Tennessee Williams' Tales from the Crypt

Reply Sat 30 Oct, 2004 12:02 pm
Here are excerpts from a great article in the New York Times about who controls Tennessee Williams' plays now and whether they should be allowing his unpublished works to be produced. (Registration is required at NYT.)

Tennessee Williams's Tales From the Crypt
By Jesse Green

Published: October 31, 2004 [sic]

The man sure looks like Tennessee Williams: bulgy eyes, cream suit, careful comb-over, trim mustache. He has the mincing drawl and sad-flirtatious tone down pat, which is no surprise, for he's a longtime Williams imitator named Jeremy Lawrence, who between gigs on sitcoms performs his "Talking Tennessee" one-man show around the country. What is a surprise is seeing him wander through a Manhattan Theater Club production called "Five by Tenn," now in previews at City Center; "Five by Tenn" is billed as an evening of "newly discovered one-act plays" by Tennessee Williams - not featuring him. Yet there he is as the lights go up, typing assiduously and reading stage directions and saying: "I don't think you can escape being personal in your writing. That doesn't mean that you are one of the characters in the play."

The real Williams did not write this role; it was stitched together, like a Frankenstein monster, from odd bits of leftover prose: interviews, letters, journals and memoirs. But the resulting character of Tennessee Williams, narrator, says a lot about the current state of the work of Tennessee Williams, playwright. For the "Five by Tenn" composite is just one of the many liberties being taken with Williams's legacy now that he and his original heir are dead, and a university with a financial interest (and little theatrical experience) is in charge of his estate. The volume of productions is way up, quality is arguably down, and controversy has been stirred by the licensing of previously unproduced works like "Five by Tenn." Only the last of its one-acts, a Beckettian duet called "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," was published and performed in Williams's lifetime.

The first four plays lay undisturbed, among dozens of others, in various archives of the author's papers until two scholars, Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel, came upon the first of them in 2000. Eventually they brought 16 "new" one-act plays to the attention of Michael Kahn, who directed the acclaimed final revision of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1974. Most were obviously youthful works, all but a few from 1937 to 1939, when Williams was still taking playwriting classes and evolving from Tom to Tennessee. Still, Mr. Kahn found some of them quite stageworthy and indeed staged four, along with "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," as part of the Kennedy Center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival last summer. (The New York production uses a slightly different lineup.) "We're not talking about masterpieces," Mr. Kahn told me. "They were good young man's plays."

Several leading American playwrights have been arguing the question; one, who declined to be identified lest he antagonize the show's producers, suggested that mounting such works was a kind of commercially motivated bottom-feeding. But another, Edward Albee, pointed out that some of what Williams himself chose to produce wasn't very good. "I think if we're humiliated by something we've written, we ought to burn it or suffer the consequences," he said, adding that he was going to look through his manuscripts as soon as he got off the phone.

...When the playwright's sister died in 1996, the estate passed, in accordance with Williams's will, to the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., in honor of his grandfather, who had attended the seminary there and spoke highly of it. The copyrights on the 35 or so full-length plays and other works were valued then at about $8 million and were probably worth a lot more.

For Sewanee it was a windfall and an enigma. The institution, owned by the Episcopal Church, was not exactly an obvious choice as the gatekeeper for the works of a great alcoholic, antiacademic, atheist homosexual playwright. "We're not theater critics," said Donna Pierce, the university's general counsel. "We're in the business of higher education."

And yet the responsibility for managing Williams's work and reputation fell to them. Advised by respected theatrical agents, they each year license more than 900 productions of Williams's plays worldwide. Most are stock or amateur, which get automatic approval unless they conflict with a planned Broadway, West End or other major professional production. Williams has become one of the most produced modern playwrights in the world, by many accounts outstripping other Americans with large and marketable catalogs. Over the last 10 seasons, there have been more Broadway productions of Williams than of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Neil Simon or Rodgers and Hammerstein.
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