Tennessee Williams in Provincetown

9781601824219aTennessee Williams in Provincetown is the story of Tennessee Williams’ four summer seasons in Provincetown, Massachusetts: 1940, ’41, ’44 and ’47. During that time he wrote plays, short stories, and jewel-like poems. In Provincetown Williams fell in love unguardedly for perhaps the only time in his life. He had his heart broken there, perhaps irreparably. The man he thought might replace his first lover tried to kill him there, or at least Williams thought so. Williams drank in Provincetown, he swam there, and he took conga lessons there. He was poor and then rich there; he was photographed naked and clothed there. He was unknown and then famous–and throughout it all Williams wrote every morning. The list of plays Williams worked on in Provincetown include The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, the beginnings of The Night of the Iguana and Suddenly Last Summer, and an abandoned autobiographical play set in Provincetown, The Parade. Tennessee Williams in Provincetown collects original interviews, journals, letters, photographs, accounts from previous biographies, newspapers from the period, and Williams’ own writing to establish how the time Williams spent in Provincetown shaped him for the rest of his life. The book identifies major themes in Williams’ work that derive from his experience in Provincetown, in particular the necessity of recollection given the short season of love. The book also connects Williams mature theatrical experiments to his early friendships with Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner and the German performance artist Valeska Gert. Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, based on several years of extensive research and interviews, includes previously unpublished photographs, previously unpublished poetry, and anecdotes by those who were there.

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale Hong Kong 2003

Tennessee Williams’ Alma, in love since childhood with the boy next door.

Eccentricites Bobbie with cig and Fai

In an interview given in 1972, Williams said “I think the character I like most is Miss Alma … You see, Alma went through the same thing that I went through – from puritanical shackles to, well, complete profligacy.”

The Hong Kong Repertory Theatre has, for 37 years, presented a varied program of Western classics, modern Asian drama, and historic Asian literature all performed in Cantonese.  The Hong Kong Rep Eccentricities  rehearsed and performed during the SARS epidemic. It was nominated for several awards for acting and design.

“Shine on Harvest Moon” began each performance, one of many period American songs sung in Cantonese. The townspeople first appeared as shadows, in later scenes they projected shadows.

King Lear Tashkent, Uzbekistan 1997

A Sufi interpretation of Shakespeare’s text

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan. The Uzbeks are the descendents of Chinggis Khan who converted to Islam in the 1300’s. In the deserts of this country the Mongolian shaman was absorbed into the role of the dervish, and the shaman’s ecstatic flight transformed to a whirling dance: the way of the Sufi.

The Sufi path is from death to death. King Lear read in the Sufi way exacts a series of punishments on its heroes if they are to ascend. When we think they have suffered enough, when we think they have died, or deserve to die as a mercy, then there is, of necessity, more pain.

Read more.Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet, wrote verses in 1250 that parallel the imagery of Shakespeare’s Lear. Coleman Barks translates it :

The hard rain and wind
are ways the cloud has
to take care of you.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
We weep God’s rain,
We laugh God’s lightning.

There is a Sufi idea that life has seven stages, similar
to the idea from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

One man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

A Sufi vision can spy seven souls for Lear in the text. Did Shakespeare know about Sufism? No, never – maybe. because some people in Shakespeare’s time did know. Persian Sufi poetry was known, its ideas transmuted through the filter of the Crusades. Other ideas from Central Asia had been absorbed into European culture without attribution in such disparate phenomena as eyeliner, court jesters, and monasteries. Idries Shah, who wrote the first modern book about Sufism claims it is the secret source for things as English as the Order of the Garter and Morris (from Moorish) Dancing. Is Shakespeare thinking of Rumi? Is Rumi thinking of some yet more ancient wisdom? When a modern day psychologist speaks of seven stages of development, is he thinking of Shakespeare? Or is a journey of seven stages a convincing model of life, and the source for the idea is neither England, nor Vienna, nor Tashkent, but the human condition?

King Lear is one of the defining texts of a European drama culturally specific in its Greek origins. We recognize today that ancient Greece was itself a mixture of Asian and African and European cultures. Staging classic plays in unexpected places tries to locate this collision course of cultures onstage. Lear’s central images: an old man lost in a storm, a daughter wronged by her father, will resonate with audiences as long as there are storms and old men and fathers. As Ezra Pound wrote, that is what it means to be a classic: forever fresh.

Uzbekistan is also the land of the ancient Silk Road. As a post-Soviet independent nation the manufacture and wearing of silk is a part of national identity. The scenery for the production was all silk, including a forty foot square sheet of silk that was waved to create the storm scene. The extraordinary costumes and jewelry are from the period of Tamurlane, the same Tamurlane written about by Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporary Christopher Marlowe.

The production was recorded and televised on Uzbek television. Photographs above are from the storm scene. Photographs below: Regan and Goneril facing off.

