A house not meant to sta.., p.1
“Tennessee Williams’s last play, A House Not Meant To Stand, reminds me of those last great shocking paintings that Philip Guston produced in the 1970s: grotesque hilarious cartoon figures driving around junkyards in jalopies with overblown tires, dressed in KKK sheets and boots, leaving only putrefaction behind. Williams, who could always hear America’s heart before the rest of us, tapped into the same zeitgeist: a world where the Kowalskis rule, where the Blanches and Almas and Lauras and Hannahs have long since given up the slightest hint of a dream, where they (and we) are truly trapped with the brutes. And the surprise: A House Not Meant to Stand is a ferocious scalding comedy. Tennessee Williams pushed the boundaries right up to the very end.”
A PARTIAL VIEW OF THE STAGE SET FOR THE ORIGINAL GOODMAN THEATRE PRODUCTION DESIGNED BY KAREN SCHULZ
A House Not Meant To Stand
Sources, Notes, and Acknowledgments
Tennessee Williams’s one-act play Some Problems for the Moose Lodge premiered in 1980 at the Goodman Theatre, while I was its artistic director. I had not sought it out; it wouldn’t have occurred to me then that you could call Tennessee Williams to see if he had a new play. In fact, when Gary Tucker, a fixture in the then-nascent Chicago theater scene, rang me up to ask if I’d like to meet America’s most famous living playwright, I assumed it was a practical joke of some sort. But when I arrived at the Pump Room, I spotted the man himself, seated at one end of a wide banquette. I took the remaining place setting, on the other end, while Gary held forth from the middle. I could barely hear Williams, and perhaps this is why, as we ate our fish, the three of us said the same things over and over. Gary: “Tom has a new play, and you have to do it.” Me: “We’d be honored.” TW: “Perhaps Mr. Mosher would like to read the play before deciding.” Me: “We’d be honored to do the play, Mr. Williams.” Gary: “You have to do Tom’s new play.” And so forth.
Not long thereafter this brief comedy opened as part of an all-Williams evening called Tennessee Laughs. After one performance, the playwright Richard Nelson mentioned that Moose Lodge seemed less like a complete one-act than the beginning of something longer. I shared the comment with Williams, the one-acts played out their run, and we all, I thought, moved on to other matters. But a few months later a full-length play, bearing the title A House Not Meant to Stand, arrived in the mail. We reassembled the cast, went back into rehearsal, and opened in the spring of 1981, again with Tucker directing, and again in the 135-seat Goodman Studio Theatre, where David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly would later premiere. Near the end of this run, Williams said he’d like to continue working on the play, and asked me if the Goodman could produce yet another version, with a new director, in the larger theater. We agreed, of course, and incorporated Williams’s rewrites into a final incarnation, which premiered in April 1982 under the direction of André Ernotte.
Twenty-six years later, the play has been published by Tennessee’s beloved New Directions. This delay, and the fact that a fine play by America’s finest dramatist has never had a major follow-on production, are among the strange and sad phenomena of the American theater. A House Not Meant to Stand’s absence from the stage might be attributed to Williams’s executrix, the Lady Maria St. Just, who missed the productions, didn’t like what she read, and effectively embargoed it. But then again, nobody was beating down Maria’s door, and she was hardly alone in skipping the trip to Chicago. For the last few decades of the writer’s life, the consensus was nearly unanimous: Williams was best enjoyed in revivals of the early masterpieces. When it came to new work, the one-time life of the party was no longer on the guest list.
So by 1980, when he arrived in Chicago, where The Glass Menagerie had opened thirty-six years earlier, he was in a tough spot. His Clothes for a Summer Hotel had closed earlier that year after a Broadway run of only fourteen performances, and Williams knew this meant he would no longer be able to attract the collaborators and great gobs of cash necessary to do a play there. The man who signed his letters “En avant!” was not, however, inclined to quit. Williams’s endurance embarrassed many people, including some of those who loved him most. But in a champion’s waning years, the spectator’s discomfiture is, finally, beside the point. The writer, like the prize-fighter, must choose when—or whether—to withdraw. He is the one who runs the lonely pre-dawn miles, and whose blood streams so publicly.
