He is poetic, and important. His technique is sometimes too Chekhovian for my tastes (I become impatient with depictions of leisured people sitting around drinking and talking), but nevertheless I would put him on my very short list of significant American playwrights.
Something appeals to me about a prolific, productive artist. After O’Neill, Williams is probably our most notable major playwright in this regard. It is an indication to me of fertility, creativity, natural talent, that there is something THERE. As with so many major writers, it is only substance abuse that eventually began to hurt the output…almost as though the pain of the fire inside was too unbearable…a shortcut to getting rid of something.
Like Poe, Williams’ pathological psychology prevents him from being “universal”. The phrase “Southern Gothic” is more than fitting to describe the darkness he dwells upon and the manner in which he does it . Williams hates prudes and Puritans, yet at the same time, seems filled with self-hatred about his own (sexual) “corruption”…the main theme of his work. His homosexuality is transferred in most of his plays to heterosexual sex, but it is clear what is haunting him. Sex and substance abuse, the “falling” of upright characters obsesses him. It is plain that, even though he hates the busybodies who judge the more worldly among us, he is the biggest judge of them all. His key characters are more or less all driven to insanity by the loss of their sexual innocence. They are all Adam and Eve stories. It seems clear to me he wishes he himself had not become “dirty”…yet he is morbidly fascinated by this “dirtiness”, like a scab he can’t stop picking.
Another major theme is idealism in a world of people who try to crush your soul. It’s what makes Williams’ work take the leap beyond the merely political into the metaphysical. Robert Brustein should have included him among his rebel playwrights in The Theatre of Revolt, for he belongs there.
There is some truth—if oversimplification—in the received wisdom that Williams “can’t write men”. At first I resisted it…he’s written many conventionally straight male heterosexual characters, and they sound “manly”, which is initially impressive when you consider that his natural voice was something like Blanche DuBois’s. But…there ya go. As a general proposition, he only got that far…the stereotype. Which is funny, his male characters are stereotypes in the way that most men (or many men) write females as stereotypes. His early plays have a better knack for the male voice, because he himself was closeted, so he actually had to speak through a traditional “male” voice. And that’s the key…you have to close your eyes and BE the character you’re writing. You can’t make the character talk from outside.
Another thing I’ve noticed, Williams recycles a lot. Not only does he go back and rewrite his own plays, but he will exhume lines and ideas from older plays and stick them in newer ones, a foible I’ve not noticed in O’Neill or Miller.
It’s interesting to trace how far Williams is pushing the envelope. I was surprised to see the word “fuck” in a couple of his very early plays—just a couple. More often he substitutes “rutten” for fuckin” or the ever-popular “mother-lovin’” for “mother fuckin’”. It’s not until the 60s that word “shit” starts to appear, and he appears to start to use “fuck” regularly around the time of Small Craft Warnings, which was still a little ahead of its time, it seems. Similarly, the content gets more and more explicit as times goes on. Sex is at the root of almost every single one of his plays of course. Homosexuality is occasionally dealt with but usually sort of elliptically and euphemistically until the 1960s. Then he gets more explicit about presenting gay characters and situations in the late ’60s and ’70s.
I’ve come to love this writer, his humor, his humanity, his alienation, his sorrow, his subversiveness, his genius and his imperfections. Boy, I really wish I’d gotten to meet him. I feel like I know him.
Interesting fact I didn’t know…though he did struggle for several years, his genius was recognized and cultivated by the top theater people of the day quite early. He studied under Piscator at the New School, and his early supporters included Margo Jones, Harold Clurman and Elmer Rice.
It is ironic that he died when he did—so many playwrights of the 1980s seemed to be acorns off his tree, he might have had a comeback. And of course, starting around the 1990s his late works began to be discovered, so he definitely did enjoy a new era in the sun he would have appreciated.
Here are some thoughts on the various plays from my notebooks. You’ll find I have the least to say about the best known works; perhaps I’ll revisit them at some point with essays of their own. (*-indicates a one act):
Why Do You Smoke So Much, Lily?* (1935): A perennial Williams theme, explored at an early stage…a horrible, controlling older person torturing their adult child to the point of insanity. In this one the mother pesters the chain-smoking daughter to get married. The mother leaves off her nagging to go the beauty parlor. The daughter is more than a chain-smoker…she fills the house with her smoke and her ashes…it is a sick compulsion. She also wanders around the house imitating her mother. It is clear the mother hounded her father to death, and seems to be doing the same to the daughter.
Spring Storm (1937): His voice and the themes that will always characterize his work are already present in this early outing. Very compelling characters and situation. A fickle and fairly normal (if slightly wild) southern girl is forced to choose between the loser she really loves and the rich but effeminate and passionless cream puff whose wealth would save her family (which has been ruined by the Depression). The Depression details, and the moral dilemmas the characters face, both in this play and in Not About Nightingales remind me a bit of Odets, a writer one doesn’t usually associate with Williams. Perhaps there is more ideology in Williams’ misfits and rebels than one gives him credit for. The play moves nicely until the end, which feels abrupt and unsatisfying. The rich boy reveals his passionate side, which enables the girl to choose him after all – but is too late. He had “rehearsed” his passion on the town’s ugly duckling librarian the day before. When he revealed he didn’t love her, she jumped in front of a freight train. Now he is going back to Europe to “think” (which he decides to do – implausibly — in about 30 seconds), and it is likely the girl will become an old maid. The clunkiness of the ending may be one reason the play was unproduced. The copious and oddly unapologetic use of the N word may be another. Williams seems to have dusted off the characters from this play and had another stab at it, in the form of a revisitation, with Sweet Bird of Youth…the bad boy (now an aspiring—and failed—actor) comes back to town with a broken down movie star to impress the love of his life, also called “Heavenly”. This play was reportedly not well received by his college drama class—my guess is because the subject matter was too racy, rather than any supposed lack of talent or promise.
American Blues (ca. 1937-43): A series of one acts using the blues as an inspiration. Includes:
Summer At the Lake* (1937): Another insufferable parent, and an insufferable situation. A boy of about 17 is with his mother at a vacation cabin. A letter has arrived from the father, whom the sensitive, artistic boy has everything in common with. The father is separated from the mother and is having money worries. The boy won’t be able to go to college and will have to get a humdrum job. (The father is a classical musician). The mother is a complete idiot and a controlling one—one of a hundred Williams characters you would give money to throttle. The boy goes out for a swim…and keeps going until his head disappears under the water.
The Palooka (1937): Much more conventional than his usual work, including the O. Henry twist. It is the locker room of a boxing arena. Two fighters are waiting for their bouts…a young novice, and a broken down palooka. It turns out the palooka is a friend of the young boxer’s hero…a man whom they rolled the red carpets out for back in the day, who made and spent thousands, etc. He weaves an elaborate tale about where the former champ now is…a rich retirement. Then the palooka is called to his bout. The young boxer learns that the broken down palooka WAS that same champ.
The Fat Man’s Wife* (1938): A little vignette, especially interesting for the window it opens into Williams’ imagination. The characters are three Broadway bigwigs, a producer, his wife and a playwright…the type of people he hadn’t actually met yet, but would. The producer is an idiot, but powerful. The playwright is idealistic, young, and too impulsive. He tries to get the producer’s wife – a sensitive woman who appreciates the playwright — to run away with him to a South Seas island. But she is wise enough to know that it’s a bad idea…it would undoubtedly turn sour. Better to stay in the hell you’re in and make the most of it.
