It is not often that a lost early work of a playwright is exhumed smelling like roses rather than of corpse. That, however, is the case of the remarkable Not About Nightingales (1938), the fourth play by Tennessee Williams, for whose re-emergence Vanessa Redgrave’s snooping deserves our first round of applause. Many more must go to the play at the Circle in the Square, which should become a place of pilgrimage not only for faithful Williams fans but also for anyone looking for powerful theater resoundingly mounted.
Though Tennessee vehemently denied it, this prison play is melodrama, but even that lowly genre, elevated by a nascent genius, can prove as intellectually stimulating as it is viscerally gripping. It is the unsettling work the 27-year-old dramatist submitted to the socially conscious Group Theater, which curtly rejected it. Reflect on what talent was required to flesh out so many characters – inmates, guards, prison employees, and the warden – on the basis of a mere magazine article about a scandal in a Pennsylvania prison. Twenty-five prisoners, thought to be the ringleaders of a hunger strike caused by appalling food, were confined to a punitive boiler room whose temperature could go up to 200 degrees. Four of the men were found dead, roasted alive. Tom Williams, as he was then known, had not done actual time in jail, but his early home life felt like incarceration.
The play shuttles between the prison block – where a number of diverse prisoners roister, quarrel, and struggle to survive under the draconian regime of a psychopathic prison warden, Boss Whalen – and the warden’s office and waiting room. Here an intelligent, self-taught inmate, Jim Allison, works as a file clerk, unjustly called a stoolie by his fellow prisoners although he strives to help them. Whalen plays a cat-and-mouse game with Jim, but an even nastier one with Eva, the desperate young woman happy to find employment as his secretary, even though his attentions to her are far from benevolent. Eva and Jim attempt a brief, foiled love affair.
Expecting something conventional along the lines of the then-popular prison movies, I was stunned and excited to find something incomparably finer – more touching, humane, humorous, and impassioned. Also a bit self-consciously poetic and symbolic, a double-edged sword Williams kept honing all his life. What he wrote here lends itself splendidly to both small and thunderously big performances – none bigger than Corin Redgrave’s grotesque yet scary Boss Whalen. Scarcely less sharp, in this Anglo-American production, is the superb work of such British and American actors as Finbar Lynch, Sherri Parker Lee, and James Black – indeed of the entire cast, a perfectly homogenous ensemble, working in Richard Hoover’s masterly set that puts this hostile space to exemplary use.