In what becomes a frequent theme in some of Tennessee Williams' one-act plays, the hero of "Mister Paradise" is a reluctant one. "These are the times for the discovery of new weapons of destruction," he tells her, "not for the resurrection of neglected poets." He continues, "When they're exhausted, people will start looking again under broken table legs for little volumes of forgotten verse. Guns explode and destroy and are destroyed. But this -- these little songs, however little and unimportant they are, they keep on singing forever."
Like the character for which it's named, "Mister Paradise" did languish in obscurity until the summer of 2000, when it was rescued, along with a number of other early Williams one-acts, from the vaults of the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The appetite for Williams' gothic renderings of the South, with their rhapsodic prose and feral crosscurrents, hasn't diminished in the 22 years since his death. Major Broadway revivals of his masterpieces -- last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and this winter's The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (as well as Patricia Clarkson last year in Streetcar at the Kennedy Center) -- seem especially in vogue.
Perhaps because of both their novelty and their contextual relevance, these newly discovered one-act plays have also been enjoying their moment in the sun. Whether in the form of the Five By Tenn collection presented last summer at the Kennedy Center (and again at the Manhattan Theatre Club last fall) or the Tennessee in the Quarter collection that debuts this weekend at Southern Rep, the one-acts provide a portrait of the artist at work. They're little snapshots of poetry; some serve as foundations for larger, greater works, while others fill in the rest of Williams' prodigious though sometimes overlooked palette. And, as is often the case with Tennessee Williams, they have come with more than their fair share of discussion and debate.
For example, Five By Tenn aroused the type of eyebrow-raising that seems to accompany any late-breaking addendum to the work of a major writer. Some prominent New York theater critics, among others, questioned whether the works deserved to be published or performed. Jesse Green, in an article for The New York Times, dismissed them because they "give off a whiff of juvenilia. The writing is variously bleak and funny and florid and fierce, just not all at once, as his best plays were. They might almost be drafts."
This kind of criticism comes with the territory, say the plays' defenders. Robert Bray, director of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Scholars Conference, who himself has dug up a number of Williams' one-acts, believes controversy inevitably accompanies the release of such works; it's happened to everyone from Ralph Ellison to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he argues. David Roessel, one of the scholars who uncovered the plays in the Texas archives, likens the failure to publish a long-lost Tennessee Williams one-act -- regardless of quality -- to ignoring a similar lost work by Shakespeare. "You'd say it's Shakespeare; let's do it," Roessel says, adding, "Whether these plays will be seen again, it will be up to audiences to decide."
NEW ORLEANS AUDIENCES will have their say with this weekend's opening of Tennessee in the Quarter, presented in advance of and sponsored by the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (TW/NOLF), which runs March 30-April 3 in the French Quarter. The single link between this presentation and its East Coast predecessors is the inclusion of the one-act "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens," a rarity for Williams in its overt depiction of a subset of gay culture.
The New Orleans production grew from the connection between TW/NOLF executive director Elizabeth Barron and New Directions, Williams' publisher since 1944. New Directions was publishing a collection of 13 one-acts, all but one ("And Tell Sad Stories") from the batch discovered by Roessel and Nick Moschovakis at the Ransom Center in Texas. (That book, Mister Paradise and Other One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams, will be available at this year's festival.) An editor at New Directions brought the scripts to Barron's attention during last year's festival.
To direct the collection, Barron chose Perry Martin, whose revival of The Glass Menagerie coincided with last year's festival. He will direct the five works: "Escape," starring Tony Molina and Jamal Dennis; "Interior: Panic," with Dane Rhodes, Susan Deily-Swearingen and Veronica Russell; "Thank You, Kind Spirit," featuring Troi Bechet and Kathrine Raymond; "Mister Paradise," starring Rhodes and Leah Loftin; and finally, "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens," with Andy English and Lucas Harms.
In selecting the works, Barron considered several factors: the quality of the scripts, variety of subject matter and the cachet of presenting world premieres. "Even the show that we put on last year had been done at the Goodman Theater in Chicago," says Barron, referring to A House Not Meant to Stand. So even though that little-known, unfinished Williams full-length remains unpublished, it had already been staged.
While Perry Martin acknowledges the notion that Williams' lost work has been well picked over -- "They start looking for things he wrote on a napkin in fourth grade" -- he still believes these works have their merit. "I've been happily surprised," he says.
No one would argue that these works are as dramatically satisfying as Williams' full-lengths, or even as the best among his voluminous numbers of one-acts. In the case of four of the five plays in Tennessee in the Quarter, how well they succeed on stage remains to be seen. They do, however, provide windows into Williams' life, his artistic process and his development as a writer. We're catching him in mid-flight, rather than seeing finished masterpieces that give the impression of having glided in for a perfect landing without so much as a bump along the way.