Adam and Eve on a Ferry* (1939): A woman goes to visit a scandalous sex author. She tells of an assignation she almost had with a man many years before but it didn’t come to pass because she forgot where she was supposed to meet him. The author sort of tricks her into remembering, and she dashes off.
Mister Paradise * (ca. 1939): Mister Paradise is a former poet, now living in an obscurity even greater than when he was writing poems. A girl shows up at his doorstep, having discovered a book of his poems in an antique shop. She wants to revive his career, make him well known. He demurs. He feels his time is past. His real time will be after he is dead. He sends the girl on her way.
The Long Goodbye* (1940): I found this play very moving. It is the first among the dozens of his I’ve read to date that I could see myself attempting to replicate (except perhaps Small Craft Warnings). It is essentially a young man saying goodbye to his childhood. He and his room-mate and buddy are moving out of their apartment, about to go their separate ways. As they go about it, he remembers events from the not-so-distant past…the dying of his mother, and the transformation of his sister into a loose woman (she has now moved to another state). It is that moment where you realize suddenly that everything has changed permanently. That the recent changes were not just temporary blips—things aren’t going to go back to the way you’d always known them to be. Everyone has these benchmarks at different times in their life.
This Property is Condemned * (ca. 1939-41): A truly great character sketch. Was made into a 1966 film with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. A teenage boy meets a younger teenage girl by the railroad tracks. The girl is alone in the world, her parents and older sister have died. She lives by herself in a condemned house, the occasional plaything of her sister’s old boyfriends. The girl is so young and so innocent…and yet so used and thrown away. It’s a moving little snippet.
Auto-Da-Fe * (1941): A postman lives with his mother, who dominates him. He has uncovered some pornographic photos in the mails and was going to report it, but instead went to “confront” the young college boy who had mailed them. What actually transpired we don’t know. Now he has waited too long to report. They resolve that he should burn it. He tries to, can’t, and burns his fingers. The mother goes to get some medicine. He locks himself in his room and sets himself on fire.
The Lady of Larkspur Lotion * (1941): A female tenant (of the Blanche Dubois type) complains about the cockroaches in her room. The landlady complains that she hasn’t been paid the rent. It emerges that, despite the tenants’ fine airs and claims that she is expecting a check from a Brazilian rubber plantation she apparently owns, she is really a down-and-out prostitute. The jig is up when the down-and-out writer who lives in the next room tests her on her geography…she is not aware Brazil is not on the Mediterranean. It ends like a black out sketch when he wittily claims his name is Anton Chekov, and she believes him. See Vieux Carre.
Thank You, Kind Spirit* (1941): This one almost plays like a blackout sketch. A New Orleans voodoo woman is telling fortunes to a group of women in her parlor. One of the women keeps heckling her…to the point where she reveals a bunch of the voodoo woman’s fraudulent mistakes. The women riot, and walk off with most of her pictures and statues and other trinkets. Then one little girl comes back, still believing. “Thank you, kind spirit”. There is a sweet irony to it…could be cynically comical or could be beautiful.
The Last of My Solid Gold Watches* (ca. 1939-42): Really just a character sketch, undoubtedly based on Williams’ father, or someone whom his father might have known. A traveling wholesale shoe salesman bemoans the passing of the old days. He has become a sort of dinosaur. He starts out by trying to sell to a younger retail buyer, but gets so worked up he ends up insulting the younger man and booting him out.
Escape* (ca. 1939-42): This one isn’t much. I’d be sort of surprised if it didn’t come out of the same period as Not About Nightingales…maybe a scene that was rejected and discarded A bunch of cons in prison observe the escape attempt of one of their number out the window. They watch as he gets caught, killed and brought back to prison.
The Pink Bedroom* (1943): This really is a blackout sketch. A married man and his mistress are arguing. It seems like the last hurrah. This goes on a good long while. The man leaves after a good deal of high-handed stuff from the mistress about how she has a raw deal. Then, of course, the mistress’s lover merges from the closet. The oldest shtick in the book, strictly from the French farce playbook.
27 Wagons Full of Cotton* (ca. 1939-44): Williams calls it a comedy, but, if so, it is a mighty dark comedy. Forms the basis for what later became the film Baby Doll (1956), which certainly isn’t played too much like a comedy. A cracker cotton gin operator is pissed at a nearby plantation owner (who is Italian) for ginning all his own cotton, thus hurting the cracker’s business. He responds by burning down the plantation owner’s gin. The cracker’s wife—whom he obviously treasures—spills the beans to the plantation owner…who gets his revenge by boffing the cracker’s wife. Marks on the woman’s face indicates it was a rape, and all indications are that the Italian will do this to her everyday while her husband is out ginning the cotton, which she allows, probably because she is afraid her husband will go to jail.
Portrait of a Madonna * (ca. 1939-45): Another similar sketch. A crazy woman who has been occupying a hotel suite for many decades has gradually gone insane and must be evicted and committed. She keeps ranting that she has been raped by a fellow Sunday school teacher. It’s either a memory or a fantasy. It seems to presage Blanche at the end of Streetcar in some ways.
Lord Byron’s Love Letter * (ca. 1939-45): An old lady attempts to interest a couple of New Orleans tourists in looking at and hearing the story of, a love letter written to a young girl (the woman’s grandmother) by Lord Byron. The couple is mildly interested but mostly indifferent, and certainly unwilling to pay for the viewing. Meanwhile an old woman behind the screen has been shouting directions. The twist is that the old woman is the grandmother…making the other woman Byron’s grandchild. They have been living off of this letter
Hello From Bertha* (this period or 1954?): This is almost an O’Neill-type idea. A whore has been sick and bed and “out of it” for the past ten days. She has just come to. She has no money (her kitty has possibly been stolen while she was out) and she doesn’t seem to be getting better. One of the whores is calling an ambulance to pick her up and take her to the charity hospital. She tries to fight it, but hasn’t the strength. She’s going to write a postcard to a friend to ask for help, but all she can bring herself to do is send her love to the fellow: “Hello from Bertha”. Somehow we get a sense from this poetic moment that it spells the end for her.
The Big Game*: This play is “all guys”. Three men share a hospital room. One, a college football player, merely has an injured leg and gets released so he can watch “the big game”. Not deep himself, he represents the life spirit, the poem, rather than the poet. The other two are not so lucky. One is a brain patient; his hours are numbered. He expires on the operating table, but not before telling the third patient that to put things in perspective he always looks at the stars. The third patient is as young as the football player, but has a bad heart…he could hours or years but will definitely die young. The play ends with him getting the orderly to open the blinds wide so he can look at the stars.
Not About Nightingales (1938): A wonderful play, which surprisingly wasn’t produced until the late 90s or something. It’s strange to me that that is the case, because the main criticism of Williams work from the late 50s or early 60s through the rest of his career was that he kept repeating himself, and kept writing the same characters. Here was a script that didn’t have those faults (admittedly written earlier). In fact, it has many male characters (which he was often accused of not being able to write) and only one female (and she is not the same old Amanda Wingfield/Blanche DuBois clone). Furthermore, its subject matter (abuse and torture of prisoners by a warden) would have been extremely topical at the time of the Attica riots in the early 70s. Even without the prison reform culture going on, it’s liberal message would have been extremely in tune with the Civil Rights’ era. So why he didn’t dig this play out and get it done is a mystery to me. Maybe he wanted to prove to the world and to himself that he wasn’t washed up…which would have meant writing something answering his deficiencies in some completely new work. Anyway I hope his angel is smiling at the acclaim his early play has since received. Something else that’s interesting. The word “fuck” appears a few times in this play. Did he put them in the play in 1938? Later? Seems rather groundbreaking. The Odet’s-like tone of this Depression era play is also very interesting, as is the fact that the Group Theater rejected it. It seems a better play (and even more progressive) than something like Men in White, for example.
