It is National Day here in Hong Kong, a public holiday across China, so a day for a serious bit of blogging.
Recently I thought I’d been suffering from an odd case of déjà vu, having been consistently reading reviews for the same playwright – in North America, in Europe, in Australasia – and then I realised I was witnessing a trend. 30 years since his death and 103 years since his birth, the plays of Tennessee Williams are riding high in the english speaking world. Perhaps the most american of all great american playwrights, it is no surprise that his popularity goes through cycles in his own country. However, this is being replicated elsewhere and it set me off doing a bit of digging.
This is the time of year that most theatres release their forth-coming seasons and I noticed that the Williams’ classics were amongst them, but perhaps more so than you might expect. I then read this article in the Boston Globe, Tennessee Williams’s time is now. Written by Don Aucion, he asks the question:
So why is Williams more with us than ever? Partly it’s because his work responds to our hunger for expert storytelling and craftsmanship, two qualities that never go out of style. Kaplan says “the greatness of the plays shines through’’ because “they’re lit by something inside them: their understanding of human beings, and very importantly by his mastery of language.’’
His unabashedly poetic sensibility and emotional directness — Williams’s heart was always visible, right there on his sleeve — also may appeal to contemporary audiences weary of the ironic distance and detachment that characterizes our eye-rolling, finger-quoting age.
Moreover, when it comes to Williams, there’s a vitality in performance that can’t be denied. He had a rare gift for constructing epic familial showdowns to go along with his nearly unrivaled knack for creating vivid, larger-than-life characters.
The stormy likes of Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat are irresistible actor bait; each new generation of performers wants to tackle the big Williams roles, including movie stars like Johansson, and producers are often happy to oblige them. Directors, too, are intrigued by the interpretive possibilities.
But the other side of the unceasing Williams wave has to do with the torrent of productions of his least-known plays. The critical response to these dramas has been mixed, but audiences and theater artists alike seem determined to get the fullest possible picture of the oeuvre compiled by this exceptionally prolific playwright.
So to pick up on the above, obviously Williams’ plays are great vehicles for actors to test their talents. On Broadway in the last week The Glass Menagerie staring Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones received rave reviews and then took almost half a million dollars in ticket sales in one day. In London, Gillian Anderson has just agreed to star in A Streetcar Named Desire, following Kim Cattrall who has just finished in a run of Sweet Bird of Youth (which I wrote about in my post, Singing Sweetly).
But it is Aucoin’s last point that I have found most interesting and connected most with what I have been reading. Williams was a hugely prolific writer and you only have to have a look at his incredibly long bibliography to see that, yet he has tended to be known for his ‘Big 5’ – A Street Car Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo and Sweet Bird of Youth. However, it would seem that it is his lesser known plays that are pushing the revival. In London, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Talk To Me Like The Rain And Let Me Listen, and Kingdom of Earth are currently in performance. In the US at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, which has just finished, you have had the likes of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore and The Chorus Girl Plays amongst others. In New Zealand, Williams’ play Camino Real is being performed in November.
David Kaplan, the curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Festival, estimates there are at least 300 professional productions worldwide each year of Williams plays and that of course doesn’t include the 1000’s of none-professional productions.
William’s himself was a complex and some say tortured individual and there has been much written about his personal life. During my research I have come across a few things I thought I would share.
Firstly, an episode from a BBC Radio series called Great Lives which asks the question was Williams’ life was a wasted one? Click here for the recording.
Secondly, and again from the BBC, a recording of a programme from 1978 called Desert Island Discs in which Williams talks about his own life:
Thirdly, a superb piece written by Paul Taylor for The Independent in 2011, to mark the centenary of Williams’ birth. Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart is well worth a read.
My fourth offering, written earlier this year for The Telegraph by Theodore Dalrymple, has the great title Put away the pills and listen to Tennessee Williams; America’s great playwright refused to accept that happiness was normal. A somewhat controversial look at his great and complex characters.
Fifthly, a look at The Glass Menagerie through time, by Marc Snetiker for Broadway.com