You Are Not the Playwright I Was Expecting

When his reputation tanked, Williams kept writing. How many of his more than 40 late plays do you know?

By Thomas Keith

            In a champion's waning years, the spectator's discomfiture is, finally, beside the point. The writer,             like the prize-fighter, is the one who runs the lonely pre-dawn miles, and whose blood streams so             publicly.

                        —Gregory Mosher, from his foreword to A House Not Meant to Stand

            After Tennessee Williams stopped turning out what they thought were commercially feasible             plays, he was just dismissed. And his later plays one day will be discovered and appreciated and             used, and we'll learn how they can be performed. They're extraordinary pieces of work.

                        —John Guare, from a 1977 interview

Which of the following scenarios comes from a play by Tennessee Williams?

            1. Hundreds of years from now, Earth is beset by a nuclear winter and a totalitarian regime holds             the few inhabitants who survive in constant fear.

            2. In the attic of a London boarding house, a paraplegic must swing from dozens of hooks in the             ceiling to reach food left for him by his sadistic landlady.

            3. The ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda relive their mutual self-destruction at the             asylum where she burned to death.

            4. An Irish widow holds séances, conjuring up the spirits of Arthur Rimbaud and Vincent van             Gogh, while hags weave her fate with knitting needles and yarn.

            5. The electro-shocked daughter of a crooked Texas politician becomes a liability to her             corporate magnate husband as he plots a coup d'état by assassination.

            6. A Japanese narrator introduces an artist who paints the scenery with spray guns, then the             floor with his naked body, and later commits suicide by drinking Lysol.

If you chose scenario 3, then you remember Williams's last play produced on Broadway, Clothes for a Summer Hotel. It opened on the playwright's birthday, March 26, 1980, and closed two weeks later.

If you feel none of the above seem likely to have come from the typewriter of Tennessee Williams, then you're probably not alone.

If—having noted that this article is about the late, lesser known plays of Tennessee Williams—you chose all six scenarios, then you're right.

The plays that match the descriptions are:

            1. The Chalky White Substance (1980)

            2. The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde (1982)

            3. Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)

            4. Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? (1969)

            5. The Red Devil Battery Sign (1975)

            6. The Day on Which a Man Dies (1960)

If you aren't familiar with the later plays of Williams and would like to be, then it is helpful to put aside some assumptions about the playwright, or throw them out entirely. Except in snatches, snippets and occasional arias, you won't find Williams's familiar language—the dialogue that, as Arthur Miller declared, "plant[ed] the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theatre." Forget it. Let it go and, for better or worse, take the dialogue as it comes.

Okay, some of it will still be beautiful. You'll find a few Southern stories, but even those are not your mother's Tennessee Williams tales. Certain elements of his aesthetic will be recognizable, but these works do not have the rhythms or tone of his most famous plays. Williams declared to the press in the early 1960s, "There will be no more Southern belles!" A decade later he told an interviewer, "I used to write symphonies; now I write chamber music, smaller plays."

You'll recognize familiar themes: the plight of outsiders—the fugitive, the sensitive, the isolated, the artist; the nature of compassion and desire; the naked cruelty of life. The late plays maintain Williams's outlook on the brutality of the world, though some are overtly comic and occasionally even ridiculous. Some characters speak in sparse, truncated sentences and are more emotionally contained than we're used to in Williams; others are broad or cartoonish. Likewise, these late plays do not all read effortlessly as literature, for the moment anyway—they read as theatre; the plays work, when they do work, as theatre, not literature.

People who reject all the late Williams plays—i.e., anything post–The Night of the Iguana—have usually not read most of the plays and have seen very few on stage. They may project their negative opinion of the man in his later years onto their assumptions about the plays. (If every late play must measure up to his greatest works, then there really isn't any motivation to look into them. They don't measure up, they can't—and why would they?) But if one looks at the consistency that runs through Williams's work from that of the unknown poet to the celebrated playwright, then the late work becomes a fascinating part of the Williams oeuvre. "Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation..." wrote Williams in what comes as close to his artistic manifesto as anything—his "Production Notes" for The Glass Menagerie.

