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Theater Review: Five by Tenn – Five Landmark Plays by Tennessee Williams, New York

Legendary playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was the kind of larger than life, tormented American artist who tried to transcend human suffering through the magic of his craft. As Tom in his groundbreaking 1944 play The Glass Menagerie put it, by combining memory with “artistic license,” Williams attempted, time and again, to turn back time and erase the wounds his sister endured at the hands of their mother after he left them behind for New Orleans’ French Quarter in his late twenties. But both mother and sister lived on, in body and spirit — as well as metaphorically via stage and screen — for many decades to come.

Williams grew up in a complex new century — one which, despite its new technological wonders and scientific breakthroughs, often left the individual unable to confront the dark undercurrents of life. Despite the new “science” of psychoanalysis, with its franker examination of such “vices” as homosexuality, Oedipal conflicts, addiction, and sexual desire, most of Williams’ contemporaries were simply not culturally evolved enough to digest the truth about life’s seamy underbelly served up on a tarnished platter.

Williams was as just as much a product of this repressed sensibility — if not more so — thanks to his genteel Southern background and early Episcopal upbringing. Thus, one of the great conflicts of his life and work was the attempt to reconcile the sacred and the profane elements that coexisted in himself and in all of us.

Like other great artists who endured great pain, Williams did not suffer in silence. Via his plays, he gathered together the lemons he had accrued in life and concocted vast pitchers of lemonade palatable enough for audiences of any age to eagerly ingest. Granted, he may have taken surreptitious swigs from a bottle of fine Southern bourbon under cover of the serving tablecloth, and those who were mature and aware enough to take the unvarnished truth were welcome to join him and consume the undiluted drink he offered for those who could stomach it.

Thank You, Kind Spirit
Emily Arrington in Thank You, Kind Spirit

Williams himself probably realized that some of his work was quite ahead of its time. The playwright, who died in 1983, left behind an incredible legacy which seemed to include every manuscript he had ever written. The sheer quantity of his offerings is formidable indeed — for this was a man who wrote through triumph and tragedy, lean years and great. All of these obscure or even undiscovered works lie safe within the private libraries of various university collections throughout the country.

In the year 2000 – the start of the new millennium – eleven plays by Tennessee Williams were discovered in an archive at the University of Texas at Austin. Although the finished manuscripts had been typed and emended in the author’s own hand, they had never been published or performed.

Though the reasons why these eleven works had never seen the light of day may remain a mystery, it is hardly surprising that so many producers, directors, actors, and dramaturges have eagerly chosen to breathe life into these newly discovered works. Typically, with each new production, a few of these old yet new plays have been debuted, usually as part of other lesser-known Williams one-acts.

Following in this new tradition, director John W. Cooper presents to the New York stage two virtually unknown Williams plays along with three others — all but one written before Williams’s first major work, The Glass Menagerie, galvanized 20th century theater when it opened in Chicago in 1944, and then again in New York in 1946.

With Five by Tenn, Cooper has chosen to premiere Thank You, Kind Spirit (1941) and Why Do You Smoke So Much, Lily? (1935) for their first New York City run, along with three other rarely performed early one-acts: Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let me Listen (1945), Hello From Bertha (1939), and The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (1941). Taken together, this brilliant staging presents a portrait of a young Williams and introduces the enduring themes from which he would later fashion all his major plays. More delightful still, Five by Tenn audiences will encounter the earliest examples of some of the major prototypes which continued to dominate the playwright's later works.

About Elvira Black

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Wow, that was a handful. Nice job! Wish I had time to see this…

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Thanks Jon! It was well worth seeing, but since it’s an Actors Equity-related production they’d have to wait at least a year to try to bring it back–which I hope they do.

    But there’s lots of Williams’ revivals, productions, etc. going on both here and abroad. The Glass Menagerie is playing at London’s West End right now with a stellar cast, so I may catch it this May when I’m in that area.

    This was a real treat for me, since I’d loved Williams ever since I read the Glass Menagerie in high school. And all the film adaptations I’ve seen were great, though I’ve only seen a handful so I’m going to Netflix the rest as some point.

    Also saw one or two Broadway productions years ago–with Treat Williams as Stanley, and I think a second one. Don’t remember who was in the cast, but they were big names and it was immensely enjoyable. How can you go wrong with a play like that? Even a high school production would probably be entertaining in some way (lol).