Battle of Angels (1940): This one was rewritten as Orpheus Descending. The recurring theme of the outcast in a world of idiots. A small southern town full of nitwits and busybodies. A drifter roles in and starts working at a store. Begins to have an affair with the woman who owns it (she is caring for an invalid husband). The drifter is on the run—falsely accused of a rape in Texas. In the end, he is caught and tortured. The play is a bit jumbled in the early form – too busy, and lacking his usual eloquence.
I Rise In Flames, Cried the Phoenix* (1941): Williams’ greatest failing—and it is one he rarely indulges—is an occasional pretentiousness. Unlike most Americans, I don’t call ALL poetry or erudition pretension. However there are times when an author wears his learning like a peacock wears his feathers, and with less fortunate results. Camino Real is Williams’ most egregious descent into this foible; the present play is an earlier example. The title alone is grounds for flogging. It is a short sketch of some of the last days of D.H. Lawrence, in which he tyrannizes his wife in a manner almost Strindbergian. The situation and the characters are terrific. If he had changed the names, he’d have matter enough for a full-length. Unfortunately, because he doesn’t, the thing feels weighted down (to me) with that unbearable exposition stuff that mars so many biographical and historical dramatic works…having the character go around being very DHLawrencey, saying DHLawrencey things. Lawrence is so cruel to his wife as written here that is amazing to me that the widow wrote a laudatory preface to the play, but indeed she did. Now THAT’s an obedient submissive.
Stairs to the Roof (1941): Maybe Williams’ least characteristic play. Very “man against the world”, supposedly has its roots in the time Williams worked at a shoe company. There is a young man who works at shirt factory who is very much a poet and a philosopher. He has discovered a secret staircase to the roof, where he goes on his breaks to breathe fresh air, look at the scenery etc. His boss is fed up with his eccentricity, puts him on probation. His wife, another in William’s endless gallery of hateful shrews, walks out on him. The young man falls for another girl who works at the factory, they go on a spree and free all the foxes from the zoo. In the end God comes down and sends them on to another planet, which it will be their mission to populate! The play feels very thirties in its comic idealism. I especially LOVE one thing he does, which I fully intend to steal. After each scene, an offstage character whom we do not meet until the end of the play bursts into laughter…a complete non sequitur of the type I really cherish and makes storytelling so rewarding.
You Touched Me! (with Donald Windham) (1942): This WOULD be Williams’ least characteristic play but for the fact that it is a collaboration and not all his. It is a hugely impersonal “commercial” work, savoring more of the George S. Kaufman “surface” way of writing. It is a drawing room thing, set in England, and though it is supposed to be contemporary, it might as well be fifty years earlier. There’s nothing in it that wouldn’t let it be set in 1892. A boisterous and rowdy ship’s captain has two children, his natural daughter and and an adopted “charity” boy. They are both grown up and the boy has just come home from the war. He is in love with the girl and wants to marry her (after all, they aren’t related). Unfortunately, the captain’s sister, whom also lives there, is a stumbling block. She is both a class snob, and a prude, she hates the boy, and she dominates the daughter and the house and is hell bent on scotching anything from happening. The situation is Williams like in the extreme…it’s probably the case that structuring the relationships was his contribution. Yet the voice is very UNLIKE Williams, and aside from certain colorful expressions and the arc of certain monologues, you don’t hear him. Williams has many gifts, but emulating other styles and voices isn’t one of them – at least he doesn’t demonstrate it anywhere but in this play, so it’s natural to assume that here that the voice is Windham’s contribution. At any rate, the whole thing is neatly sewed up with a happy ending. A certain degree of raciness, combined with the English setting makes it feel like an acorn off Shaw’s tree. Montgomery Clift played the young soldier.
The Glass Menagerie (1944): Like Our Town before it, and Death of a Salesman after, this is a memory play, in Williams’ case, largely autobiographical. It is the first important American play I was exposed to, in 1973, in the form of a tv movie. My sister and I used to mimic Katharine Hepburn saying “Rise and Shine!” When I was young, the mother seemed just annoying and suffocating. Now that I am older I have a lot more sympathy for her and her concern for her children. In usual Williams style, the event is somewhat small…the mother and daughter placing all their hopes on the “gentleman caller” who turns out just to be a guy from work who has come over for dinner, and who happens to be engaged already. Recurring Williams themes are here…faded gentility. In this case, downright poverty, which Arthur Miller—for all his supposed leftist sympathy, never goes near. The play also has a few casual references to the war then raging—also laudable given the fact that few American playwrights seem to have seen fit to deal with that major aspect of American life at the time.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947): My guess is that this is the best known American play. While Death of a Salesman is the one that everyone reads in high school and Theatre 101 in college, that really only extends its reach to the middle and upper classes. Streetcar has the benefit of having been turned into a major Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando in his breakout performance. The faded gentility returns here…Blanche Dubois a kind of second pass at Amanda Wingfield…annoying for all her airs, but somehow sympathetic and vulnerable. She and Stanley Kowlaski — the brute — are archetypes illustrating a changing America.
Summer and Smoke (1948): Terrific play. Feels like a revisitation of some of the themes O’Neill examined in Dynamo: science vs religion, sex vs. love. This story is about a couple of kids who grow up next door to each other: one grows into a misfit doctor who is wild, drinks, whores, etc. but has a natural goodness. The other is singing teacher, daughter of a minister, who is extremely uptight, repressed, judgmental, affected. They are attracted to one another but nothing quite comes of it. In the end, each sees the error of his ways. The Doctor now acknowledges the existence of the soul and real love, and marries a girl. The choir mistress…well, we suspect she will become Blanche DuBois. I first saw a production of this as a teenager. I can’t remember where—I just remember that I got the giggles (and couldn’t stop) when the character Rosa kept saying “Johnny” offstage. I kept repeating that for weeks in the way the actress did it (she did it without variation every time, almost like a tape recording, and with no urgency the way one usually has when one is yelling from the street): “Johnny”.
Williams’ rewrote the play as Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1965) and said he preferred the new version (he would!) It has some superior elements…some better dialogue and poetry to it. He enhances the strangeness of the girl…makes it less about her being high strung…makes her a bit odder, more of a pariah. On the other hand, he makes the doctor less of a bad boy and more of a mama’s boy, which I think noticeably weakens the play. (There had been no mama in the original version). If you wanted a “definitive” version (for example, like for a screenplay) I think you’d want to draw from both versions.
These are the Stairs You Got To Watch * (1948): Just a little slice of life. Seems to me unproduceable as a one act—hard to do onstage period, because of the elaborate set. An older usher is showing a younger usher the ropes at a movie theater, telling him to watch the balcony stairs in particular because people go up there to have sex. It is a charade everyone goes through…everyone pays lip service to the fact the balcony is dirty and a disgrace…yet it is the lifeblood of the theater. The older usher gets into an altercation with the theater owner and storms off, burning his uniform in the balcony. The play ends with the candy girl not so subtly propositioning the new usher.
