My all-time favourite playwright is Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), born in Mississippi, and raised in St Louis Missouri. Tennessee's works are 'of his time' as he wrote about the places where he had lived and travelled and studied the human characters around him – read his Wikipedia profile and you will understand.
Vivien Leigh & Marlon Brando in 'A Street Car Named Desire' - image 'The Evening Standard UK'
There is nothing more cathartic than seeing a live stage performance of Tennessee's work – The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) to name his more well-known works. These plays eventually became films starring very famous actors like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. You can find many of the films online and enjoy the grace and style of these epic dramas.
Recently I read a dilapidated copy of Orpheus Descending (1957) which took Tennessee 17 years to write, and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Both plays were staged and turned into films and are accessible mainly by DVD, and online if you pay a subscription. Tennessee's stage directions are aesthetically very detailed and paint the worlds where the drama unfolds, often in exotic places.
Iguana and Orpheus are quite difficult to stage as they require a large diverse cast, set within a hotel in Mexico (i.e. with an iguana) and a general store. To pay a large cast is simply not possible in the current Australian Arts climate or even the previous climate, where plays with small casts are favoured – simply because they are less expensive to produce.
I rarely watch films of plays and musicals, before reading the script or seeing a live performance to experience the work 'live' as it was intended by the writer. I want to visualise the worlds created by the playwright's words falling off the pages. However, during these crazy times, I have relinquished my rules for the sake of sanity and my thirst for theatre.
Clive Owen & Lia Williams in "The Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana is based in the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico where 'Shannon' a de-frocked pastor turned tour guide, seeks asylum from a bus of American female tourists.
Already Shannon has crossed the line by having a sexual encounter with a minor on the trip. Shannon goes AWOL and retreats to the hammock on the balcony of the hotel to escape the wrath of 'Miss Fellowes' - the morality queen and advocate for the coop of Texan hens who are demanding to be driven into the main town. Shannon refuses to drive the bus, despite fearing unemployment and takes respite under the watchful eye of 'Mrs Maxine Faulk', the proprietor of the hotel (i.e. Mrs Faulk was originally played by Bette Davis). Mrs Faulk is a recent widow and enjoys the company of young Mexican boys like 'Pedro' who is her 'bell boy' and lover.
To his dismay, Shannon inherits the company of other guests staying at the hotel including 'Hannah' the artistic nomad - gypsy and her ageing grandfather 'Nonno' who is a poet. Shannon does not want to engage in conversation, however, Hannah continually reaches out to him, like an angel guiding his catharsis.
So what about the iguana?
The Mexican boys capture an iguana and tie it up under the hotel. The iguana writhes in captivity trying to escape knowing its fate - it will be killed for a meal - iguana is a delicacy in Mexico (i.e. at least in this play). Shannon like the iguana is in captivity due to his sexual indiscretions and spiritual conflict. He knows his time is limited and is considering his options - which are few and far between.
How does this hot mess end up? I'm not going to tell you - go and read it!
Orpheus Descending (film) - image courtesy of Warner Bros
Lady Torrance runs a general store in a small 'redneck' southern town. She is in an unloving marriage with Jabe who lies in bed upstairs terminally ill. Her father was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan and she is struggling to run a viable business and care for Jabe. 'Southern Belles' like Dolly and Vee of the town annoy her with their gossip and ridiculous middle-class lives which are far away from her reality. However, that all changes when Val, a wayward musician in a snakeskin jacket decides to take up residence in her general store and in her heart.
Peter Hall adapted the screenplay to film in 1990 casting Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance and Kevin Anderson as Val Xavier. You will also see Miriam Margolyes play Vee Talbot bringing her own delicious flavour to these fruity Southern characters.
So while you have the time, don your cowboy boots and relax with a nip of whisky or bourbon, and a Tennessee Williams play. Be transported into the history, passion and politics of the Deep American South. You may be surprised how relevant some of the themes are today.