As he reworked, over nearly two years, the script that would become A House Not Meant to Stand, his confidence grew, and with good reason. Replacing a tone of haunting grace with one of gothic savagery, he summoned echoes of The Glass Menagerie, bringing the absent Mr. Wingfield down from his photo as a grinning, tempestuous monster, and transmogrifying a mother’s dreams of gentleman callers into hallucinations of missing children. Best of all, he gave this nightmare a distinctive comic force. But as Williams gradually rediscovered his voice, the esthetic and emotional stakes rose precipitously.
When it started to seem that he might just vanquish the nay-sayers by writing his best play in a good long while, the pressure he felt was nearly intolerable. So I was not surprised to look up from my desk, shortly after we began rehearsals for the play’s third version, to see a very agitated writer standing in the doorway. I invited him to sit, but he declined, and announced that he was leaving for his Key West house. I said I was deeply sorry to hear it, not least because the actors would miss him. He told me he doubted that, because he was withdrawing the play. I pointed out that we had a contract. He started to yell, arriving with astonishing velocity at a lyric I knew to be a Golden Oldie on the Tennessee label: “You are my enemy!” This was an obvious untruth, meant only to provoke, and easy to ignore. But as he stood, robed in his fur coat, more exhausted than exalted in his ferocity, waiting for my response, I suddenly realized his distress must be mixed with wearisome déjà vu. I thought of the colleagues, far more significant than I, who had played this scene with him over the decades, and I was moved beyond measure. Like an ill-prepared understudy, but wanting to be worthy of him, I approached. He regarded my extended arm, the aspect of which was clearly conciliatory, and stepped back. “I don’t like to be touched by my enemies.” He turned to leave, and though I followed him through the backstage corridors, out the front door, and to a waiting car, I found him to be past persuasion. His extended retreat to warmer climes—he did not return to Chicago until the final previews—deprived the actors of an invaluable perspective, not to mention the bracing geniality of his comradeship. Both the production and the script were no doubt diminished by his absence. But one can ask only so much. Williams displayed more than enough courage simply by entrusting his script to people he hardly knew, depending one last time on the kindness of strangers.
The morning after opening night, I went to his hotel to say goodbye and get him to the airport. He was ensconced in the President’s Suite, but because some new VIP was arriving, we had sworn a solemn oath to relinquish it by 9 A.M. I was relieved to find the bags packed. But the playwright was at his desk, a cup of coffee next to his portable typewriter. The reviews—mixed but encouraging and respectful—were spread out in front of him. He was smiling as he typed. I watched for several moments. “Tennessee . . .” I said quietly, “we have to go.” He barely looked up. “Not now, baby, I’m working.”
Outside the hotel, we promised to see each other soon in New York, or Key West, or even New Orleans, where he had once sh
Tennessee Williams was a brave writer, and he gave the American drama, with all due respect to Mr. O’Neill, its bravest body of work. His plays—and the remarkable film versions they engendered—reflected and shaped American culture to a degree unmatched by almost any other American writer, let alone playwright. As you read this play, I think you’ll be glad that he wrote to the very end.
A MISSISSIPPI FUNHOUSE
“I am offering you my Spook Sonata and probably it would astonish Strindberg as much as it does you and me.”
—Tennessee Williams, from draft notes for A House Not Meant to Stand, A Gothic Comedy
Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Moliere, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Kaufman and Hart, Kanin, and Coward wrote comedies. Simon, Feiffer, McNally, Durang, Rudnick, and Ayckbourn write comedies. Did Tennessee Williams write comedies? What is “a comedy” by Tennessee Williams, anyway? Is it like an absurd, satiric, cruel, black, regional or ridiculous comedy by Ionesco, Albee, Orton, Guare, Shepard, Henley or Ludlam? Well . . . not quite.