The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1948 novel, later filmed in 1961 and 2003): A rich, widowed actress, recently retired and newly menopausal has a relationship with an obvious Italian gigolo just to fill the empty space. When he leaves her for someone more appealing, she invites up a homeless street hustler—capped by a chilling ending. Except for the occasional clunky sentence and awkward metaphor the novella is vastly better than the movie. Without Williams’ omniscient narrator explaining Mrs. Stone’s inner journey a lot of her behavior in the film is perplexing and remains unexplained. She is “innocent” in the novel…there is a certain parallelism. Like the gigolo, Mrs. Stone too once made her living with her beauty and by manipulating the emotions of others. In the film she is merely sympathetic. It is Vivian Leigh in her twilight years, and your heart goes out to her the whole time. (that is, insomuch as you are engaged. As directed by Joe Quintero the film is a bit of a soporific soap opera in the Douglas Sirk mold, fit only for elderly women both real and metaphorical. It really doesn’t have to be. But the screenplay needed to externalize what was going on inside her. I wrote down “Why is she taken in by this guy, even for a minute?” Then I read the novella, and it’s all there. Donald Spoto claims Mrs. Stone is the character closest to Tennessee, which makes this a significant, if flawed, work. Warren Beatty plays the gigolo in the film, a part he went at great, preposterous lengths to secure. I scoffed at his accent for about a second – but once I got over the shock…he really did an excellent job, much MUCH better than most American actors ever pull off. Lotta Lenya plays the scheming Contessa. There’s also a 2003 TV movie version with Helen Mirren I haven’t seen yet.
The Rose Tattoo (1950): Written for the awesome Anna Magnani, who starred in the film (it was Maureen Stapleton on stage). A widow pines for her faithless husband, makes a saint of him, and becomes celibate herself in his memory. Meanwhile her beautiful daughter is coming into sexual bloom. The mother finally allows herself to fall in love with a lummox who reminds her of her deceased husband. Sex, Catholicism…volatile areas. Williams goes a little heavy on the rose metaphor…he works it in about 50 million times. “Rose this, rose that” “Rose water””rose tattoo””Della Rosa”, her daughter’s name is “Rose” etc etc etc. And of course Williams’s sister’s name was Rose, a fact which cannot have been irrelevant. The movie is terrific…Anna Magnani incredibly moving…her every move and gesture makes American acting seem inexpert and bush-league. But HOW they ever cast Burt Lancaster as a fucking Italian—a real Italian with an Italian accent—is beyond me. He does his best, poor guy, but he’s embarrassing to watch in the role and you can tell he knows it. (It had been Eli Wallach on Broadway).
Camino Real (1953): Every major playwright has his Waterloo (think of Albee and Quotations from Chairman Mao). Williams always did have a spark of modernism in him, most evident in his stage directions, which often adamantly specify expressionist scenery and lighting. Here it seems like he may have been influenced by Godot. NO main character, no main event, just a progress down a street in a mythological but picturesque third world country. It’s populated with storybook characters like a Bob Dylan song such as “Desolation Row”. Yet, as in Shepard’s Mad Dog Blues, the effect is a little embarrassing. The play is pretentious and self-indulgent in the extreme – as unwatchable as it is unreadable. I saw it produced in the late 80s by Trinity Rep – very brave of them.
The Purification * (ca. 1953 or before): On the other hand, I found this play to be a perfectly excellent excursion into “higher art”. A verse tragedy set in Spanish New Mexico, written in the form of a trial, it tells the story of a young rancher who has killed his wife because she was having an affair with her brother. When the truth comes out, the brother stabs himself with a knife—“the purification”. A Greek theme with an American setting. Reminds me something of 19th century attempts to do the same, and if it has a failing, it is the same one as those earlier attempts. The poetry is fine, but comes off a little workmanlike, a little inorganic. What needs to happen to hit the bull’s eye is to find the contemporary American voice, the WAY to write the poetry. That takes a great leap, but the models are there as I see it—Whitman, James Agee, Thomas Wolfe, the Beats. Shepard has the poetic gift. He needed to take a bigger risk. Of course, maybe that’s what he thought he was doing with Camino Real. In that case, he went too far!
Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen* (1953): This is an incredible play. Every bit as avant-garde as Camino Real yet far more poetic because he isn’t doing all those backflips. Just a little character study. A poverty stricken couple in bed on Sunday morning. The first half sort of belongs to the man…he has clearly been out on the town drinking every cent of his paycheck…again. He tells of his drunken, wild adventures in a monologue. Now he is wrecked, and he asks her to talk to soothe him. She hasn’t consumed anything but water since he last left the house. She fantasizes in her monologue about going away to live alone in a hotel for the next fifty years until she wastes away. Despite the fact that she is upset, it ends on a note of endearment…they love each other despite their horrible lives.
Something Unspoken*(1953): Ditto this little sketch. It’s marvelous, and has the same kind of energy to it. A fussy, idle, worthless rich woman is fussing about becoming head of one of her clubs (she belongs to many). This is all she cares about. Meanwhile, she gives some flowers to her secretary, who has been suffering at this job for fifteen years. It is clear the secretary doesn’t matter at all to her employer, even after all that time. The secretary gets it off her chest but it makes little impression. The “club woman” goes back to her electioneering.
The Strangest Kind of Romance * (ca. 1953 or before): I swear he was immersed in Chekhov or some other Russians when he wrote this. It doesn’t even feel like it’s set in America, aside from one or two little references. A lonely man rents a room in a rooming house (how Russian is THAT?) and befriends a cat who was left there by a previous tenant, a Russian, who gave the cat a Russian name. The landlady befriends him somewhat, comes upstairs and plays music, etc, but he doesn’t make a play for her…just really loves the cat. The most Russian touch of all is an old drunken man with a long beard who comes upstairs periodically and rants. In the end, the man loses his job, and the landlady unsentimentally kicks him out and chases away the cat.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955): I think I have been exposed to three versions of this play. He rewrote the stage version once, and the film also is different. It features some of his most memorable characters, Big Daddy and Maggie the cat. The dying father; the impotent, maybe gay son; and the horny wife…but somehow Williams could never seem to figure out how to finish it. The play is set in that wonderful symbol of faded gentility, the crumbling plantation manor. Brick is underwritten somehow… I think Williams never could never decide if the character was gay or not. If he had, the character would have taken on one voice or another. Now he has none. That is at least partly by design…he is unresponsive, prompting Maggie and Big Daddy into vast tirades to try to get him to open up. It’s hard to write silence. But I don’t think he “wrote” what Brick was THINKING, either…leaving it an enigma to director, actors and audience. Yet it’s not as interesting as a real enigma. With an enigma, we sense that there is something definite there for us to find out and it intrigues us. With Brick somehow we are not intrigued. He is impotent, symbolized by the alcoholism and the broken leg. He’s a wet firecracker, and that ain’t too exciting onstage — possibly an insoluble dramatic problem.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1956): A bad boy named Chance Wayne is playing a dangerous game. An aging (30ish) aspiring actor, who is actually more like a gigolo, he has his first bit of real luck in hooking a dying, drug-addicted Hollywood actress that he can manipulate. All he really wants is his high school sweetheart Heavenly, and to show everyone in town that he is not a loser. Unfortunately, he can’t have Heavenly. He gave her a social disease long ago and she can’t bear children. Her father, a crooked and important state politician has put a price on his head. Far from getting Heavenly back, he’s liable to die just for being in town. And his old schoolmates have heard too many cock-and-bull stories from Chance about his “success”. There is nothing for him here but death. The starlet, on the other hand, gives him a chance…he can be her lover. But he blows her off. She pleads with him to go, but he won’t. Chance…hasn’t got a chance. Seen both versions of this, the 1962 film, and the 1989 TV movie with Liz Taylor.
