Tennessee Williams Is Back for His Encore

By Mccarter, Jeremy | Newsweek, March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tennessee Williams Is Back for His Encore


Mccarter, Jeremy, Newsweek


Byline: Jeremy Mccarter

Tennessee Williams is aging beautifully, now that he's gone. When he died in 1983, his career had all but ground to a halt. More than two decades had passed since his last Broadway success. Stars had ceased clamoring for his roles the way they had in the glory days of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. The circumstances of his death were undignified--he choked to death on a bottle cap in a drug-fueled haze--and the subsequent New York Times obituary poured salt in the wound, recounting how the great playwright had "lost his look of boyish innocence and became somewhat portly and seedy."

Yet this March, as we mark the centennial of Williams's birth, he is flourishing. The stage and screen great Olympia Dukakis is starring in a revival of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, and it's been reported that Sweet Bird of Youth will return to Broadway in the fall, starring Nicole Kidman and James Franco. Across the country, audiences will get to see his masterpieces: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (There's even a Streetcar in Paris, at the Comedie-Francaise.) But producers and critics seem to be warming to the messy late work as well--the dense, purplish writing that sank his reputation in the first place. You'll know the restoration is complete when some Broadway producer dares to mount Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Williams's late stab at depicting the baleful ghosts of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: great idea, dubious play.

Given that the interest in his work runs both deep (his hit plays) and wide (the weird stuff), it's easy to imagine Williams's appeal stretching into his second century and beyond. But what do his plays offer to the audiences that will encounter them in New York, Provincetown, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, and elsewhere this year? Our iPhone-toting 21st-century world is very different from the one that first encountered Amanda Wingfield, Maggie the Cat, and the rest. The test of a great dramatist--and the pleasure of revisiting his or her work--lies in discovering the fresh ways that a play speaks to us across the generations. The centennial helps us identify how Williams's plays have kept pace with contemporary life--or, in some respects, the other way around.

Now, as ever, Williams is a poet of liberation. His work offers what he called "a prayer for the wild of heart that are kept in cages." (The phrase got a boost recently when Angelina Jolie tattooed it on her arm.) Williams was working from his own experiences when he offered his portraits of lonely, repressed people at odds with their society--a position he understood not least because he was gay at a time and in a place where that was dangerous. In an expansive new exhibit about his life and work at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, visitors can trace his fights with the censors who wanted to conceal the homosexuality of Blanche's husband in Streetcar, among other battles. His writing in the face of puritanical opposition made him a pioneer of gay drama in America--and, by extension, a vital figure in the ongoing fight for equal rights. "I see no essential difference between the love of two men for each other and the love of a man and a woman; no essential difference, and I've examined them both," he said in a 1975 interview.

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