By Vicki Weisfeld
What do you think of when you think about the man many critics believe is one of America’s three greatest 20th century playwrights, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller? Other than thinking that’s a good way to start an argument, as I can hear you saying, “What about August Wilson?” “What about Sam Shepard?” “What about . . . ?” So, forget “one of the three” and just say, “one of the greatest.”
Probably you instantly call to mind several of his best-known plays. Maybe you think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. With further thought, you probably come up with The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth. Oh, and Night of the Iguana. And . . .
Go ahead, Google him, and you’ll find the sheer number of famous plays he wrote is remarkable. And the best-known ones may not even be the best plays. Like great artists in many fields—painting, music—sometimes he’s ahead of the rest of us. Two hundred years ago, audiences gave Beethoven a cool reception too.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Book Club is conducting a six-week Zoom course on Tennessee Williams and his plays, led by STNJ artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte. The predominant reason the forty-plus (number, not age) students signed on was to learn more about this author, of course. That’s a more interesting reason than it sounds, given how well known many of his plays are.
Several students commented on productions of his works they’d seen decades ago that they still remember well. I recall STNJ’s powerful 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. At the end, the audience was momentarily too stunned to applaud, and the leads (Laila Robins as Blanche and Nisi Sturgis as Stella) looked as though they might weep through the curtain call.
Monte had a particular exposure to Williams while she was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in its 1982 season. The festival’s artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos planned a production of excerpts from the plays, billed as Tennessee Williams: A Celebration. Monte put the show together, and Williams was pleased with the result.
Not so Hollywood’s treatment of his work. Endings have been changed, material excised, and portrayals skewed, so if the versions you’re most familiar with are Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives in Cat or Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, and Deborah Kerr in Iguana, or Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster in Tattoo, you’ve missed the real Williams. Of course, with casts like those, the films were bound to be memorable! All the worse, Williams must have thought.
My interest in Williams was sparked by a personal encounter too. I attended the 1980 Kennedy Center premiere of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, his play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and during intermission, I saw Williams standing alone, leaning against a wall, not eight feet from me. Thrilled, I turned around to tell my husband and bumped into Elizabeth Taylor. Alas, those moments are what I most remember about the play, which was not a critical success. Still waiting for me to catch up, perhaps.