You Are Not the Playwright I Was Expecting: When His Reputation Tanked, Williams Kept Writing. How Many of His More Than 40 Late Plays Do You Know?

By Keith, Thomas | American Theatre, September 2011 | Go to article overview

You Are Not the Playwright I Was Expecting: When His Reputation Tanked, Williams Kept Writing. How Many of His More Than 40 Late Plays Do You Know?


Keith, Thomas, American Theatre


In a champion's waning years, the spectator's discomfiture is, finally, beside the point. The writer, like the prize-fighter, is the one who runs the lonely pre-dawn miles, and whose blood streams so publicly.

--Gregory Mosher, from his foreword to A House Not Meant to Stand

After Tennessee Williams stopped turning out what they thought were commercially feasible plays, he was just dismissed. And his later plays one day will be discovered and appreciated and used, and we'll learn how they can be performed. They're extraordinary pieces of work.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

--John Guare, from a 1977 interview

WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING SCENARIOS COMES FROM A PLAY BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS?

1. Hundreds of years from now, Earth is beset by a nuclear winter and a totalitarian regime holds the few inhabitants who survive in constant fear.

2. In the attic of a London boarding house, a paraplegic must swing from dozens of hooks in the ceiling to reach food left for him by his sadistic landlady.

3. The ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda relive their mutual selfdestruction at the asylum where she burned to death.

4. An Irish widow holds seances, conjuring up the spirits of Arthur Rimbaud and Vincent van Gogh, while hags weave her fate with knitting needles and yarn.

5. The electro-shocked daughter of a crooked Texas politician becomes a liability to her corporate magnate husband as he plots a coup d'etat by assassination.

6. A Japanese narrator introduces an artist who paints the scenery with spray guns, then the floor with his naked body, and later commits suicide by drinking Lysol.

If you chose scenario 3, then you remember Williams's last play produced on Broadway, Clothes for a Summer Hotel. It opened on the playwright's birthday, March 26, 1980, and closed two weeks later.

If you feel none of the above seem likely to have come from the typewriter of Tennessee Williams, then you're probably not alone.

If--having noted that this article is about the late, lesser known plays of Tennessee Williams--you chose all six scenarios, then you're right.

The plays that match the descriptions are:

1. The Chalky White Substance (1980)

2. The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde (1982)

3. Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)

4. Will Mr. Merriweatber Retwm from Memphis? (1969)

5. The Red Devil Battery Sign (1975)

6. The Day on Which a Man Dies (1960)

If you aren't familiar with the later plays of Williams and would like to be, then it is helpful to put aside some assumptions about the playwright, or throw them out entirely. Except in snatches, snippets and occasional arias, you won't find Williams's familiar language--the dialogue that, as Arthur Miller declared, "plant[ed] the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theatre." Forget it. Let it go and, for better or worse, take the dialogue as it comes.

Okay, some of it will still be beautiful. You'll find a few Southern stories, but even those are not your mother's Tennessee Williams tales. Certain elements of his aesthetic will be recognizable, but these works do not have the rhythms or tone of his most famous plays. Williams declared to the press in the early 1960s, "There will be no more Southern belles!" A decade later he told an interviewer, "I used to write symphonies; now I write chamber music, smaller plays."

You'll recognize familiar themes: the plight of outsiders--the fugitive, the sensitive, the isolated, the artist; the nature of compassion and desire; the naked cruelty of life. The late plays maintain Williams's outlook on the brutality of the world, though some are overtly comic and occasionally even ridiculous. Some characters speak in sparse, truncated sentences and are more emotionally contained than we're used to in Williams; others are broad or cartoonish. …

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