Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Street Car Named Desire

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A play, Tennessee Williams believed, was not necessarily complete when he delivered the text to a director and cast - nor did subsequent publication of it mean that he had finished the task. His works often continued to expand in his mind long after the premiere; years later, re-evaluations and revisions were often incorporated for new productions. This self-imposed sense of perpetual esthetic refinement became a habit as Williams typically refurbished many of his favorite plays. This is very much the case with Sweet Bird of Youth, a work very close to his heart.

The play began to take shape in Williams mind in 1948, as rough scenes for something he called The Big Time Operators. But then, as so often with the major plays, he put it aside - in this case, until the fall of 1955, after the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He hoped to work on Operators full-time with Elia Kazan, but the director was hammering out the problems of fashioning the film script for Baby Doll, based on two Williams one act plays, 7 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Unsatisfactory Supper. Then, in January 1956, George Keathley, founder of a theatre in Coral Gables called the Studio M Playhouse, asked Williams if there might be a new work for him to present.

The playwright responded by sending a very short work called The Enemy Time, about a young gigolo who wonders about with a restless, retired movie queen. The gigolo returns to his hometown, where he learns that his former girlfriend has become permanently infertile, after contracting a venereal disease from him years earlier. At the finale, the gigolo is savagely beaten by the girls brother.

This brief tragedy Williams then transformed into Sweet Bird of Youth. Calling it a work in progress and an examination of what is really corrupt in life, Williams attended the Florida opening on April 16th, 1956; Margrit Wyler and Allen Mixon headed the cast. This first stage version depressed and upset many playgoers because of its lead characters, the grotesquely self-destructive middle-aged actress Alexandra Del Lago, who, in a triumph of folie de grandeur, travels as the Princess Kosmonopolis. Shes a creature soaked in vanity, wrapped in illusions and dependent on vodka and drugs, and she fills up empty hours with an equally selfish, venal young lover, Chance Wayne.

Williams made no secret for the basis of this woman she was at least partly inspired, he said, by Tallulah Bankhead; indeed, the revisions he gave Keathley reflected what Williams learned from Bankhead herself, from her friends and employees. In 1951, for example, Bankheads secretary claimed that she had been ordered to buy drugs, liquor and male prostitutes for the actress.

By autumn 1958, in a rush of activity, Williams completed a longer draft of Sweet Bird of Youth. But shocking theatrical elements did not, of themselves, make a coherent (much less a compelling) work for the stage, and in this regard one cannot overestimate the contributions to the New York production made by Elia Kazan, working with the encouragement of producer Cheryl Crawford.

Williams drafts were so rough at this time, recalled Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who was preparing to film Suddenly Last Summer), that they had been turned into playable dramas. This Kazan accomplished. Tennessee gave him the softness, the malleable material of the work, and Kazan, like a truffle-dog, sniffed out the violence and brought it into the open. He peppered the work. (Kazan had also directed A Street Car Named Desire, Camino Real, and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.) The play was also healthily seasoned by a brilliant New York cast, led by Geraldine Page (who had appeared in a production of Terrence Rattigans Separate Tables as an anxious fading model) and Paul Newman (who had appeared on Broadway in Picnic and The Desperate Hours).

Despite his battle with personal demons at this time, Williams was (per Kazan) as fine to work with as he had been on other plays. He was never difficult, never falsely critical, always generous. He worked every day, he brought in new material for rehearsals every afternoon. He was really in adorable man to work with, and I loved and respected him enormously. The cast recognized that the respect was mutual Kazan was a wonderful influence on Williams, said Geraldine Page. He worked so hard with him. The task was daunting, for Kazan and Williams were blending two separate works the first and third acts of sweet bird of youth came from the enemy time, while the chance Wayne episodes were newly created for act two.

After Philadelphia previews, the play opened on March 10, 1955, at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York. It became, as everyone involved anticipated, one of the sensations of the season, for drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, venereal disease, racism and castration were not routinely the stuff of American Theatre in the Eisenhower years.

Only a few critics responded favorably; audiences however, were fascinated by the latest of Williams fading, tenacious women and dangerously appealing man, characters clearly related to their dramatic predecessors Blanche and Stanley (in Streetcar), Lady and Val (Orpheus Descending), Serafina and Alvaro (The Rose Tattoo) and Karen Stone and Paolo (in Williamss novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone). Sweet Bird of Youth ran for almost a year, and film rights were instantly snapped up. (Fortunately, Page and Newman repeated their roles on-screen, although director Richard Brooks had to tone down a good bit of the plays force.)

Considered 40 years later as part of Tennessee Williamss complex late development, Sweet Bird of Youth can certainly be regarded (along with Suddenly Last Summer) as a prime example of his continued tendency for art-as-confession very much in the play reflects his own haunted life.

But like his very best work, of which there is so much, sweet Bird of youth must be taken on its own fearless terms, for with considerable dramatic excitement and utterly without compromise, it presents characters and situations that are as much metaphors for political and social decay as they are markers of personal decadence. This deeper level makes the play endlessly stimulating theatre. Contrary to the handwringing of some critics in 1955, audiences know better. Sweet Bird of Youth continues to soar.

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