A Weirder Tennessee

Photo: William E. Sauro/New York Times Co./Getty Images

My first encounter with Tennessee Williams—who would have turned 100 in March, had it not been for a plastic bottle cap and the fact that he was Tennessee Williams—had an appropriately tacky, back-alley vibe to it. I was a high-school senior in a poorly organized yet ambitious summer-drama program, and at the time, Williams was little more to me than a reading assignment. I’d yawned through The Glass Menagerie in junior-year English and only knew Blanche DuBois via The Simpsons’ “A Streetcar Named Marge” episode. (For me, Ned Flanders’s “Stella!” will always trump Brando’s.) I didn’t really meet the man until the summer we put on The Red Devil Battery Sign, Williams’s unclassifiable 1977 paranoia thriller.

Now, The Red Devil Battery Sign, apart from being wildly age-inappropriate for high school, is not what an innocent bystander would call “good.” (No less a godhead than Richard Gilman considered it perhaps Williams’s worst, in a crowded field.) It begins with the Tennessee-standard nympho-neurotic heroine and a worldly, scuffed-up Christ figure—but ah, what a Christ figure! He’s (maraca roll, please) a brain-damaged mariachi named King Del Rey. From there, things head swiftly downhill. Distorted echoes of Sam Shepard and Jean Genet and possibly Thomas Pynchon creep in, along with the aphasic dialogue and arty stroke talk Williams began embracing in the late sixties. And there’s also something that smells dangerously—thrillingly—like pulp: oblique references to the Kennedy assassination and the military-industrial complex, G-men skulking in the shadows, and an eleven o’clock appearance by a pack of howling wolf-children who (might?) represent the dim hope of deus ex counterculture.

When we asked our director what it all meant, he explained it as, “Ah, Tenn wrote this shit when he was popping Seconals just to stay even. He’d lost it.”

We had no idea what Tennessee had lost, so we just nodded conspiratorially (“That Tenn! What a character!”), and continued to screw up the already screwed-up Red Devil, along with excerpts from Slapstick Tragedy, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Clothes for a Summer Hotel—the “late stuff,” our director told us, the stuff nobody did anymore. This was the radiant slag of Williams’s disastrous final twenty years—from Night of the Iguana in 1961, his last critical and commercial success, until the day in 1983 when he choked on a bottle cap in a Seconal haze.

I now know, of course, who and what Williams had lost by that point, most notably the two most important men in his life, his influential director Elia Kazan (who’d shaped Williams’s florid voice for years, before becoming disenchanted with theater) and Frank Merlo, his functional husband for fifteen years, lost to lung cancer in 1963. Without his key confederates, he still wrote compulsively, around six hours every day, drunk or sober, and often in abject imitation of hipper, allegedly edgier playwrights like Edward Albee and Genet. This was after “the catastrophe of Success,” as he called it, gave way to the catastrophe of mere catastrophe, and Williams—one third of the American playwriting trinity, with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill—was steadily written off as convenient literary tragedy: He wrote as he lived, with honesty and hysteria, and he suffered for it, The End. (Some exegete even argues that Williams’s public coming-out in 1970 sapped him of his vital subtext.)

But I think Late Williams—frowsy, blowsy, panicked—is also True Williams, the unredacted source-code of his madness and his majesty. Even the silliness and near schlock are essential. I’d agree with Robert Falls (who worked with Williams in the twilight years) when he laments “a great comic writer” whose surreal sense of humor was “flattened” by American realism: Kazan and the Actors Studio gave us perfect ant-in-amber productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—but also put those plays practically out of reach of further interpretation. “I think the grotesque is underappreciated in Tennessee’s work,” says Falls. “That streak of pitch-black comedy which is rarely explored but which I hope we’ll see more of, now that we have distance from the Method. That will allow him to be embraced by a new audience.”

Of course, new audiences are hard to come by for any playwright, living or dead, and this year-in-Tenn will prove an interesting test of his late work, at a pivotal moment in the Williams legacy. No massive festivals are in the offing here in New York. (“What’s happening this year? Not as much as should be happening, in my opinion,” tuts Michael Wilson, an indefatigable late-Williams apologist and director of the Roundabout’s revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. “I’m kind of disturbed. I’m kind of astonished.”) The closest we’ll come to a lavish Broadway production if the good Lord’s willin’ and the theater rents don’t rise is a Nicole Kidman–driven revival of Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by David Cromer and planned for the fall (possibly with James Franco as Chance Wayne, but Oscar nominations have a way of screwing with good intentions). Part of this feels less like a slight and more an accident of timing: Streetcar, Menagerie, and Cat have all been revived so continually and visibly in the last decade they simply can’t take another popper under their patrician noses. But more to the point, what would restaging these temples of mid-century supremacy say, anyway? That Tennessee Williams really earned those two Pulitzers back in his salad days, before he “lost it”? That he wrote anywhere from three to six truly timeless plays—and that’s three to six more than most playwrights can manage?

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.

A Weirder Tennessee