The Unsatisfactory Supper * (1956): A man and his wife (Baby Doll) are disgruntled because Baby Doll’s 85 year old aunt is staying with them, and a nuisance. The man announces that she will have to go. In an amazing expressionistic ending…a tornado seems to be approaching. The aunt elects to stay outside, and just as the lights fade, she is blown away! Far superior to Albee’s American Dream and The Sandbox, written on the same theme. This was merged with 27 Wagons Full of Cotton to make the movie Baby Doll.
Orpheus Descending (1957) (based on Battle of Angels): This version is a good deal better than Battle of Angels but still has its problems. Williams seems to pour everything he hates about the closed-mindedness of small town southern life into the play’s setting. It’s the only one of his plays that exceeds Sweet Bird of Youth in conveying a hostile, terrifying, fascist environment. The characters are all better developed here, and the language the more familiar, polished Williams we all know. Here, Val has a past as an out and out gigolo. His journey is almost analogous to a painted woman who wants to go right – and he even his finery, the snakeskin jacket to make that fit in. I think one of the problems of the play is that it’s too stacked…the culture of violence and hatred and vigilantism is too unrelenting and thus false. Would have more power if he nuanced it some, added one or two characters who were just a shade more sympathetic.
It was filmed as The Fugitive Kind in 1960 with Marlon Brando in the lead, a perfect role for him, building on his persona from On the Waterfront, The Wild Ones, and Streetcar (in a way that a lot of his later roles started not to). Brando seems somewhat miscast in the part of an entertainer though…for a Method actor, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with that guitar he’s holding the whole time. It would have been the perfect role for Elvis Presley if he’d taken acting lessons and Colonel Parker didn’t have his head up his ass. The Fugitive Kind is a much better title for the story, though I’m sure the philistines in Hollywood changed it because they were afraid no one would know who “Orpheus” is. I don’t like the title Orpheus Descending because I don’t see any resemblance between this story and the myth—I can’t tell why Williams called it that, even if it does sound cool. The film contains a bit of the backstory before Brando arrives in the town, showing him leaving the last town and showing up at the nutty Christian woman’s house (played by Maureen Stapleton). Anna Magnani gives the film’s best performance as the desperate wife—cast here I guess because she was so good in the Rose Tattoo. Joanne Woodward is the rich, crazy slut. The film pushes the envelope here—at one point, she clearly wants to give Brando a blowjob…I don’t know how that didn’t get censored. Her role allows the film to open up cinematically, as they drive around in her sports car and go to juke joints. Yet it seems digressive…one too many plots. Better to focus on the store. The other thing the film (directed by Sidney Lumet) does is it clearly relates the story somewhat clumsily to conditions for African Americans in the south before the Civil Rights movement. Aside from a wordless old conjure man and a nurse, there are no blacks in the story. The film tries to equate the prejudice against Brando and the women in the story with prejudice against blacks, lynchings, vigilante justice, etc.
The Loss of a Tear Drop Diamond (screenplay, written 1957 filmed 2009): I reviewed this in February 2010 but now can’t find the post — will try to track down the copy and add it here.
Suddenly Last Summer (1958): A terrific and strange little bit of expressionism. One of Williams’ most poetic plays (also made into a film with Liz Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift). A tyrannical grand dame has placed her niece in the nuthouse. The grounds for doing so is that the story the girl has told about how the old woman’s son died on their Mexican vacation seems too fanciful to be true. The old woman believes her son was pure. The truth was that the two cousins liked to go out cruising for men…BOTH of them. In one of the strangest bits of symbolic imagery Williams ever came up with, the story goes that the young man was hounded by a gang of poor Mexican children and literally pulled apart and devoured, much like baby sea turtles by gulls referred to earlier in the play…a metaphor for the cruelty of nature, man’s inhumanity to man. Williams has an amazing way of being incredibly modernist even within the realm of apparent realism, one of the few (maybe the only) to approach poetry in the realistic idiom.
A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot * (1958): These are two really great characters, might have made a great full length. Seems to be almost an out-take or offshoot of The Rose Tatoo…the two sluts who go in and harass Mrs. Della Rosa…here we see them in the St. Louis bar where they’ve followed a convention. They’ve lost the men at the moment and sit in a bar sniping at each other. The sniping gets less and less light until they greatly hurt one another’s feelings. Like the cavalry, at the last minute the conventioneers show up. The two women remind me of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.
Night of the Iguana (1960): Another entrant into Williams’s galleria of perverts. A defrocked priest with a weakness for young girls. He makes his living as a tour guide. Now he is in trouble. Having balled a 17 year old on his current tour, he has a nervous breakdown and stops the tour (against the group’s wishes) at the hotel of an old friend of his, a tough old broad. Also staying at the hotel is a spinster, who is there with her 94 old blind grandfather, who recites poetry. They both seem to be at the end of their rope (like the iguana who is tied up under the porch for later eating). In the end it is resolves that the priest will quit the tour business and stay on at the hotel as a gigolo!
The film is fairly incredible, with a veritable supercast, Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyon. John Huston directed it on location in Mexico, a massive logistical feat, but it looks gorgeous. It has many differences from the play. It actually starts with the priest’s breakdown in church (which makes a later monologue about it a little redundant) and then shows us the torturous tour and breakdown that precedes the stop at the inn where we eventually wind up. Huston also seems to have expanded the character of the jailbait girl, here played by the gorgeous Sue Lyon. Burton is off the mark here, seems to be playing it too much for laughs. The character may be witty, but I rather think this breakdown is serious stuff indeed.
Period of Adjustment (1960): The exceedingly weak title of this play is indicative to me of a waning gift. Even adding an article to the front would have made it a stronger title. As would throwing it out completely and using its sub-title as the main title: High Point Over a Cavern. This might be Williams’ lightest play and is interesting in several respects. Successful in writing so many women characters, this appears to be an attempt to concentrate on men…and macho men, at that. A couple of war heroes, both of whom are fumbling their marriages. One just ruined his wedding night (the previous day) through his insensitivity. The other’s wife of several years walked out on him the day before because he quit his job at her father’s firm. In the end, they make up, in the traditional comic way. The subtitle refers to the fact that the house they are staying in is doomed; the entire development was built over a cavern and is progressively sinking into the earth. It was made into a rather lackluster film with Jane Fonda and Tony Francisosa.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (1962) (became the 1967 film Boom!): This play is very “him”, and has many virtues, but now we see him definitely heading away from that era of his great successes…it seems very much by design. This seems like the pivotal play, one foot in the old Williams, one foot in the new experimental one. The plot and characters are Williams-like, but it has problems. The main character is a dying old crone – a millionairess, former beauty and movie star — who lives in her own high security compound on an island in the Italian Mediterranean. (Echoes The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, but more extreme) She is writing her memoirs, aided by a long-suffering secretary. Then a young drifter shows up, who is known around the jet set as the “Angel of Death”…after he shows up, his hosts all die. He is presumed to be a gigolo, but it turns out, he genuinely likes to make it his mission to make the natural deaths of rich people painless and comfortable (a strange mission in life, I must say). It is a somewhat self-indulgent play…self consciously “artistic” in the Camino Real fashion with a pair of “stage managers” who bring some Brecht style presentationalism into it. These feel unnecessary. The play is overlong…perhaps twice too long. The woman who is dying is too unsympathetic…while she says many amusing things, as many cruel bitches do, she has no redeeming qualities which would make this play a moving experience. Instead, we are only too glad to send her off packing to hell. The secretary is underwritten…in the old days he might have made a triangle between her, the “angel” and the crone. He seems to start one here, but it fades into nothing. The play is also self-indulgent because it feels strongly autobiographical about his then current life. It is about celebrity. He spent a lot of time at the Italian shore. A strong “bitch” character, almost like a gay drag character. There are references to Truman Capote, whom I’m guessing was one of his friends, and indeed the main character is called Mrs. Goforth in apparent homage to Capote’s character Holly Golightly. When you are tipping your hat to the younger generation it is not a good sign.