Of all Williams’s full-length plays only five, maybe six, are generally considered to be comedies: The Rose Tattoo, Period of Adjustment, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, A House Not Meant to Stand, and, maybe, just maybe, Kingdom of Earth. Of these, The Rose Tattoo is the only one commonly understood to be a romantic comedy, and two others the author qualified with subtitles—Period of Adjustment, or High Point Over a Cavern, A Serious Comedy, and A House Not Meant to Stand, A Gothic Comedy. These two plays both take place at Christmastime in imminently collapsing houses and feature two couples, a history of mental health problems, a dog, and a visit from the police—apparently requisite components for comedy.
One reason Williams’s comedies are more difficult to categorize as such is because they are a lot like his dramas. When Williams put two unlikely one-acts—the disturbing The Mutilated and the equally bleak but especially hilarious, The Gnädiges Fräulein—together in 1966 for an evening off-Broadway he titled The Slapstick Tragedy, neither the collective title, nor the plays themselves was a success with the critics or with the public. Any demarcation line within a Williams play that might define it as a comedy is rather fluid—drama and comedy emerge simultaneously from the author’s experience, imagination and subconscious. In this Williams has something in common with Chekhov and Beckett—his humor springs from the futile, lost, violent or desperate lives of the characters. And should you find them funny, well, then, perhaps a nerve has been touched. There are numerous accounts of how during performances of his plays, Williams was liable to suddenly cackle wildly at a serious moment while others in the audience sat confused, wondering what was so funny or who the madman was at the back of the house.
If one’s introduction to Williams is reading his plays, one would not necessarily appreciate the humor played out by Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois, for example, upon their initial meeting in scene one of A Streetcar Named Desire. Once a dramatic tone is established, the humor may be overlooked, but it’s there:
STANLEY: My clothes’re stickin’ to me. Do you mind if I make myself comfortable? [He starts to remove his shirt.]
BLANCHE: Please, please do.
STANLEY: Be comfortable is my motto.
BLANCHE: It’s mine, too. It’s hard to stay looking fresh. I haven’t washed or even powdered my face and—here you are!
On the page the drama dominates, but performance can reveal Williams’s wit, earthiness and comic rhythms. In much of his later work, from the 1960s and 1970s, the humor becomes broad—slapstick, grotesque, the Grand Guignol—and even reads like comedy. Williams was just as prolific in the last twenty-four years of his life as he had been in the previous twenty four: in the forty-eight years from 1935 to 1983 he completed at least thirty-three full-length plays and at least seventy one-acts. Williams had no way of knowing that his last fully-realized play would be full-length, that in it he would return to his Mississippi roots, that it would be a comedy, or that it would premiere in Chicago nine months before his death.
Tennessee Williams’s connection to Chicago is profound—The Glass Menagerie, produced there in December of 1944 and A House Not Meant to Stand produced there in May of 1982, turned out to be the bookends of his long career in the professional theater. The analogy is imperfect: Battle of Angels closed after the first week of its out-of-town Boston tryout in 1940, and a work in progress called Gideon’s Point was performed at the Williamstown Theater Festival in August of 1982. However, the thematic connections between the The Glass Menagerie and A House Not Meant to Stand, and the importance of their productions to Williams’s artistic life, are striking.
When The Glass Menagerie opened in the middle of a blizzard, critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens, along with several other local reviewers and columnists, pushed, wrote, cajoled, and rallied the public until audiences grew large enough to sustain the production for a transfer to Broadway, where the play brought Williams success of an enormity he had not fully expected. In her first review of The Glass Menagerie, Cassidy wrote that the play “holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success. If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping, and you are caught in its spell.” With Menagerie, Williams opened the door to a new kind of American theater in which common speech reached lyric heights and realism was present only when necessary, and he put a dysfunctional (as it would now be understood) American family under a microscope. And no matter how tender the beauty or tensile the fever of this play, the sense that at its nucleus it was and is Williams’s own story can never be avoided.