"SNATCHING THE ETERNAL OUT of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence," Williams wrote in a 1951 essay, "The Timeless World of a Play." According to Bray, Williams himself felt so compelled to capture his experiences that he wrote "sometimes on hotel stationery, sometimes cocktail napkins, sometimes those cardboard flats they fold shirts around." This approach, Bray insists, was crucial: "The only way Williams could stay sane was to write."
In another essay, entitled "Facts About Me," Williams described his life from the mid-1930s to the mid '40s, when he penned four of the plays in Tennessee in the Quarter. "I did a good deal of traveling around and I held a great number of part-time jobs of great diversity. It is hard to put the story in correct chronology for the last 10 years of my life are a dizzy kaleidoscope. I don't quite believe all that has happened to me, it seems it must have happened to five or ten other people."
Arguably, nowhere was Williams experiencing life more intensely than in New Orleans. Bray quotes him as calling it "the most fascinating place I've ever been" and "an inexhaustible reservoir of experience." Williams' first visit here, in 1938, was also when he experienced his first consummated homosexual encounter. "It was a period of intense self-discovery," Bray says.
Williams took some of his wealth of experiences during this time and funneled them into his early one-acts. Because a one-act could be written fairly quickly, the plays have an immediacy and spontaneity that make them akin to snapshots. Of the one-acts in Tennessee in the Quarter, the play that most obviously fits this description is "Thank You, Kind Spirit." It's well documented that on his second trip to New Orleans, in 1941, Williams attended a spiritualist meeting in the French Quarter. While one can surmise that he didn't witness anything as dramatic as what unfolds in the play, he clearly wrote it in response to his experience -- most likely within a week or two of his actual visit.
Bray likes "Thank You, Kind Spirit" because of its sense of atmosphere and ability to capture a particular side of the French Quarter. Bray places the spiritualist, Mother Duclos (portrayed here by Troi Bechet), in the Williams canon of characters whose imperfections and human weaknesses are precisely what draws us to them. "It's as if for Williams the world of black magic and make-believe is almost preferable to this world of medicine and Christian faith," Bray says.
This was also a period when Williams was still finding his voice as a writer, and he experimented with both subject matter and style, using the one-act as a laboratory. Actor Jeremy Lawrence portrays the playwright in the one-man show Talking Tennessee, which will be presented as part of the TW/NOLF. Lawrence also appeared in Five by Tenn in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, linking the plays by providing commentary in the guise of the writer (using Williams' own words). Lawrence compares Williams' approach to that of other artists: "If you look at early Picasso, he painted in the styles of all the French Impressionists. Tennessee did the same thing. He wasn't afraid to try things on, to try and write Chekhov, to try and write O'Neill, those social action plays."
"Escape" could be just such an experiment. The play is a rare, although not solitary example of Williams using African-American dialect and writing substantial roles for black actors. (Madame Duclos, in "Thank You, Kind Spirit," is described as an octoroon.) The treatment of black prisoners had aroused serious controversy at the time that Williams penned the play. While more racially topical themes were perhaps too far outside Williams' direct experience for him to tackle them in major works, they were on his mind. "People weren't aware of how conscious Williams was of the racial politics of the South," says David Roessel. "But he did weigh in on them."
"Escape," incidentally, is the one play with which the festival's production has cheated slightly in terms of locale: A sparse, six-minute scene in which three chain gang inmates watch and listen to the fate of a fellow prisoner who's attempting to escape, the play clearly does not take place in the Quarter. Martin has set it in Angola, joking, "If you've been in some parts of the Quarter, it's kind of like Angola."
GORE VIDAL ONCE VISITED Williams' apartment in the 1960s to discover him working on Streetcar. Vidal remarked on the play's enormous success -- it had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama -- and asked Williams why in the world he was revising it. "It's not finished yet," Williams replied.
Certain subjects, Bray suggests while recounting this popular story, captured Williams' imagination in such a way that they drew him to revisit them again and again. "He started with a strong, indelible image," Bray says. "It really depended on how strong and compelling the image was, how often he returned to it." One image that was especially powerful for Williams, Bray recounts, was of a woman sitting by the window with the moon outside, waiting for a suitor who might never come. An early version of Streetcar was inspired by this image, in a story called "Blanche's Chair in the Moon."
So the classic Streetcar -- just like other great full-lengths such as Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, The Glass Menagerie and The Rose Tattoo -- all began as one-acts. Bray has published a number of them in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review.
"Interior: Panic" is an early, one-act version of Streetcar. Bray discovered the material in the archives of Harvard University and stitched it together from two different drafts. One early version of the play was set in Chicago, and in one of the drafts from which Bray worked, Williams had actually crossed out "Tribune" and written in "Picayune" in the scene where a man comes to collect the bill for the newspaper.
