Friday, November 12, 2010

Tennessee Williams, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant.

Had a read yesterday for A House Not Meant to Stand, Tennessee Williams' last full-length play before he died.  I don't know that play.  I believe Gregory Moser did it at The Goodman in 83 right after Williams died, if I'm not mistaken.  In any event, it was a quick audition, very nice folks over at The Fountain Theater.  I, for whatever reason, have picked up a couple of books on Williams lately.  They are interesting in the sense that they give a glimpse into what it was like to be a successful playwright in the forties and fifties.  The times have changed.  Williams was a bona fide celebrity due to his writing in those days.  One of the books I'm reading is 'Memoirs' by Williams himself.  He was 61 and still eleven years from his death when it was written, although he was a lifelong hypochondriac and was convinced he was dying even as he wrote the book.  The book makes clear one thing at least: his last great play was 'Night of the Iguana' in 61 and Williams spent the next 22 years chasing another great play.  He never wrote one.  Oh, he wrote plays, just not good ones.  His reason for this is interesting.  He claims he wrote at the genius level (1937 to approximately 1960) only when he was desperate.  Desperate in love, in life, in his art.  I'm not so sure about that.  Having read nearly everything he's written, I think he just ran out of stories.  Also I think socially, we caught up with him and he no longer had the ability to shock.  Many, if not all, of his work in that period dealt with issues too sensitive to have a public forum.  Consequently, Streetcar, Cat, Rose Tatoo, even Iguana became antiquated.  And they became that way very quickly because society, Broadway in particular, was loosening up at an alarming pace.  How could Tennessee Williams and his subtle allusions to questionable sexuality possibly hope to compete with, say, Bent or Virginia Woolf?  In addition I think his addictions caught up with him.  Having done a little addictive drinking myself back in the day, I can say from experience that drinking and writing (when done at the same time, that is) don't compliment one another over the long run.  Now, this is not to say he didn't write some masterpieces.  Cat, Streetcar and especially Menagerie are all great, sometimes brilliant, plays.  His personal favorite, oddly enough, is Summer and Smoke.  I did that play in D.C. some years back.  It's not a great play.  It has moments of great writing, but it is not a great play.  But I honestly believe Menagerie and Streetcar ARE great plays.  I've done both.  Menagerie twice.  Cat has all the elements of being a great play and the reason it does is the one thing Williams didn't like about it.  In the time it was written, Williams couldn't write openly yet about Brick's sexuality.  He hated that.  And yet, that is the strongest aspect of the play.  After reading 'Memoirs' another thing becomes apparent, too.  Williams, being a sexual creature at heart, was far more interested in his next 'encounter' than he was in writing the next great American play.  This can be the death of a writer, artistically speaking.  It certainly was for Williams, I think.  There is an energy, a driving force, if you will, behind a writer's work if he's not satisfied on a personal level.  Because of the puritanical times, Williams was clearly not satisfied with his love life.  Consequently there is a trapped and caged quality to his writing as that plays out in his psyche.  Once that quality is no longer there, he simply becomes another writer describing it.  Now, Menagerie is a different story altogether. I think it follows Hemingway's rule that everyone has one great novel or play in them and that is one's life story.  Menagerie is Tennessee Williams' thinly disguised life story on stage.  And it is riveting.  Beautiful, haunted, angry, rageful writing veiled in poetry and southern manners.  I'd give a lot to go back and see Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in that play.  She must have been luminous.

Gore Vidal once said something interesting about Tennessee Williams.  He said, "His genius is not in his writing, but in his sense of being violated."  I think there's a lot to that.  After 1960 or so, Williams no longer felt 'violated.'

So...thus concludes my master class on Tennessee Williams.  Sorry.

I have been feverishly working on the music to The Adding Machine these past couple of days.  Again, this is simply brilliant stuff.  Josh Schmidt has written a masterpiece of the modern theater.  Everytime I work on it I'm stunned all over again at how good it is.  And I'm here to tell you, this is hard shit.  Although not a musical theater kind of guy, really, even though I've done about 60 musicals or so, I do have a sense of this kind of thing.  But this.  This is really tough stuff.  I'll be working on it all day.

I have a very interesting television read tomorrow.  It's for National Geographic, of all things.  More on that as it develops.

And finally, Angie and I Netflixed 'North by Northwest' a couple of nights ago.  Angie had never seen it, oddly.  And I'm here to happily report it's as good as I remember it.  Hitchcock was amazing.  Simply amazing.  And Cary Grant...well, after seeing it again after many years, I was once again reminded why Cary Grant was a great movie star.  Nobody did Cary Grant like Cary Grant.  He's just such a joy to watch.  The very definition of 'effortless.'

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to refill my coffee, plug in my headphones, and get back to work.

See you tomorrow.

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