Addendum: I finally got to see the movie version Boom! in 2016. It has a reputation for being bad and camp (it’s John Waters’ favorite movie), but I thought the movie was objectively pretty terrific and profound. The Italian island locale feels mythic…Greco-Roman, and the flowing costumes of Taylor and Burton add to the effect. Apparently the original version of the play did not have the self-conscious kabuki elements we mentioned, Williams added them to the play at a certain point, then he removed them again for the movie version, which makes it flow better. Normally I find movies in such restricted locations too monotonous but Joseph Losey keeps the camera moving constantly – I never once found it boring. Taylor is not the best actress in the world, yet somehow when she overdoes it and hits bum notes here it feels PART of it. This doesn’t demand verisimilitude it, it demands star power. I can’t imagine anyone else in her role. Yet while Burton is the better actor, he is miscast here…it should be someone much younger, a gigolo type. Noel Coward is wonderful as the “Witch of Capri” . In addition to her own staff physician, she also has sitar players and a dwarf (Michael Dunn) on staff. As an experience I found the film comparable to watching Godard or something. Not just valid, but genuinely rewarding, even mind expanding. I thought it was great.
The Municipal Abbatoir* (1966): A sort of comic sci-fi scenario which anticipates Soylent Green by a few years. It is a totalitarian state. A little non-entity of a man has been instructed to report to the Municipal Abbatoir, where it is a certainty he will be turned into spam for his crimes. Some rebels stop him, instruct him to shoot a general in a parade that is coming down the street. It is perfect…he is about to die anyway, why not die with some heroism. Instead, at the crucial minute, the dweeb reverts to seeking the Municipal Abbatoir. (see The Demolition Downtown)
I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow * (1966): An interesting and philosophical little play. A man arrives for his daily visit to his girlfriend. They seem more like platonic friends than a complete couple. He is a teacher who is so shy he can barely talk; she has a terminal illness. Neither one has anyone else. He lives in a depressing rooming house. She is dying—which one must do alone. They follow this routine every day. But things will change. They are going on separate journeys. She wants to prepare him. She tells him he has to go out to a lunch counter and meet some other people. She forces him to do it. Even so, he comes right back. So she takes the opposite tact, inviting him to stay there so they can get closer. This period of Williams’ is very interesting…he’s just a bit off his game. One wonders if the drugs he was taking at the time clouded his judgment, or if he’s just at the point where he needs and wants to try new things. Here, the philosophy is foregrounded and articulated to a degree that’s just a shade too much. It is just a couple of notches too self-conscious and is less about the characters interacting at the dramatic level and more about Williams’ abstract ideas than the characters. The notions he expresses are all on the money…but when he is at the top of his form, he is able to convey in a subtler, more metaphorical way…that’s what makes a play and not a Socratic dialogue or Rabbinical parable. Yet, so many were taking this self-conscious approach at the time, so one is uncertain whether it is a lapse, or a CHOICE which still amounts to a lapse, given his gift for greater things.
The Mutilated (1966): [Originally presented on a double bill with The Gnadiges Fraulien as Slapstick Tragedy] Williams seems to be breaking new ground here…taking us to a lower level of sordidness than he has before in his major plays. A pair of older women, possibly lesbians, have shared a room in a fleabag hotel for a number of years. One (whose breasts have been chopped off) throws out the other one who is a shoplifter and a wino and has no way to support herself. She does this as a revenge for some mean graffiti the latter wrote in a stairwell…why she wrote it I’m not sure. The latter persistently tries to get back in. Meanwhile, the mutilated woman attempts an assignation with a sailor but the breasts are a stumbling block. The two women are reunited again. This play also suffers from the same artistic self-consciousness…a series of “rounds” a bunch of carolers are supposed to sing that comment on the action. I saw a terrific production of this with Penny Arcade and Mink Stole at the Ohio Theatre a few years ago.
The Gnadiges Fraulein * (1966): A play with a goddamn title like this couldn’t be a hit if they gave out free lobster and champagne at the show. It’s heartening and healthy that after writing plays for 30 years, Williams is still trying new things—the mark of a great artist. And frankly if this play had been written by a young person in 1966 and presented off-off-Broadway at a place like La MaMa it would be much better known and more highly regarded, I think. It is certainly much better than some of the junk that made a splash in the free-for-all of that era. Yet, it seems a little like Williams is following the zeitgeist rather than setting the trend himself. Now: we know he studied with Piscator and was making expressionist gestures quite early, and had even composed the lamentable Camino Real, so there’s really no justice in casting him as an old fart who’s shown up at the young person’s ball. But you can see how it could be perceived that way in the time of the “Generation Gap”. At any rate, the play is set on a fictional Florida key: the southernmost point in the U.S. The main characters are the local gossip columnist and the owner of a local hotel, who runs her place like a concentration camp, dispensing rewards and punishments. One of her charges is the title character, conceived with Lotte Lenya in mind. All sorts of literal tortures are inflicted on the latter, and it will presumably go in the gossip column.
Two Character Play (1967)—see Out Cry
Kingdom of Earth (Seven Descents of Myrtle) (1968): I vastly prefer the play’s second title. This play made me laugh many times, and also has a wonderfully, creepy, suspenseful situation that presages Shepard plays like Buried Child. A pair of newlyweds returns to the groom’s family home…which is under threat of flood from a levee that is about to give way, and is also being lived in by the groom’s mulatto half brother who is a sort of menacing primitive. Meanwhile, the husband, who it turns out likes to wear women’s clothes, is dying of TB and is too weak to protect the wife from ANYTHING. Somehow however a thousand promising elements don’t add up to one of his masterpieces here. We identify most strongly with the bride in this situation. Perhaps it is how he writes her…she is too comical. Like the characters in Period of Adjustment and The Mutilated, Williams presents us here with simple people, whom we can’t help but regard with some superiority. The “articulate’ character here is the dress-wearing husband, but he’s not the one we’re identifying with…he’s our heroine’s problem. I think if he’d written the bride to be more like someone we could better identify with, this might have been a great play. As it is now, it glosses over the metaphysical terrain he normally would have plumbed and that would have matched his metaphors. By the way, this same criticism goes for Adjustment, Milk Train and Mutilated. The metaphors are there, but Williams isn’t going deep or close enough to hit the sadness. Why? Is it the drugs he was on? Had he gotten too big and too public to attempt the risks? The irony is, these plays are filled with great writing, great ideas, etc. We only penalize him because he’s not hitting his own usual standards…he’s still clobbering other playwrights with these works. It’s amazing to me that these plays would close after a few days or a few weeks, even as written. At any rate, it’s clear to me the plays of the sixties are “unfinished”…they should have been workshopped, for all of them have potential beyond their execution.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969): A couple are staying at a Tokyo Hotel…a famous painter and his wife. Something is wrong with the painter. It is clear to the woman from experience that he has a brain tumor, but he won’t see a doctor. His behavior is erratic, hallucinatory, strange, his art has gotten even stranger than it was, and he keeps blacking out, stumbling, falling down. The woman wants to leave him, has lots of affairs, can’t decide what to do. Her problem is solved when he simply drops dead at her feet in the bar. She is completely unemotional about it. There are lots of interesting things about this play. Williams experiments with the copious use of sentence fragments and overlap. Somehow (this may sound callous) but I am interested in the purely theatrical tension of having the tumor victim unsteady on his pins…creates a situation where something is constantly happening, or in danger of happening, much like having a drawn gun in the room or a thunder storm raging outside. This play is perfectly good work…feels more like a long one act than a full length. A minor work for Williams, yet writers like Mamet and LaBute turn out work of similar accomplishment routinely and are praised to the skies for it.