 

 

The Day on Which a Man Dies Chicago 2007, Chicago, East Hampton, Provincetown 2009

Tennessee Williams’ meditation on the death of Jackson PollockDay on Which a Man Dies - McGowan

The Day on Which a Man Dies was written by Tennessee Williams at the height of his public success (1957-59) and kept by the author in reserve. The action in the text is a lover’s quarrel. The main characters are The Man, an acclaimed painter now mocked for his new technique of applying paint with spray-guns; The Woman, the painter’s sharp-tongued companion for eleven years, who has lost faith in him and in his work. The couple argue violently, make up, make love, and betray each other. The Man’s suicide follows soon after. The ceremony of dying has him crashing and crawling through increasingly larger paper screens on which the Woman’s body has been painted. Photo montage by Michael McGowan from the 2009 version with Jeff Christian. Photo below by Johnny Knight of Steve Key, who created the role. See also the 2016 production with Marcel Meyer.

Read more.
Williams subtitled the text An Occidental Noh Play. Noh plays are ghost plays, and the ghost evoked in Williams’ play is Jackson Pollock, who had befriended Williams in 1940. Pollock’s pursuit of new forms beyond the safety of convention represented for Williams a stage-worthy image of a romantic artist – writer or painter – damned for pursuing his visions. Yukio Mishima, the Japanese author of voluptuous excess and precision, also haunts the text. It was Mishima’s “modern Noh plays” and a 1959 visit by Williams to Mishima in Tokyo that lent the playwright a dramatic form with which to embody self-willed damnation. For The Day on Which a Man Dies Williams created a third role – a wry Mishima stand-in – who reflects on sex as power while explaining how Japanese and Western suicides differ, subjects that fascinated Mishima. A shape-shifting stage servant completes the cast, whose role of self-effacing enabler is taken from the conventions of Kabuki.

In David Kaplan’s definitive production, first shown in Chicago in 2007, the scenery is made entirely of paper that is crushed, rattled, cut with a knife, ripped, soaked, spattered, and sprayed with paint. As per Williams intentions, paintings are created and destroyed in the course of the performance.  The bodies of the actors are painted. A progression of color specified by Williams for costumes, scenery and props organizes the meanings of every aspect of the text: story, characters, and the structure of the play. Continue reading → 

Auntie Mame Penza, Russia 1995

Life’s banquet, in its Russian premiere.

Mame Nora Young PatrickIn the Russian/English dictionary the English word “sophisticated” is defined in Russian as “perverted.” Let that stand for the difficulties of translating Auntie Mame into Russian, done admirably by Lyuba Filimonovna of Samara.

What did the audience make of it?

Oh, they admired Mame, audibly cooed over her clothes and enjoyed her indestructibility. They laughed at the stuck-up debutante and at the overly formal banker.

It was the dowdy stenographer, Gooch, who they loved, Gooch who was the audience’s bridge, their representative to this loud fast very American world. She too, like them, climbing doubtfully up the Art Deco stairs.

mame---gooch-on-a-date

 

 

 

 

It’s small, but Penza appears twice in Russian theatre history. It’s the birth place of the great director Meyerhold. There’s a Meyerhold Museum in town. The town boasts the second oldest theater company in Russia, more than 200 years old. The first actors were serfs.

Man = Man East Harlem 1989

 

Mr. Bertolt Brecht, 
He says that you can

Take apart a man
And make another man.
How could you do that?
How could that be?
To take another man
And turn him into me?
Can a man be planned
like a brand new car?
Stand him on his head,
Take away his heart?
A re-arranger from
Friend to stranger:
To take a peaceful man
And make him
Full of danger?

Brecht’s story in rap lyrics and improvised scenes performed on the roof of The Boy’s Club of America
at East 111th St and 1st Avenue, NYC

Suddenly Last Summer Samara, Russia 1993

The Russian language premiere of Tennessee Williams’ play about the suppression of truth.

Samara, 550 miles southeast of Moscow, with a population of three million, was chosen by translator Vitaly Vulf because of its great leading lady, Vera Alexandrovna Yeshova. She is famous for portraits of evil queens. Vulf‘s advice: “Yeshova will play the domineering mother very sexually. You must begin every rehearsal telling her how beautiful she is that day.”

It was easy to do. Yeshova was beautiful every day. The photograph right captures her bemusement when asked “But if I disagreed with you?”

Read more.
The first question at the first press conference:

“Do you think a Russian public will understand the controversial, nature of the text?”

“Do you mean the controversial nature of homosexuality?”

“Yes,” said the reporter all too eagerly. “Do you think our audience will understand that?”

The reply: “Well, in this play Tennessee Williams uses homosexuality as a metaphor for a truth everybody knows, but no one will admit to knowing. I think a Soviet audience will understand that.”

The set was designed as an exotic garden with shifting shadows of rotting leaves and blasted flowers. Crushed stones on the floor crackled when the actors walked across. The production was well-received. Critics came from Moscow. TASS shot a documentary. 


An understanding of the themes and how to stage Tennessee Williams we have never seen on our stage before … like the eruption of Vesuvius
Samara Kultura
 

The Cherry Orchard Los Angeles 1987

Anita Dangler was delicious playing Renevskaya as a tottering confection, a hot house orchid from Paris wilting in the Russian countryside. In the photograph Renevskaya listens as her step-daughter, Varya, claims if she had a hundred rubles she’d enter a convent.