Tennessee Williams shot to fame at age 33 with his semi-autobiographical ‘memory play’, The Glass Menagerie in 1944. For much of the next two decades his plays ran, sometimes simultaneously, to sell out houses on Broadway. Several were made into films, now classics of cinema, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Despite his success, the playwright was dogged by depression and guilt and an increasing alcohol dependency in later life. He nevertheless worked solidly, producing new plays right up until his death in the early 1980’s.
Next month, Tennessee Williams savagely poetic and provocative contemporary masterpiece, Suddenly Last Summer, opens at Red Stitch. It is directed by Stephen Nicolazzo in a co-production with Little Ones Theatre.
Stephen founded Little Ones Theatre in 2007, an independent company focused on innovative queer theatre-making. Little Ones productions are bold, brash and energetic interpretations of queer classics that celebrate a highly theatrical aesthetic. We spoke to him in the rehearsal room:
The thing I love about Tennessee Williams was that he was unashamedly making plays about the homosexual experience during the Hays code era (Hollywood’s ‘code of morals’ governing what could be shown in performance which was in effect from 1930 to 1968). Even though he suffered from self hate occasionally he still felt compelled to explore that. It’s the same reason I like Oscar Wilde, there’s a sort of renegade attitude there.”
What do you make of all that repression and confusion weaved into his work?
“Like Wilde, his social standing exacted a certain amount of conformity and guilt. Williams was in conversion therapy for a while too (a pseudoscientific kind of therapy which attempted to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual). Tom (from Glass Menagerie) is so autobiographical, and what sometimes gets lost in interpretations of that play is that it IS a queer character. Tom’s secret, Tom’s relationship with his mother has got everything to do with his sexuality and the pressure of having to provide for the family.
And I think that sometimes a lot of that subtext gets lost because it CAN be played in other ways and it can be explored in ways that are more normative and expected. But that’s why I love his later work – like Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – where it gets kind of wackier and more subversive. Because he stops wanting to play it straight and creates these worlds that are absurd and nihilistic and violent. And funny!”
The earlier plays have some of that wildness in them too, that sense of a human ‘jungle’ just on the periphery of the action. Do you think this is why audiences are so fascinated by his work…this sense of danger and darkness?
“Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is actually pretty overt! What’s great about the Hollywood films is that Tennessee Williams always has actors in them that are like these homo-erotic icons (Williams was actively involved in several of the screen productions). By placing Paul Newman in that role it kind of already conjures that sense without them having to say it, because obviously they couldn’t.
The playwright’s input on the films is really interesting. I was reading about how he really hated what they did with Suddenly Last Summer; he thought that the director really lost sight of what the play was about and went into histrionics (which is what I totally love about the film, by the way!)”
You’re deeply interested in the plays and the playwright but you’re also fascinated by the Hollywood treatment of them, the glossed over versions?
“The heightened nature of it. What I love about the films and the plays is that they don’t actually sit in a naturalistic space, people just don’t speak that way. He seems to charge everything with camp aesthetics. He once said something I’ve always remembered and it’s kind of the reason that I make the work that I make (I think it’s in a forward for Streetcar). He explains how he came up with the character of Blanche and why he creates these larger-than-life women: he saw these little children playing out in the street and they were playing grown ups, acting out a tea party. Williams becomes obsessed with the idea that we play the parts we’re assigned in life and an idea of how we think we should be, and how this is what creates drama. I thought that was really brilliant.
And that’s perhaps why there is a camp history connected to these works – because of the playful, performative nature of them. You look at the film version of Orpheus Descending and the emotions are, like, at 200% rather than what you’d expect – just levelled out naturalism”
As a director you seem drawn to the ‘Gothic’. Does that feed into this idea of performative texts?
“There’s magic in it.”
Have you always seen yourself as an investigator of classic texts?
“Well, the first play I actually directed was Marber’s Closer – when I was still finding my voice, just trying to explore the question, like: ‘how the fuck do you direct?!
I’ve always been interested in narrative drama although sometimes I’ve ventured into more ‘avant garde’ territory. I’m basically interested in sexuality and I don’t mind where that takes me.
So then I moved into works like Oscar Wilde’s Salome at drama school and that changed things for me. That’s when I realised I was really interested in looking at classics through a Queer lens, particularly writers that had an experience I related to – like gay shame. And I wanted to push the boundaries of how sexuality is expressed in theatre and in cinema. Which is, I guess, why I like gothic fiction, too. Because those stories are laced with eroticism. There are moments in those books and plays and films where everything can just erupt!
One thing I dislike about a lot of theatre is that it’s just so sexless. I think that’s what drives me, I want to find the sexual and the erotic undertones.”
The tendency these days is to take contemporary classics and set them somewhere immediate and relatable for the audience, even if it’s sort of anachronistic, in order to reinvigorate their meaning. Is Williams’ work able to be transposed in that way?