Now the Cats With Jeweled Claws* (1969): More experiments with sentence fragments. Here the voice of Beckett seems very strong, with highly polished poetic phraseology…often begun by one character and finished by the other. Two friends are lunching in a diner near a major department store. At some point, the swishy restaurant manager comes out and does a crazy musical number. A couple of bikers come in. One of them gets a blowjob from the manager. Then one of the bikers gets his brains squashed in an accident outside. The women continue their lunch. (this is a common arc, yes? The horrible disaster, and the characters resume their inconsequential action). The other biker is in the hands of the manager, who will take him into “the future”.The combination of the tawdry sex and the Beckettesque language puts me in mind of Joe Orton…I wonder if William’s had seen his works, which were popular at just that time.
And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens* (1970): I completely enjoyed this. These characters and this situation might have made a nice full length play. A trans person has brought a sailor back to her place. The sailor is not gay but the trans person is in love with him. The trans person is really looking to replicate a sort of situation she once enjoyed…she will patronize the sailor, give him money and security and he will give her love. It doesn’t quite work out that way. He gives her something, then he takes the money and then runs. Like the trans person in the Seven Descents of Myrtle this one has a bad heart, and at the climax, in her grief we fear that she has died…but she turns out to be alive. There is a poem in this play that Williams had used earlier in the Mutilated.
The Frosted Glass Coffin *(1970): A bunch of old folks are waiting for the breakfast joint to open up as they do every morning. The old men are fairly callous describing the situation of one of their number: one of those couples where one of them is completely infirm and the other takes care of them….and then, surprisingly, the one who takes care of the infirm one dies. Now the infirm one comes down, and is confused…doesn’t know his spouse is dead. Finally it dawns and the grief kicks in. The other old folks return to their usual chitchat.
Green Eyes (1970): I saw this in a terrific site-specific production starring Erin Markey directed by Travis Chamberlain in a room in the Hudson Hotel. A great play! Couple of newlyweds in New Orleans hotel room. She’s acting like she’s fucked all night and he’s got a terrible hangover. Further, he got shell shocked and impotent from the war—he’s only on leave. There’s an ambiguity about what happened the night before that she keeps teasing him about. It’s a lot like Albee’s Virginia Woolf and Williams might have gotten a whole full length out of it, I think. Did she or didn’t she pick up a man last night? Furthermore the man seems to have been a green eyes mulatto, making the husband even crazier. To even things out, the soldier is sending all his paychecks to his sick mother—not the wife. From her perspective she has married a useless, annoying lump for nothing. He’s not even going to support her. He wraps the play up with one of his gratuitous avant-garde gestures—the space seems to turn into a jungle, and the eyes of the black velvet tiger painting glow green…kind of sophomoric. But the characters are well drawn and there’s great tension.
The Demolition Downtown *(1971): Clearly part of the same “project” as the Municipal Abbatoir. This one gives us more backstory about this totalitarian state, which now seems more like America than Mexico. A couple is holed up in their house. In one of William’s wonderful stage metaphors, the entire downtown of their city seems to be in the process of being demolished by the government. The leader overthrew the President in a coup and change has been rapid. It ends with two wives leaving to present their naked bodies to the General and his brother. It seems ambiguous to me whether they intend to do so as part of an assassination plot, or just to switch sides.
Small Craft Warnings (1972). (First draft called Confessional 1970): A terrific play. I first saw it in 2000 or so by the Worth Street Theatre. Williams is completely back on his game here and in fact, as I said in my Time Out New York review at the time, completely ahead of his time. Contains lots of bad language and sordid situations that I think audiences still can’t have been ready for in ’72. If he’d lived to ’92 and debuted this play then I bet it would have been a hit. As indeed, if properly produced today, this play could be. It is Williams’ “bar play”…a group of sad, pathetic but funny people at a bar. The catalyst for all the action is Leona, a great character, an old drunken broad who’s honest to a fault. Other characters include doc, a drunken doctor who’s lost his licence to practice, Violet, some sort of acid casualty, Bill, a loafer who makes a career of sponging off women, and another half dozen or so. The wonderfully metaphorical title also demonstrates that he’s back on his game. Refers to a weather report…high winds are expected, of the sort that might damage small boats. And that’s what these people are…just low and small enough that very little could topple or sink them.
Out Cry (1973) (rewritten version of Two Character Play): Another of Williams’ absurdist excursions. It appears to be actors trapped in a play within a play. The other actors, having decided they are insane, have quit. At times, they do act insane. They play literally takes place on the stage on which takes place and they are trapped there forever. For much more in this play, see my Villager article from a few years back about Austin Pendleton’s production, which I happened to see with my old pal Sheila O’Malley, who also happens to have done a massive post on Williams today!
The Red Devil Battery Sign (1975): This one starts out like realism and ends up being very strange…the end feels almost like Shepard, and I wonder if the play could have been influenced by him. It’s begun to dawn on me (this is one of the last of his plays I’ve gotten to) how many sick and terminally ill characters are in his plays. This one features a Mexican man with a brain tumor, who is having an affair with a southern debutante (herself a veteran of electro-shock therapy) who is now on the lam because she is going to go the authorities with some evidence about some sort of military-industrial conspiracy. The play needs lots of work. Much too talky throughout. I don’t mind lots of words when there is action happening. But to me storytelling about what happened in the past is always deadly. This is the theater: dramatize the past in a scene. Don’t bore us with memories. There is also lots of Spanish sprinkled throughout and Williams falls into that insufferable and condescending trap, where a word is said in Spanish and then repeated in English for the benefit of retards, a technique I call “El Diablo—the bull”. The story of the Mexican, an ex-Mariachi band manager until his illness is a cool one. The story of the woman he is having an affair with is a cool one. What the one has to do with the other, I don’t know. Would have been better as two separate plays. Then in the end a gang called the Wolves comes in howling like a bunch of zombies…a very Shepardesque moment.
