The magic tower and othe.., p.1
The Magic Tower and Other One-Act Plays, p.1
THE MAGIC TOWER AND OTHER ONE-ACT PLAYS
“Just as young painters make their stabs at impressionism and cubism, in his early one-acts Williams tried his hand with political satire, expressionism, social realism, and even drawing-room comedy.”
—Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson
“Within his early one-acts there are intriguing prototypes of characters and seeds of ideas Williams developed more fully in his later, larger dramas.”
—The New York Times
“Williams was always confronting the future; a shaman with a typewriter, he dug into the darkest depths of the American psyche in search of dramatic truths.”
—Randy Gener, American Theater Magazine
“The peak of my virtuosity was in the one-act plays. Some of which are like firecrackers in a rope.”
—Tennessee Williams in a 1950 letter to Elia Kazan
“Reading these plays of the very young Tennessee, then of the successful Tennessee Williams, and finally of the troubled man of the 1970s he had become, we are offered a panoramic yet detailed view of the themes, the demons, and the wit of this iconic playwright.”
—Terrence McNally, from his foreword, “An Invisible Cat Enters, Mewing”
Foreword by Terrence McNally
The Magic Tower
Curtains for the Gentleman
In Our Profession
Every Twenty Minutes
Honor the Living
The Case of the Crushed Petunias
Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry
The Dark Room
The Pretty Trap
Kingdom of Earth
I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays
Some Problems for The Moose Lodge
Notes on the Text
AN INVISIBLE CAT ENTERS, MEWING
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, I used to stare across the Gulf of Mexico in what I thought was the direction of Key West, Florida. I knew that Tennessee Williams lived there and I had decided, in high school, that one day I would live there, too. Some fifty-plus years later I do. The house he lived in is a five-minute bike ride from mine.
And now I sit contemplating some fifteen plays previously unknown to me—seven never before published and the rest not always easy to find—and wondering what I should tell you about them. Perhaps he would not be pleased at their publication. These short plays do not always represent him at his considerable best. As a writer, I get that. A reputation is at stake.
But as a playwright who reveres his work, I am overjoyed at their arrival on my desk. As Mendy says in my play The Lisbon Traviata about an unpublished recording of Maria Callas in less than her optimal voice, “I’ll take crumbs when it comes to Maria.” I feel the same way about Tennessee Williams.
Artists, especially esteemed ones like Tennessee Williams, leave behind a more or less official canon of work. There are the universally recognized masterpieces—The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire—that are produced annually as part of the core repertory of the American Theater, taught in universities and read by people who have never been inside a theater.
There are the plays jockeying for their position in the Williams hierarchy—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of The Iguana—plays still waiting for the definitive production or radical re-interpretation that will reveal them as the equals of Menagerie or Streetcar.
There are the plays we are always intrigued to see in revival, knowing they may never achieve the popularity of the better-known titles—Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, and Orpheus Descending—plays we are always grateful to see and grow frustrated waiting to see again.
And finally there are the mostly ignored Williams plays that we personally cherish as something rare and precious in the canon and wonder why more people don’t—Vieux Carré and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel are my candidates for another look by the right director, cast, and designers.
And now there are these almost completely unknown Williams one-act plays gathered as The Magic Tower and Other One-Act Plays.
Written between 1936, when he was a student in St. Louis just beginning to write plays, and 1980, three years before his death, when his fall from critical grace seemed all but complete, these fifteen short plays—some complete and begging for production while others are tantalizing fragments of what might have been or misfires that are sui-generis, but all authentic Williams nevertheless—are invaluable. Even if they add nothing to his reputation, they add to our knowledge of this fascinating chameleon of a playwright. Any new glimpse of Williams is one to be grateful for.
It is tempting to say that “It’s all there, the Williams cosmos” in these fifteen plays. It is and it’s not.
It can never be “all there,” of course, when talking about a writer of genius. Good plays are not that neat. But reading these plays of the very young Tennessee, then of the successful Tennessee Williams, and finally of the troubled man of the 1970s he had become, we are offered a panoramic yet detailed view of the themes, the demons, and the wit of this iconic playwright.
For example, we have an embryonic Glass Menagerie in The Pretty Trap, “a comedy in one-act,” written between 1943 and 1944. The Wingfields and the Gentleman Caller are there and so is the central event of the full-length “memory play” soon to follow. What is most striking about this version of their story (Williams reworked the story of Amanda and her two children, many times, even as a film script) is the absence of the framing device of the play—Tom’s narratives and his extraordinary language, which opens the doorway to the extraordinary language of the play and the extraordinary language of his mother and of his sister and the Gentleman Caller as well. But in this early version, Tom is the least interesting character in the quartet, easily upstaged by his own family and their visitor. Until he found Tom Wingfield’s voice, Williams seems not to have completely found his own.
