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A Weirder Tennessee


Instead, directors are turning to “the late stuff,” the strange stuff: The Tenntennial is shaping up to be Williams’s Island of Misfit Toys. There are plenty to choose from, thanks to the volume of his lifetime output and the longtime tightfistedness of his estate. (Saying we’ve seen the last “lost” Williams play is “like saying ‘That was the last Tupac Shakur album,’ ” says Cromer. “They just keep coming out!”) The 1970 erotic oddity Green Eyes has already been staged by Travis Chamberlain in a suite at the Hudson Hotel. Wilson’s Milk Train—considered the first failed play of his long “stoned age”—is playing Off Broadway, and Wilson hopes it will install its heroine, the dying socialite Flora Goforth (played by Olympia Dukakis), in Williams’s pantheon of monsters alongside Big Daddy and Princess Kosmonopolis. In spring, Moisés Kaufman sneaks in the back door with an intermedia incarnation of One Arm, drawn not from Williams’s short story but the 1967 screenplay he based on, it. Austin Pendleton will take on Small Craft Warnings, a funky, talky barroom terrarium from 1972. (“I wish my heart could vomit!” declares one character, echoing what might’ve been Williams’s seventies cri de coeur.) Out of town, Falls is planning a festive remount of the once-dismissed 1953 surrealist pageant Camino Real at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Finally, there’s the Wooster Group, a name not often associated with Tennessee Williams. Director Elizabeth LeCompte had never paid much attention to the playwright’s late-period works but nonetheless found herself drawn to Vieux Carré, a sort of memory-play bookend to The Glass Menagerie, which Williams began writing in the thirties and finished in 1977. The theatrical art is “ragged, but then our culture is more ragged now,” says LeCompte, adding that she appreciates the “room” a noncanonical work gives her. (“This won’t be an Elia Kazan production, and you can quote me on that.”)

In other words, she won’t break it; it’s already broke. Late Williams isn’t some fragile vitrine unicorn. It’s rubbery, pliant, inchoate. Some of it is antic and gruesomely funny, some of it is ridiculous. And some of it is merely awful. All of it needs work, the way people need friends, lovers, collaborators—all things that the aging Williams didn’t have. With his collaborators gone, he was living in a mausoleum, scolded by the docents for his inability to write another Streetcar, perhaps the greatest American tragedy this side of Death of a Salesman. I say “tragedy,” but Robert Falls remembers a night near the end of Williams’s life when the playwright attended Falls’s small production of Streetcar in Chicago—and abruptly transformed the gothic drama into a comedy. Basically, he “broke” it. In the concluding moments, when the white-coats enter with a straitjacket for doomed Blanche, Williams cackled: “Oh, look at her! Look at Miss Blanche! You know she’s gonna talk her way out of that institution in one week!” Was it a joke? And if so, how entirely inappropriate, how sacrilegious, how near Simpson-ic in its absurdity: Was this Tennessee’s final transgressive fantasy—the negation of his own legend—or just the Tourettic outcry of a Tom Sawyer who couldn’t keep quiet watching his own funeral?

Williams could never keep quiet, even when the critics and fans begged him to. He seemed bent on shattering the myth of himself, which might have been the point of that despised shadow canon he left for the theater to finish. It’s certainly kept him talking, long, long after we were all sure we’d heard everything he had to say.


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