There is a lot of late work—at least 16 full-length and more than two-dozen one-acts and shorter plays, over 40 in all. New Directions, Williams's publisher since 1944, brought out about half of these plays while Williams was alive, and the rest have appeared (along with his letters, poems, essays, early plays, screenplays and stories) during the 28 years since. So where does one begin? And where does one get to see them performed?

The fact is that many of the late plays, perhaps a majority, will fall to the wayside over time; the best of them will rise to the top and find their way into the Williams canon. However, they will first have to be read, considered, performed and, one hopes, understood. Public curiosity about all things Williams is too great to prevent it, no matter what baggage still clings to the playwright or his plays.

It can be jaw-dropping to fully grasp how low Williams's reputation had fallen by the time of his death in 1983. The slide began in 1963, when the Broadway production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore altered the view that a Williams play was necessarily a commercial property. It involves a dying woman at her private villa who flies the flag of a monster and is visited by a witch, an angel of death and two stage assistants (assistants that function, as Williams described them, "in a way that's between the Kabuki Theatre of Japan and the chorus of Greek theatre"). The playwright also explained that the play had "been rightly described as an allegory and as a 'sophisticated fairy tale.'"

After the failed Broadway outings of Milk Train in 1963 and 1964, every new production of a Williams play was dogged, and often crippled, by the author's deteriorating physical and mental health, exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction, a syndrome made worse by the pressure from the critics, and the pressure he put on himself, to achieve another success. It never happened. The reviews became atrocious, later pitying, until eventually the reviewers just stopped attending. In some quarters, Williams's death and subsequent silence were a relief. David Mamet wrote in a tribute in Rolling Stone:

When his life and view of life became less immediately accessible, our gratitude was changed to distant reverence for a man who we felt obliged—if we were to continue in our happy feelings toward him—to consider already dead.

His continued being and the fact of his later work disturbed our illusion, and we were embarrassed as this process was hidden neither from ourselves nor from its subject, Tennessee. And we were piqued as he seemed neither to contest nor shun this attitude. He just kept writing.

Although Arthur Miller and Edward Albee experienced similar periods of rejection, neither encountered the contempt that Williams did. Each of them lived long enough to become elder statesmen of the American theatre. Williams died at the nadir of his career, and the critical chill continued post-mortem. His plays from the 1960s and 1970s were mostly forgotten or avoided, and the unproduced material seemed to be solely the concern of scholars.

Purportedly written while the author was on speed, The Slapstick Tragedy opened on Broadway in 1966 and was taken as evidence by one critic that Williams "had broken completely with reality." The play was comprised of two fantastical one-acts, The Mutilated and The Gnädiges Fräulein, each a kind of existential vaudeville. (As it turns out, The Gnädiges Fräulein is now widely considered a brilliantly funny play that was ahead of its time.)

Of the Williams plays produced between 1968 and 1982, only Kingdom of Earth (1968), Small Craft Warnings (1972), Vieux Carré (1977) and the comedy A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979) have been revived with some frequency. In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) is occasionally revived, yet still treated as an exotic delicacy for specialized tastes. Although producer David Merrick closed The Red Devil Battery Sign during its out-of-town Boston tryout, thwarting its 1975 move to Broadway, the play fared better in London (as did Small Craft Warnings and Vieux Carré) and Vienna, where audiences and critics found much to admire, and Michael Wilson directed an ambitious revival starring Elizabeth Ashley at the WPA Theater in 1996. Every few years, news of a Broadway revival of the complex and intense The Two-Character Play (1973, a.k.a. Out Cry) makes the trades, but a production has yet to materialize.

There has been no major revival of Something Cloudy, Something Clear since it was originally staged at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in 1981. A bluntly autobiographical play that takes place in 1940, 1980 and various times in between, it presents a challenge in how to cast the main character of August, who appears both at ages 29 and 69. For this month's production at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, director Cosmin Chivu decided to split the difference by casting the perennially youthful Lou Liberatore in the role.

