"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tennessee Williams–Period of Adjustment, Night of the Iguana, Suddenly Last Summer


I never thought I would like the later years of Williams (1957-80), perhaps retaining the memories of those years when his plays were indifferently reviewed or panned or closed after a few performances; but now in my more patient years, I am re-reading and enjoying them….Not all…I really did not like The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More or Out Cry, an expressionistic avant garde play that Williams considered his best work since Streetcar but nobody else likedbut loved The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (the revision of Summer and Smoke which Williams preferred but did not get to the theatre company in London in time for the opening of Summer), Sweet Bird of Youth which is one of my repertory movies (in my DVD collection which I play over and over).

I liked Period of Adjustment which reminded me a bit of a Shakespeare comedy, some of David Mamet, Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), and a lot of the classic Tennessee Williams, although it, too, got mediocre reviews.  It reminded me of Shakespeare (the serious comedies….Williams formally called this play “A Serious Comedy”) because despite all the fractured relationships, psychological dramas, and family disputes, all’s well that end’s well – the happy reuniting of Isabel and George and Ralph and Dotty.

I liked the play because of the “old” Williams’ themes.  Dorothea was “psychologically frigid”, George had the shakes because of sexual insecurity, Ralph was passionate but frustrated.  Isabel was – like many of Williams’ heroines – frustrated because of her prudish and domineering father. 

I liked the infighting between couples – a la Albee – the quick dialogue between war buddies and relatives (Mamet) – and found the happy ending just what the play needed, since none of the more serious and sinister relationships were ever explored as they were in his earlier plays. 

I did not like Night of the Iguana any more than when I saw its premiere on Broadway in the Sixties.  I remember saying to my friend that I wished they would cut the curtain down instead of the bloody iguana.  Shannon is an unattractive drunk, mentally loose and very needy, but I felt none of the sympathy I felt for other similar characters in Williams’ work.  He was antipathetic – deliberately boorish and insulting, dwelling on and living in his pessimistic, cynical mire.  I felt no affinity with either Maxine or Hannah; the latter considering existential issues without feeling and the former simply a vehicle for the movement of the play.

I recently saw the Maggie Smith/Natasha Richardson performance of Suddenly Last Summer and felt that this was a perfect example of how a play should not only be read, but seen (Harold Bloom always commented that he never wanted to see Lear – the actors only ruined a perfectly good play).  The performances of Smith and Richardson were perfect.  Smith embodies Mrs. Venable, IS Mrs. Venable in her desperate, complete, domineering love and possession of her son, Sebastian.  She is the ur-Mother that Williams writes about, the reprise of Amanda in Menagerie (although Amanda is not as selfish, egotistical, and self serving).  Richardson is excellent in exfoliating the layers of the plot.  The setting, with the tropical garden, birds, and sultriness exactly what Williams wanted.

The denouement, the cannibalism of poor Sebastian is a bit melodramatic, but remember – this is Tennessee Williams.  The prior soliloquy of Mrs. Venable about the carnage of the sea turtles is beautiful, sensitive, romantic – quintessential Williams – and it presages the gruesome death of Sebastian. 

I still have a few plays to go in the late Williams – Orpheus Descending, Small Craft Warnings, The Mutilated, and Le Vieux Carre, so let’s see……

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