“No. And even for me doing this production (and I’ve directed this play once before) there’s no way I can impose anything on it because it actually exists within the script, and I don’t feel the urge to ‘reimagine’ it or bring out some contemporary side to it. I think it’s already there. You’d lose all the beauty and the inherent theatricality.
I mean, yes, Suddenly is from a period when some bizarre psychological treatments were being inflicted on people but the play is about being silenced by others and by society and I don’t think that’s changed a bit. Even with its particular artifice it still has a contemporary relevance, it doesn’t need to be ripped out of that frame to have resonance.”
It’s been noted that Tennessee saw the world as quite a dark place and people as predatory – always out for themselves – and this desire to silence and straitjacket others is all about gaining control.
“The circumstances of the plays seem to be imposed upon the characters and the protagonist is just trying to break out of them. And this is why I guess queer theatre makers are interested in him and the stories. He’s also one of those playwrights that writes great roles for women…which doesn’t happen so much even now.”
You do love to exaggerate and give us a sense of theatricality, you give us a sense of a place ‘in the mind’ rather than a literal setting. This play sits right at the end of Williams’ successful Broadway period where the poetic, more surrealistic aspects of his work begin to become more overt. Is that what drew you to it?
“It’s more imaginative. The opening stage direction is that the design should be as unrealistic as a ballet set. So he’s immediately giving you permission to go into a dream world. And that’s my spin on lots of things, my lens is not about reproducing what I see every day. I want to create something transporting. I’m taking you to ‘The South’ but I’m also taking you into this chaotic, homesexual jungle.
I love the classic Tennessee Williams plays but it’s maybe the forgotten stories that interest me. His last play, for example, released in 1980 Something Cloudy, Something Clear was another dream play about a lover who got away. And the whole thing is written as a kind of piece of music. Suddenly kind of marks a turning point for him as a writer – and it was kind of divisive. He makes a clear departure from the classicism he was working in at the time.”
He said he was trying to become a new playwright, trying to invent a new style for himself, but the critics wouldn’t let him.
“The minute you try something new or explore it in a different context you get shat on. And I can relate to that too! Some of them are kind of hard to stomach – but that last play, for example, it’s just so beautiful and disturbing. Battle of Angels was an earlier one that divided audiences and I know that he rewrote it, after it was shit-canned, as Orpheus Descending to try and make it more like ‘Cat’. But that didn’t work either. So once he stops trying to please his critics he goes right off in this new direction.”
It must have been so hard being gay and so successful in Hollywood, exploring unconventional ‘morals’ in his plays yet having to keep this veneer of ‘decency’ for the public, lest you be seen as morally corrupt.
“In the inner circles it was probably fine and once the Hays Code was cut things probably became a little easier. But still, I don’t know that much has changed in that respect. I still feel that people are weird about sex, weird about the representation of sex in performance. ‘Theatre’ is a privileged market and pretty conservative for the most part.”
But it gets back to that notion of people ‘playing a role’ in Tennessee Williams’ work. He also revives the ghost of his sister in this play, whom I believe he was very close to, someone who was actually given a lobotomy. He seemed to have so much unhappiness in his life.
“There was the guilt of his sister and the family pushing for that to happen. When he was writing Suddenly he was going through conversion therapy so he has a lot of judgement towards psychiatry. Again, there’s a level of autobiography in his work. And heavy symbolism, imagery. You look at some of that imagery when you think about his relationship to the critics; he makes some of those ideas about ‘predation’ really literal with someone actually being eaten alive!
Suddenly is populated with characters who are decadent and privileged and can do whatever they want – but at a cost. Sebastian can’t ‘come out’, instead he has to be escorted everywhere by his mother – who solicits young gentleman partners for him. He lives a secret life that ends up being his undoing. A macabre version of Tom (in Glass Menagerie) perhaps – but one who doesn’t survive!
I love the violence. I mean, the garishness of writing a play featuring cannibalism is just amazing. The TV critics at the time were disgusted and the literary critics just loved it! I feel that the characters are both symbolic and archetypal. There’s not a superfluous word in the script. We were all just talking today about the presence of the Greeks and ancient mythology in this play.”
And maybe Hitchcock?
“Well, y’know, when he was writing it he was setting out to write a Hitchcock film!”
It’s fascinating, the way you can create compelling images that are quite static, like a diorama, but utterly full of tension and character. Perhaps that’s where the tiny Red Stitch space comes into its own with your work.
“It’s distilled. And controlled. One of the reasons I love working at Red Stitch is the question of how to create grandeur in such a small space. You do it with specificity and clean images that are easily read. I keep saying to the cast that if we were to, say, turn the volume right down on this show, the visual image and the way in which every actor’s position is held must tell the audience precisely what is happening. It needs to be absolutely clear. I think that’s what’s really exciting about the diorama idea, absolutely.”
Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo opens on October 5 (until November 4)