Originally staged in Vancouver in 1981, The Notebook of Trigorin (an adaptation of The Seagull) premiered in the U.S. in 1996 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park with Lynn Redgrave as Arkadina. Gregory Mosher directed three incarnations of the gothic comedy A House Not Meant to Stand, culminating in Goodman Theatre of Chicago's 1982 production; it has never been staged in New York City, though it was staged this year at Los Angeles's Fountain Theatre, directed by Simon Levy. Perhaps the wildest play Williams wrote during this period is Kirche, Küche, Kinder, staged as a work in progress by Eve Adamson at Cocteau Rep in 1979. Infused with smatterings of pop art, performance art, pornography, sentimental ballads, vaudeville and farce, the play generated mainly discomfort among audiences and critics. It has not yet been revived.

Even the most dedicated Williams aficionados can be taken aback by some of the late plays. "When I first read the 1982 play The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde, I was convinced that Tennessee Williams had lost his mind—I mean, really lost his mind," Williams scholar Annette Saddik said in a recent essay. "I had always been a defender, even a champion, of Williams's late work, and I appreciated his experimentations with a more presentational, anti-realistic style, combined with an outrageous, often grotesque, sensibility. But this was too much." Upon closer reading, Saddik realized that the play's excess, exaggeration and violence do contribute to a true sense of the world Williams was trying to portray—and, yes, it is a world that some people will find repellent.

It is also a world that is inexorably funny. The original production of Mme. LeMonde, directed in 2009 by Davis Robinson at Boston's Beau Jest Moving Theatre and at Provincetown, was by turns disconcerting and hilarious. At the conclusion of a more recent production at La MaMa E.T.C. in New York, the audience cheered.

"Picasso made line drawings and paper sculpture late in life, and no one demanded that he repeat Guernica or remain perennially in his Blue Period," Eve Adamson wrote in her introduction to Something Cloudy, Something Clear. "It is a sad comment on our American culture that to the end of his life we censured the most original poet of our theatre for continuing to explore, whatever the cost or danger, the boundaries of his consciousness."

Interest in Williams's later works has been growing over the last decade, and when the plays are produced they're sometimes described in the publicity as "lost," "found," "discovered" or "unknown," when, in fact, that is rarely the case. Many were performed during Williams's lifetime, and would be better described as "shunned" or "sidestepped."

The Municipal Abattoir actually was a lost Williams gem, unknown except as a title listed in a 1966 New Directions memo for possible inclusion in the one-act play volume Dragon Country (1970). It turns out that Williams had given the play to composer Lee Hoiby, who gave it to director Michael Kahn for safekeeping. Kahn staged this sharp political satire with his Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2004 as a part of an evening of one-acts, Five by Tenn, that also included the bleak, poignant two-hander from 1966, I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, premieres of two early titles (These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch and Summer at the Lake), and the provocative And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens... (1957/68).

Annoyed with the oft-repeated homophobic canard that his female heroines were actually men in drag, Williams exploded in a 1971 interview, "If I'm writing a female character, goddamnit, I'm gonna write a female character, I'm not gonna write a drag queen! If I wanna write a drag queen, I'll write a drag queen, and I have written one, as a matter of fact, which will be produced someday. The setting is New Orleans and it's called And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens..., and it's about a drag queen, and I think it's quite funny." The play was indeed produced 33 years later, when scholars Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel found the text in the archives at UCLA and brought it to Kahn's attention. An exquisite chamber piece, Tell Sad Stories is the sagacious tale of a 30-year-old queen named Candy, trying to find a replacement for the man who "raised" him from age 18. Kahn moved the evening to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the fall of 2004, where it played to mixed reviews.

As part of his unique, 10-year Tennessee Williams Marathon at Hartford Stage Company, Michael Wilson directed Milk Train and Creve Coeur, and two evenings of one-acts in 2003 that included premieres of two late plays. The One Exception (1983) deals with a female painter institutionalized after a mental breakdown who receives a visit from an old friend in search of money. In the New York Times, Bruce Weber observed that the play "betrays a terrible fear of loneliness and the cruel isolation of despair." Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws (1981) concerns two society woman and two gay bikers lunching at a Manhattan restaurant. Fragmented, funny and sinister, it includes lyrics as well as stage direction for dialogue to be sung, though no music was written for it during Williams's lifetime.

