Magazine article The New Yorker

Siblings

Magazine article The New Yorker

Siblings

Article excerpt

Days before Tennessee Williams's 1967 chamber piece "The Two-Character Play" opened at New World Stages, I began to experience a certain apprehension. I think my anxiety was due to the fact that Williams's late, largely neglected drama hadn't had a full-scale production in New York since 1975 (an earlier version of the work, starring Michael York, opened on Broadway in 1973 and closed after twelve performances), and I was hoping that the upcoming effort would right several wrongs, chief among them the widespread notion that Williams failed to produce anything of merit after "The Night of the Iguana," in 1961. The truth is that the playwright wrote some of his most kinetic, charged, and innovative work between the late sixties and his death, at the age of seventy-one, in 1983.

Williams always wanted his effects to be poetic and immediate, and yet for the first half of his career he was something of a conventional craftsman; that is, he enjoyed the challenge of writing traditional narratives that a general audience would find rewarding--and reward him for. But "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," a commercial and critical failure when it opened, in 1963, marked a substantial creative shift. It tells the tale of Flora Goforth, a terminally ill, rich woman, who's knotted up in death and remembrance even as the performance of her life goes on. With "Milk Train," Williams didn't exactly draw a line between his previous plays and a more aggressive form of experimentation; he simply became more flagrant about what hadn't been so obvious in his work before: thinking. In his earlier plays, Williams relied on various autobiographical reflexes--about his birthplace, his family, his sense of himself as a perennial outsider--to carry his characters through the emotional thickets in which they often became tangled. In "Milk Train," Williams introduced two Stage Assistants, who function, he wrote, "in a way that's between the Kabuki Theatre of Japan and the chorus of Greek theatre." By outing the importance of dramatic history in his work, he acknowledged not only where he was coming from but where he needed to go: deeper into the idea of theatre as artifice. In the audience-alienating, ahead-of-their-time short plays that followed, including "The Gnadiges Fraulein" (1966), "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow" (1966), and "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" (1969), Williams expanded his vision of theatre as a protean art, plastic and political, as fluid as film and as structurally solid as sculpture. Inspired by the younger writers he admired and competed with, including Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, Williams's post-"Milk Train" plays incorporate his process of intellection about characters and mise en scene--a contradiction of the general impression that, as Gore Vidal wrote in his review of Williams's "Memoirs," "Tennessee's mind is not, to say the least, at home with theory."

One of the many remarkable things about "The Two-Character Play" is that it is a play about theory, a drama about playing, about how performers put real life on hold in order to enact it. We enter the theatre to find that the stage itself is a theatre. Its set is made up of some junk and props for a director to transform with his imagination: there's a ratty sofa, a small table, an old reel-to-reel tape deck, a piano, some shawls. Felice (Brad Dourif) appears. His graying hair grazes the collar of his old coat. In the half-light, we can just make out that he has the inward stare of someone who is more comfortable in the dark. But, in order to be seen, he requires light: Felice is an aging actor fading from public view; he's also a writer and director, trying to get his play mounted in an unnamed town. It's called "The Two-Character Play," and it stars Felice and his sister, Clare. "Fear," Felice says, sitting near the piano and writing in the air. "Fear! The fierce little man with the drum inside the rib cage. . . . There is the love and the--substitutions, the surrogate attachments, doomed to brief duration, no matter how--necessary," he adds, speaking to himself and, increasingly, to us. …

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