There are traces of it, to be sure, in the plays written in the 1930s but for the most part the dialogue is more workmanlike than inspired. Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry (1936) is written by a young playwright who clearly knows his O’Neill. And yet, in the stage directions, there are traces of the Williams who would soon stand up and take his place apart from the other Broadway playwrights he often set out to emulate. The Moony’s kitchen is “eloquent of slovenly housekeeping” and his wife is “like a tiny mandarin, enveloped in the ruins of a once gorgeously-flowered Japanese silk kimono.” Felicities like these abound in these plays of the ’30s. Their suddenness amidst the ordinariness of the rest of the text is breathtaking. Just when you’re thinking, “When does he become Tennessee Williams?” he does precisely that—right in front of your eyes. Almost every one of the plays from this period has a moment that is gloriously prescient of the artist to come. Reading these plays you will be present at the creation of a writer.
The familiar themes of Williams’s mature plays are all to be found here: a brutal environment destroying the individual; the desire for respite from battering circumstances; the strong pull of carnality as it trumps resolution time after time; the unbearable loneliness of the individual who cannot find love in a crass, capitalistic world; the sudden moments of a little happiness and even grace that keep a person going.
Reading these plays, I was reminded how much time the young Williams, like Tom Wingfield, spent at the movies. One could write a paper on the influence of Warner Bros. crime and prison melodramas on the aspiring playwright. Fortunately, he grew out of them. The hysterical politics of Me, Vashya do not return until The Red Devil Battery Sign in 1975. The seeds for political commentary were always there but perhaps wisely Williams left the field to his peer, Arthur Miller.
It is the three plays belonging to the 1940s, and one from 1939, that present the Williams we are most familiar with. Besides the Menagerie pencil-sketch of The Pretty Trap, we can see a very preliminary, very successful character study for Serafina in The Rose Tattoo as Mrs. Pocciotti in The Dark Room (1939). The playwright is clearly in love with his fractured-English-speaking immigrant. She leaps off the page as swiftly and completely as she will in her full-length incarnation eleven years later. Williams enjoyed writing with famous actresses in mind. The Case of the Crushed Petunias (1941) is “respectfully dedicated to the talent and charm of Miss Helen Hayes,” and Miss Dorothy Simple is a part a charming and talented actress could have a triumph with. One wonders if Miss Hayes ever read it. In this play, the nameless Young Man is the harbinger of life. Twenty years later the Young Man in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963) will become the Angel of Death.
In the last play of this 1940s trio, Interior: Panic (1946), Blanche Shannon is no one else but Blanche DuBois. The situation is familiar, the cramped quarters in New Orleans with her sister and her husband, and Blanche’s desperation and need for rescue by her own “gentleman caller” are all there, but this time there is hope at the end, faint yet surely there, for Blanche.
The full force of Stanley Kowalski is barely suggested in Jack Kiefaber, who is as much Blanche’s victim as her predator. The full-length play is presaged in Blanche’s reveries but the actual working out is forestalled. But as a playwright’s note, a jotting, a fragment of the masterpiece that is soon to come, Interior: Panic is an invaluable addition to the Williams oeuvre. The discovery of a preliminary study for Michelangelo’s David, no matter what its size or medium, would be treasured for itself. It would inform our knowledge and understanding of “the original” we have already come to know.
The last three plays in the collection were written after Williams had been recognized as one of America’s greatest playwrights and his descent into critical indifference had begun. These were surely puzzling, troubled times for him. As he sought to discover new styles to explore his familiar themes, the commercial theater began its inexorable abandonment of him as a moneymaker. They were tired of the “old” Williams and unconvinced by the “new.” Kingdom of Earth (1967) is an early sketch for The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968), one of the first of the so-called “disasters” of Williams’s later career. Read thoughtfully, and not expecting another Streetcar, it is funny, shocking, and moving. The full-length Myrtle is even better. Clearly, Williams knew he was on to something when he expanded this first, short draft into a full evening.
The poetry-laced I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays (1973), takes us back to New Orleans and all the familiar Williams themes. What is different this time is a sense of theatrical adventure: he is taking risks with language, style, and structure. This is a bolder Williams striking out in a different direction than his audience had come to expect and demand of him. I think Williams was always drawn to the “experimental” (a dread word to most producers), but also understood the constraints of commercial success once he hit the big time. The time had come to shake them off. It is a play written by a mature playwright who seems to have rediscovered the joy of writing for the theater. You can hear Williams having a good time! A playwright who can ask in a stage direction that “an invisible cat enters, mewing” is a playwright who stills has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. Even if he does fall into the orchestra pit at the end of the play, the Playwright climbs out saying, “Old cats know how to fall.” This is the Williams who wasn’t afraid to fall (or fail) doing something different, even though he was soon to pay the price for it.
Some Problems for The Moose Lodge (1980) is my favorite play in the collection. Written three years before his death, when Williams was virtually forsaken by the theatrical establishment that had nourished him all those salad years ago, it is a play of immense sadness, utter chaos, and infinite compassion. I will be surprised if this collection does not inspire subsequent productions. Just when you may begin to think you’ve lost him in these last, lost works, Tennessee Williams comes roaring back at us in all his manic, disheveled, life-embracing wonderfulness. It would be a hard person who could resist him. This is a man who loved life despite everything.