In September 2006, the Tennessee Williams Provincetown Theater Festival was launched with the world premiere of The Parade (1962), directed by Jef Hall-Flavin and Eric Powell Holm. The brainchild of David Kaplan, the festival has also premiered the one-acts The Pronoun 'I' (c. 1977), Sunburst (1980), Green Eyes (1970) and, in conjunction with Boston's Beau Jest, the aforementioned Mme. Le Monde. Kaplan himself directed the critically acclaimed first production of The Day on Which a Man Dies in Chicago before bringing it to Provincetown.

The only full-length late play by Williams that has yet to be published is This Is (An Entertainment), produced at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 1976. Williams was working on several scripts at the time of his death, the best known of which is the unfinished In Masks Outrageous and Austere.

Late Williams has surfaced in New York in recent seasons at Cyndy Marian's White Horse Theater Company, at the Pearl Theatre, and with David Herskovits's Target Margin Theater. A renewed focus on Williams's late work during his centennial year shows that cracks are forming in the critical ice that kept some of the late plays frozen for 28 years. Elizabeth LeCompte's production of Vieux Carré [see story here] was an energized staging using techniques from the Wooster Group's tool bag. Michael Wilson brought his adaptation of Milk Train to Roundabout Theatre Company, starring Olympia Dukakis, and Moisés Kaufman adapted Williams's arresting short story/screenplay One Arm into an acclaimed one-act at the New Group.

Some of the reviews that greeted Travis Chamberlain's snug, site-specific hotel-room production of Green Eyes, like so many reviews of late Williams, could have been written 40 years ago, they were so full of the vintage fretting about the author's terrible condition when he wrote the play, and about its slightness next to, say, Streetcar. Perfectly familiar with the history of Williams's late failures, John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker, "The play is gorgeous: a short, eloquent evening that feels complete, complex and entirely satisfying. His dialogue flows with uncanny surprise, catching in its resonance all the psychosexual tension in the alchemy of desire."

Other centennial productions include an Austin Pendleton–directed showcase of Small Craft Warnings and the London premieres of I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays (1973) and A Cavalier for Milady (c. 1979). This fall, Jonathan Warman will direct Mink Stole and Everett Quinton in the New York premiere of Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, which will start in Provincetown, then reach La MaMa E.T.C. in November. The 2011 Provincetown festival will also feature David Gene Kirk's recent London production of Two-Character Play as well as revivals of Green Eyes directed by Hall-Flavin, Sunburst directed by Patrick Falco and The Traveling Companion directed by Kaplan. Two plays about Williams's affair with a Canadian dancer in Provincetown in 1940 will be presented in tandem: The aforementioned The Parade, directed by Grant Kretchik, and its full-length cousin, Something Cloudy, Something Clear.

This is all evidence that more theatre companies and directors are visiting, or revisiting, the late plays of Tennessee Williams. Whether they come to them with or without preconceived notions of what a Williams play should be, they have the interest and the energy to explore the texts and discover what they mean as theatre today.

In 1941, when he was 30 years old, Williams wrote Mister Paradise, a prescient one-act about an aging poet, Jonathan Jones, who writes under a nom de plume, Anthony Paradise, and lives in squalor, certain that his work will only be appreciated after his death. The following is his advice to a young woman who comes to him determined to revive his career and resurrect his reputation:

            Keep the book, remember my name, and watch the obituary column. Someday you will see the             name of Jonathan Jones. Then come back again and look up Mr. Anthony Paradise. That will be his             time—when Jones is dead. Jones is a living contradiction of Paradise. Paradise won't have a chance             to breathe till Jones has stopped breathing.

Thomas Lanier Williams III stopped breathing on Feb. 25, 1983, in a room at the Hotel Elysée. Twenty-eight years have passed. Tennessee Williams is flourishing. By all means, check out the inevitable revivals of Streetcar, Menagerie and Cat, but also look out for more and more productions of those late plays you weren't expecting.

Thomas Keith, a freelance editor in New York, has edited more than 20 of Williams's plays for New Directions Publishing. He is an adjunct professor of performing arts at Pace University.

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