"Interior: Panic" is told from Blanche's point of view; the audience hears voices that are meant to be echoing inside her head, and in his stage directions Williams calls for lights to be projected on the wall. Many elements found their way into the finished version, including the bloody package of meat that Jack, who becomes Stanley (played by Dane Rhodes), throws to Grace, who becomes Stella (Veronica Russell). Blanche's (Susan Deily-Swearingen) promiscuity, the existence of a suitor, and her dismissal from her teaching post are all present. And while Jack doesn't rape Blanche in this version, she tells Grace, in a feverish rambling, that she fears he will have "intimate relations" with her while Grace is in the hospital giving birth.
Blanche's amplified perspective gives the play a heightened, almost melodramatic quality. She compares the sweet smell of the bright red liquid jelly Grace is pouring into jars to the stench of death. Without the complexity Williams invests in the full-length, the play could easily cross the line between tragedy and comedy.
The endings are also vastly different, which according to Bray is indicative of Williams' frequent struggles to conclude his plays. In 1945, Bray relates, Williams wrote to his agent Audrey Wood while he was in the process of turning this and other fragments into Streetcar. There were three possible endings he had in mind: the first had Blanche leaving for some indeterminate location; the second features her throwing herself under a train; and the third finds Blanche institutionalized. The ending of "Interior: Panic" includes none of the above, and one of the most intriguing aspects of the script is that its resolution is so entirely opposite to that of its wrenching, more fully realized self.
"AND TELL SAD STORIES of the Death of Queens" is the anomaly of the group in that it can't be considered an early play. It was most likely begun by Williams in 1957 on a visit to Cuba and finished sometime during the 1960s. Because of its gay subject matter, Williams clearly did not expect the play to be produced when he wrote it.
Candy Delaney (Andy English), the play's drag queen heroine, has been abandoned by his longtime partner for a younger lover. Determined to find a new life mate, Candy settles on Karl (Lucas Harms), a sailor who despite lingering in gay haunts seems an unlikely prospect. When Candy says, "I know you're going to like me. You already do. I can tell by your eyes when you look at me," his response is, "When I look at you I'm measuring you for a coffin." This probably won't strike most audience members as the start of a beautiful relationship, and therein lies a problem at the crux of the play. Candy is on the one hand a smart, successful businessman, with rental properties in the Quarter and an interior decorating business on St. Charles Avenue. But he can seem so self-deluded when it comes to Karl, that it's tempting to pity rather than empathize with him. Is love really that blind?
Actor Jeremy Lawrence points out that Candy does stand up to his increasingly violent would-be lover. "He's very brave," Lawrence insists. "He reveals who he is to this man pretty quickly. I think that Candy is not a tragic character; she's a fighter. There are moments when you really wish that Candy and Karl could be together. You just want to say, Come on, guy. Put the beads on and relax.'"
If Candy's steadfast attraction to Karl makes her exasperating, at moments, this may be how Williams intended it. In a letter to Elia Kazan on the subject of Streetcar, Williams wrote, "There are no good or bad people." In a one-act, however, characters can't be as richly and complexly drawn; they have fewer words and actions with which to assert their humanity. So instead of seeming like a breathing entity, full of the luster of human contradictions, we're perplexed by the paradox of Candy's self-assurance and self-delusion. We don't get to know her quite well enough to understand her. Rather than an object of fascination, she becomes one of perplexity. Yet perhaps even this was intentional. Williams wrote in an essay appropriately titled "Questions Without Answers": "The mysterious thing about writing plays about life is that so many people find them so strange and baffling. That makes you know, with moments of deep satisfaction, that you have really succeeded in writing about it!"
"Mister Paradise," the fifth play of the evening, was most likely written around the time of Williams' first visit to New Orleans in 1938. Through the title character, Williams anticipates his own ambivalence towards fame, before he himself has enjoyed so much as a hint of it. Williams' sense that success was a formidable obstacle to creating art would dog him for the rest of his life. In his essay "A Streetcar Named Success," written after Menagerie but before Streetcar, he noted that the opening of the earlier masterpiece "terminated one part of my life and began another about as different in all external circumstances as could well be imagined." He later mentions the "lamented days of my obscurity" and writes of Menagerie, "I no longer felt any pride in the play itself but began to dislike it, probably because I felt too lifeless inside to ever create another."
Williams obviously found ways to elude what he perceived to be success' negative impact on his artistic output. But these early one-acts are vestiges of those "lamented days" before he emerged as one of the greatest American dramatists. While the full-length plays show us Williams the brilliant master of dramatic craft, the one-acts show us Williams as a person who lived as fervently as he wrote, and they provide glimpses of the panorama of experience that helped make him into the writer he became. In "On a Streetcar Named Success" he tells us, "William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. In the time of your life -- live!' That time is short and it doesn't return again.
"It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition." How lucky we are that Williams did exactly that.