What do you think of when you think of Tennessee? Maybe it’s New Orleans or St. Louis, the Kindness of Strangers, Glass Figurines, Brick and Maggie and No-Neck Monsters, drinking, fighting, repressed homosexuality, animal passions and Heat. Maybe you think of his poetic language and the way his naturalism verges on the magical without quite crossing out of the lives of real people doing real things. The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof have had 20 productions on Broadway, and those are just three of his major plays. Now think of the seemingly countless number of regional and international productions. Add to that The Rose Tattoo, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana, Summer and Smoke, Suddenly Last Summer. The list needn’t go on to qualify Tennessee Williams as one of our country’s foremost dramatists not just of the last century but of all time.
But these works only begin to paint the picture of the writing he was doing over the course of his career beginning in the 1930s and taking him all the way to his death in 1983. What was Tennessee writing between these plays? Was every play from his pen a mainstream missive? What happened to the work which raised its hackles against the commercial boundaries? And was his work always quite so naturalistic?
You will soon have the unusual opportunity to find out. From March 11-27, the Bushwick Starr is presenting Target Margin Theater’s 2010 Laboratory The Unknown Williams: six different programs that encompass 12 of Tennessee Williams’s little known experiments. These plays cover the breadth of Williams’s career both chronologically and stylistically and have never been produced in NYC.
David Herskovits, TMT’s Artistic Director and the main curatorial engine of the lab, has taken his company on a three year exploration of Williams which all began in the fall of 2007 with a chance meeting between him and Frances Kazan, Elia Kazan’s widow. From this meeting grew the idea of a piece based on Williams’s and Elia Kazan’s collaboration on Camino Real—this project has become The Really Big Once which will premiere at the Ontological Hysteric Theater in April. In researching and workshopping The Really Big Once, Herskovits became fascinated with Camino Real, leading him to an exploration of the roots of American experimental theater and the milieu out of which Williams’s work sprang. (The 2009 TMT Lab’s The Theater of Tomorrow explored the work of early American experimenters before WWII.)
“The Williams we’re showing in the Lab is this crazy experimenter,” explains Herskovits, “and Camino Real was the biggest experiment.” He lays out the background of the play: Williams and Elia Kazan had already forged a great alliance doing Williams’s naturalistic plays, and they had huge success with them. They knew Camino Real was an artistic departure, and they decided to do it on Broadway anyway: they found investors. But the play failed. “That moment marked the failure of that kind of work in a mainstream or Broadway setting,” says Herskovits. “It both set back and pushed forward experimentation. They learned if you’re going to try and do stuff like that you’re going to have to look for other places.” Herskovits describes Camino Real as a kind of fork in the road. In the years before the war, experimentation could happen in a very broad way and it was all up for grabs. “Thorton Wilder and Gertrude Stein and Susan Glaspell and O’Neill, before Long Days Journey, were all doing crazy experiments. O’Neill’s reading expressionism and trying to do it himself. It was this muscular and open moment, and then in 1953 with Camino Real—it’s this last chance of ‘I can write this crazy thing, right? and do it on Broadway?’ And the answer is: ‘No, no, not here.’ But then we go somewhere else and this is what in some ways spawns what we now consider ‘downtown theater’—the need to find these other places to make work that is out of the mainstream naturalistic expectation of what theater is.”
Target Margin’s mission is to expand the ideas of what a play can be or what can happen in a theater. What Herskovits hopes for the Lab is that the ideal audience member—someone who sees more than one show—will get a real enrichment of their experience of Williams as a writer. He hopes that they’ll learn more about who Williams was and what he could do, more about the Williams who thought that “these crazy things can be plays,” says Herskovits with reverential humor. “I hope that people see this and think ‘I never quite imagined a play being that way, how can I take that forward when I go and see other plays?’” Herskovits describes how the work he does personally is, he feels, in some way trying to really change the culture that we live in. He sees the Lab as the extension of that. And he’s especially excited to be doing the plays at the Bushwick Starr: “I really believe interesting cultural innovation continues to migrate to different neighborhoods and further away from Manhattan, so staging these previously unstaged experiments of Williams in this venue seems ideal.”
The 12 pieces TMT is presenting are plays you have almost surely never seen before. Most of them are published in The Traveling Companion and Other Plays and Mr. Paradise and Other Plays—both collections that were published in the last five years. These plays may bear little resemblance to the plays that you think of when you think of Tennessee Williams, and yet they still come from the same mind, so threads of his obsessions still weave through them despite the formal and aesthetic range they encompass.
William Burke, who is directing This Is the Peaceable Kingdom, is struck by the fact that the play takes place in New York. This puts a whole different spin on the language of the play because it is not being spoken with a Southern accent, which he feels gives the poetry a different kind of starkness. The play is one of the last plays Williams wrote before he died in 1983 and it takes place during a nursing home strike in Queens.
Shannon Sindelar is directing The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. LeMonde, another one of the last plays Williams wrote. It is a dark, but funny, piece involving a man who doesn’t have use of his legs and must swing from hooks in the ceiling to get around, and is set in the attic of a rooming house in London. Sindelar’s own work tends to be very abstract and gritty and in looking at these short Williams pieces she was surprised to find something that fit with her aesthetics so neatly.
This sentiment was echoed by many of the directors I spoke to. I know much of their work and it could not be more varied. The fact that all of these artists found a piece of Tennessee Williams that spoke to their own projects points to the true breadth of his work. Michael Levinton, whose work tends to live in a campy colorful world, is directing The Pronoun “I” about a mad queen of England and her various lovers. The Mad Old Queen seems to be the stand-in for Tennessee here, in a somewhat blatant pun, although he insists that the character should be played by a woman. It is easy for me to envision Levinton staging this piece, although his work could not be more different than Burke’s or Sindelar’s.
Jake Hooker is directing The Day On Which A Man Dies, an investigation of Jackson Pollock, death and Japanese Noh plays, all things that have come up in Hooker’s work before. Hooker talked about everyone’s interest in doing Night of the Iguana “because that’s his weird one, but there are lots of weird ones. All of these short unproduced plays have flaws. But that’s what makes them good, what makes them beautiful. That works into an idea in Japanese aesthetics. That decay and imperfections are what draw the beauty out of a thing.”
Target Margin’s Unknown Williams Labs are providing a rare opportunity that I hope you will take them up on. Don’t just go and see one of these evenings but see as many as you can. In these plays Williams takes us to New Mexico, London, Tokyo, New Orleans, Latin America, and Queens, and all you have to do is go to Bushwick to get there.