Vieux Carre (1977): A world in which this play closes after a few days is a world which has gone insane. I can only think that this play tanked because a) it debuted on Broadway, and was a victim of the shift that is now a way of life but wasn’t recognized as such then (namely that serious plays don’t open on Broadway now but OFF-Broadway); and b) the compounding factor of a foreign sounding title once again. The play itself is terrific—an autobiographical reminiscence of a few months Williams spent in a rooming house in the French Quarter. It incorporates a bunch of his earlier one acts: The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (which had the same setting, the same landlady, writer and female tenant); the incident of a sailor dating a trans person for money and walking across a little Japanese bridge in her garden from And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens; and the couple from Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. An ensemble piece with lots of great parts. The landlady is half-crazy, cranky and controlling, highly critical of the offbeat, bohemian and “sinful” ways of her charges…and yet she lets them live there. The tenants are all down and out or in some way a step away from disaster…a gay painter w/ TB, a couple of elderly women with no means of support, a couple where the man is a worthless bum who works in a strip joint, a famous photographer who throws orgies, etc etc. The play is a slice of life…the arc is less about a plot but events that close naturally…TB victim dies; the husband of the couple walks out when the girl gets pregnant; the landlady goes completely crazy, etc. This play is among so many by Williams that deserve greater recognition.
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer (1978): Ditto this play—probably tanked for ALL the same reasons. It’s so weird to me that weaker plays by Williams imitators like Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias became smashes and modern classics, when far superior plays like this one languish. There is a mindset perhaps: “lesser Williams” means “lesser” to some people, but it’s not true. This play certainly stands up to so much that has come since. I tell you the sucky title doesn’t help! This is one of his few comedies, and perhaps his best one. When I read it, I thought it would make a terrific basis for a sit-com, a sort of cross between The Odd Couple and Designing Women (which itself seems Williams’ influenced). Here we are in St. Louis as opposed to a gulf setting and it is refreshing. There are a pair of room-mates, Dorothea, a schoolteacher, obsessed with marrying the principal Ralph Ellis (whom she has been having relations with); and Bodey, a coarse working class woman of St. Louis’s German American community, who is extremely caring if unlettered. Adding to the reverse symmetry and the chaos are two other characters who are like extensions of the main characters’ identities but more extreme: Dorothea’s fellow school teacher Helena, a completely affected and snobbish busybody who can barely stand to even be the apartment (and who is there because she wants Dorothea to room with her at a fancier location), and Bodey’s friend Sophie, a COMPLETELY German immigrant (i.e. who doesn’t speak English) and whose grief over the loss of her mother causes her to make embarrassing scenes. The play is completely hilarious and has the kind of ending one associates with a sit-com arc…Dorothea learns that Ralph is marrying someone else. She decides not to take the room with Helena, and will join Bodey and her even coarser brother Buddy on a picnic (Bodey’s been trying to fix them up). Friends did scenes from this one in acting school.
Lifeboat Drill * (1979): This crazy little play reminds me a lot of certain Shepard one acts of the mid 60s. A bickering pair of very elderly people in their ship’s state room. They are almost senile, can barely accomplish anything. They have heard that a lifeboat drill is scheduled for that day. The stewards tell them they are exempt from participating. When they are left alone, they begin the drill alone in their room anyway, a slapstick chain of events as they struggle with the instructions, gradually getting a hold of life vests and inflating them, working themselves in a panic worthy of an actual sea disaster. It is this…the terror evoked by the “pretend” event that reminds me of young Shepard.
Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980): From my Feb 2010 review, after I saw an off-off production by White Horse Theatre Company: …Clothes for a Summer Hotel came at the end of a long, slow decline for Williams. I hold it to be another widespread fallacy however that Williams had lost his touch as a writer by the early 1960s. Many of his late works have aged very well and are even far superior to many new works by other playwrights that have been praised to the skies in the years since. Small Craft Warnings (1972), Vieux Carre (1977), and A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer (1978) are all terrific plays, for example. Espousing the view that Williams was slipping in his dotage is evidence that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Unfortunately, though, on certain occasions, Williams’ work could really suck. This had nothing to do with his aging. In a minority of his works he indulged a penchant for experimentation that did not suit his talents. In his best plays, this tendency is kept in check and balanced with his lyrical gift and his ability to draw extraordinarily three dimensional characters. In his worst work, dating at least as far back as 1941’s I Rise in Flames, Cried the Phoenix (the title of which says it all), he essentially flips the bird to the audience. Periodically he would trade on his fame to release one of these stinkers, the best known perhaps being Camino Real¸ produced at the height of his fame in 1953. Williams was an intelligent and well-read man, but his strong suit was feeling, not thinking. His worst efforts play like extremely insecure attempts to be a full-on 20th century modernist like Joyce or Beckett. These plays are generally very inactive (possessing little plot) and the torture is compounded by a cringe-inducing propensity on the part of the writer to demonstrate his engagement with other authors he has admired (and wants to prove he understands), along with other filigrees, such as gratuitous use of foreign phrases. In these moments, it is as though Blanche DuBois herself were writing the play.
Unfortunately, Clothes for a Summer Hotel is one of those plays – and how. The play is a fantasy, imagining a visit between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the latter’s long confinement in a sanitarium. But there is some ambiguity here. The two may be dead. The asylum gates may actually be the entry to, let us say, a more permanent resort. That we don’t know which is fine; many great works of theatre and literature are built on such ambiguities. What is intolerable, however, is a play composed of nothing but conversations, shrill squabbles, and recriminations about the past, none of which have any dramatic function or are the slightest bit interesting. Is the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald worthwhile material for a drama? Naturally–a ripping one! It’s been mined before (most notably and significantly by Fitzgerald himself) and will be many times again, I’m sure, and with profit. But we don’t care about that story here—because we aren’t made to. From the very beginning of the play, we are treated to a seemingly endless chastisement of Scott by his estranged wife for ignoring her, for plundering her life for his characters, and for suffocating her own potential as an artist. She does everything but hit him over the head with a rolling pin. Then there are a number of flashbacks, where we go back in time – and watch her do the same thing in the past! The play has no journey of any sort. We have no idea why they came together, nor do we witness the deterioration of their relationship. We just get a lot – a LOT – of hearsay.
The play’s most interesting element is Williams’ thesis that Fitzgerald was a latent homosexual, a theory spouted by the Zelda character and by Ernest Hemingway in the play’s most interesting scene. At times (as when it is remarked that he writes excellent female characters, but not men) Williams is clearly drawing a parallel with himself. That would have been a fascinating play, but it is not this one.
Steps Must be Gentle* (1980): One of the few completely insufferable plays I’ve encountered by Williams. It is somewhat along the lines of the D.H. Lawrence one. In this one Hart Crane meets his mother Grace in heaven and learns that while he was neglecting her, she was reduced to having to work as a washerwoman. An unaccountable thing. Whom could he have imagined would ever possibly be interested? I suppose I can understand writing something like this as a sort of private exercise but why it would ever be published as a play for the theater is beyond me.
This is the Peaceable Kingdom or Good Luck God* (1980): Obviously of the same period that produced Lifeboat Drill, and probably on his mind as he himself was becoming elderly, this one is set in a nursing home during a nurses strike. The patients are essentially left on their own, except for one old Jewish woman, whose kids are there to feed her. All sorts of fights, and eventually a sort of riot breaks out; racism divides everyone. Seems to be an obvious allegory, this play. As in the real world, the Jews are envied, and then punished, for having their shit together.
For a related post, see my take on a few apples off of Tennessee’s tree, here.
And, as I mentioned earlier my good friend Sheila has also posted a massive article on the playwright here, and a better digested one, with more genuine information about the man, I might add, which is just her way. She has a lot of insightful things to say about Tennessee. So if you want to keep going, I herewith pass you off to her.