Claudia Cassidy was also present when the final version of A House Not Meant to Stand opened in the spring of 1982, and reviewed the play on WFMT radio. Fully aware of the author’s triumphs and misfortunes over his four-decade career, Cassidy found herself witness to a much darker creation. Referring to Williams’s use of the word “Gothic” to describe his play, Cassidy said:
“If we take the term in the sense of the mysterious, the grotesque, and the desolate, then A House Not Meant to Stand is a gothic structure, and Southern gothic at that. But it is Tennessee Williams’s Southern gothic and it is shrewd as well as bitter, often sharply, acridly funny as well as sad . . . a rotting house . . . as on the edge of an abyss, a kind of metaphor for the human condition inside. . . . [The play] is indeed mysterious, grotesque and desolate but whoever said that theater is none of those things? There is here the acute compassion Tennessee Williams has always had for the victims of the world we live in.”
Williams’s subtitle, A Gothic Comedy, is significant, as is the reference in his stage directions to Strindberg’s The Spook Sonata (as the title is sometimes translated, or The Ghost Sonata, as it is commonly known). By the end of The Ghost Sonata, a young student realizes not only that many members of the Stockholm family he has been visiting are dead, but that they are all, including himself, in a kind of hell. Most of the members of the Pascagoula, Mississippi family are alive, but Cornelius and Bella McCorkle are dying, their house is crumbling around them and their children are deceased, or hospitalized, or perpetually unemployed. The McCorkles refer to the disposition of people as “living remains”—theirs is a house haunted by its living inhabitants and their pasts. Bella is so attuned to her grief that apparitions appear to her—she hears the sounds of children playing, representations of her offspring from a past that may well have been for her as idyllic and full of love as she remembers it. These specters and supernatural voices are not spooks in the way Strindberg would have used them, nor are they like Williams’s ghosts in Clothes for a Summ
A comedy? Well it begins with rhythm, and the rhythms of this comedy are peculiar. No matter how slow, decrepit, or traumatized they may be, the characters in this play rarely seem to stop moving. There is an overarching sweep that involves dozens of entrances and exits for Bella and her son, Charlie, and most of the characters are engaged in a persistent sitting and standing, coming and going, pausing and starting, that continues to the final moments of the play, but is rarely swift. While A House Not Meant to Stand is not a farce, its rhythms are almost those of a farce in slow motion. Perhaps it would be helpful, if not entirely accurate, to call it a “Mississippi farce.” The dialogue is not paced for fast laughs, but ambles with intermittent jolts of energy, often spoken directly to the audience. Cornelius confides in the audience, looks to them for moral support, or turns to them in frustration as when Charlie finds his father’s plan to run for Congress laughable and Cornelius shouts suddenly at the audience, “WAR! IMPERIALIST AGGRESSION AND YOU KNOW IT, THAT’S RIGHT, ALL OF YOU KNOW IT!—SUCKERS . . .” Four times, twice in each act, the action shifts to a higher gear: when Emerson is taken away, when Bella runs out of the house and onto the highway, when Stacey speaks in tongues, and when the police take Cornelius and Charlie away in a squad car. The transitions are often abrupt and complement the stream-of-consciousness madness in the house.
A comedy. Williams let his fear of madness run rampant through these characters. Cornelius wants to have Bella committed because she is “gone in the head,” but even as she functions in a haze between the past and the present—trying to secure the Dancie money for her children Charlie and Joanie—she has moments of dazzling clarity. When Bella outfoxes Cornelius’ attempt to confront her about the location of the hidden Dancie money, she is positively skillful. Emerson, likewise declared mentally unstable by his spouse, Jessie, seems rational enough: “There’s too much putting away of old and worn out people. Death will do it for all. So why take premature action?” And yet, Emerson’s compulsive sexual fixation, ignited when he meets Charlie’s sexy and fantastically pregnant fiancée, causes him to shake uncontrollably. The scene in which “the men in the white coats” take Emerson away is breathlessly cruel, and shows a malevolent streak in Cornelius.
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