Finishing these plays, I feel a bit like I’ve gone through his wastepaper basket. I wish I could pedal over and ask him if that was okay. I have a pretty strong feeling he would say yes, with a smile and a cackle, and head for the White Street Pier for his legendary daily swim.
At Liberty was produced by Ellen Stewart at La Mama Experimental Theater Club in New York City where it ran from May 14 through May 24, 1964. It was directed by Danny Gershwin; costumes were designed by Ellen Stewart; and Bob Douglas was the stage manager. The cast, in order of appearance, was as follows:
GLORIA LA GREENE Mary Engel
HER MOTHER Mitzi Pazer
Place: Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Time: the present, September. 2:30 a.m. Gloria La Greene is not very proud of her home. It may be seen why when a spotlight reveals a section of stage to represent the corner of an antiquated living room. A middle-aged woman in a dingy wrapper is seated stoically on a red-plush sofa. Beside her is a table supporting a red-globed oil lamp with a fringe of glass pendants. The outside door and a window are in the right wall; inner door to the left. There is an oval mirror, gilt-framed, and a large “glamour photo” of Gloria La Greene. (This is her stage name. Her real name is Bessie.)
The window is streaming with slow September rain. The woman sits rigidly as in a daguerreotype picture. A noise in the hall indicates Gloria’s return. The door is pushed slightly open and the mother stiffens still more at the sound of an altercation.
GLORIA [from offstage]: No, that’s enough, that’s enough! Charlie, don’t tear me to pieces.
[Mother clears her throat and sits up very straight.]
Shhht. [Closes door from outside. There is a short silence; then a man’s laugh.]
CHARLIE [offstage]: Good night, Gloria.
GLORIA: Thanks for a marvelous time!
[She enters. Gloria is a thin, feverish-looking blond whose stage experience is stated with undue emphasis on her makeup. She wears a soiled white satin evening dress, part of an “excellent wardrobe,” and carries a copy of Billboard that she throws on the table.]
Well. The Reception Committee!
MOTHER: What was the trouble between you?
GLORIA [going straight to the mirror]: The usual trouble.
MOTHER: He wasn’t a gentleman?
GLORIA [feverishly inspecting herself in the mirror] Hmmm?
MOTHER: They never are, these picked-up acquaintances; men you meet in hotels.
GLORIA: I wouldn’t expect them to be.
MOTHER: Then why do you go out with them, Bessie?
GLORIA: Hmmm? [Suddenly turns from mirror.] Oh, God in the Kingdom of Heaven, I wish you’d—!
MOTHER: Why do you go out with them?
GLORIA: Because, if I didn’t, I’d have to stay in with you! Isn’t that a pretty good reason?
MOTHER: Your voice is hoarse.
GLORIA: I know it, it’s always hoarse!
MOTHER: Then is it wise to go out?
GLORIA: Yes, yes, it’s wise! Infinite wisdom that’s me! The Sphinx of Egypt. I’ve got a job as her stand-in.
MOTHER: You’re feverish.
GLORIA [removing the rabbit-skin cape]: Am I?
MOTHER: I can tell by the way you’re talking. You broke an engagement with Vernon. He was over. He stayed and had a talk with me.
GLORIA [inspecting her cape]: This lining is rotten.
MOTHER: He told me that you made yourself a. . . .
GLORIA [furiously]: A what?
MOTHER: A subject for talk in a hotel barbershop!
GLORIA: Well, that’s marvelous. I’m delighted to hear it! Why should I get a press agent?
MOTHER: He said that you pick up with strangers, transients at the Delta Planters Hotel.
MOTHER: Tonight he said you were out with a man that the Vigilantes had warned to stay out of Blue Mountain.
GLORIA: He’s lying, he’s—out of his mind!
MOTHER: No. You’re out of yours.
GLORIA [rips the torn lining out of the cape]: I will be, soon—if I don’t get out of this stifling atmosphere.
MOTHER: Where would you be otherwise, jobless, in your condition?
GLORIA: Oh—The Miami Biltmore! It’s two-thirty.
MOTHER: I know what time it is. I’ve done nothing but watch the clock.
GLORIA: When I was out on the road all those times, you didn’t know where I was, you didn’t know who I was out with!
GLORIA: But you slept, didn’t you?
GLORIA: Jesus, the way you look, I believe you. Mother, you look like death.
MOTHER: So do you—like death at a masquerade party!
GLORIA [unconsciously facing the mirror]: I’ve had lots of compliments on my appearance lately.
MOTHER: No doubt. [With a short laugh.] Sarcastic remarks from people who laugh at you privately?
GLORIA [with a sudden, imploring desperation]: Why should anyone laugh?
MOTHER [relentlessly]: You give them occasion to, Bessie.
GLORIA: Naturally, after ten months cooped up sick in this jerk-water town, I’m not—the radiant creature I once used to be.
MOTHER: Forget that “radiant creature” and come down to earth.
GLORIA: Drag me down—if you can.
MOTHER: I also talked to the doctor. He was shocked when I told him how much you’re running around. [Gloria looks frightened.] He mentioned the X-ray pictures. They’re not too good.
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