He wrote one of them when he was just starting out, three when he was flying high — and two after the world had told him that he was all washed up.
We’re talking about Tennessee Williams and six of his short stories. One he penned in 1938, when his first hit play was still seven years away. At the other end of the spectrum was the tale he told in 1980, when he was a long eighteen-plus years from what would be his final Broadway hit.
Now six playwrights, ranging from the well-established (Rebecca Gilman, John Guare and Beth Henley) to the oft-produced (Elizabeth Egloff, Marcus Gardley and David Grimm) have dramatized those stories as one-act plays. Under the superb direction by Williams expert Michael Wilson, the series called Desire is a most desirable event at 59E59 (a theater that’s named for its address).
We could wonder “If Williams wanted these stories to be plays, wouldn’t he have written them as such?” The answer may be best found in Desire and the Black Masseur, a 1948 entry. It would have been banned from the stage quicker than you could say Battle of Angels — Williams’ first produced play which was considered so obscene in its tryout that it closed on the road.
Gardley’s adaptation, retitled Death Quenched by Touch, has Burns, a Southern white masochist, going to Le Grande, a muscular black masseur — not to be massaged, but pummeled and punished.
Burns has since become a missing person, so Le Grand is summoned to Detective Bacon’s office, where he’s told “You are not a suspect.”
Really? We’ll see, we’ll see …
At first, Le Grand has a surprisingly secure sense of self for a black man living in the pre-civil rights South. He isn’t shy at proclaiming how expert he is at his job, which makes us admire his ease in talking to a white redneck in power. Le Grand tries to engage and charm Bacon in small talk – until he’s derailed by Bacon’s flatly asking “Did you know that Mr. Burns was homosexual?”
That starts a series of revelations that Gardley effectively dramatizes at the massage table. Le Grand tells us about the liberty to be sadistic and his startling view on what’s mentally “sick.” Yet the play’s most powerful point is that down South in the ‘40s, barely tolerated blacks were still substantially higher on the societal food chain than gays.
Williams might have chosen the short story route because audience members might feel embarrassed to be seen in a theater watching something salacious. Putting the story on the page instead of the stage allowed readers to enjoy what was then soft-core porn in the privacy of their own homes. Besides, a character who comes in for a massage would have to strip naked, and you can’t have nudity in the theater, right?
You can now, of course, but that’s not the only update. Egloff’s take on Tent Worms mentions YouTube – a medium on which Billy would like to be. We know he’s not a very successful author for after his wife Clara makes a suggestion, she follows it with “Maybe you’d sell more books.” And yet, there’s a human detail coming: while Billy at first believes in his writing and Clara doesn’t, only moments pass before he begins to doubt himself and she bolsters him.
At the moment, both are a little bored because they’ve been coming to this same vacation spot for fifteen straight years – despite the ever-present-problem of their rented cottage’s infestation of pre-metamorphosis worms. Before they can evolve, Billy kills them with the dispassionate air of those editors who airily dismiss his writing. And that’s just the start of his rebellion.
A cell phone, Instagram and open-mikes come into play in Gilman’s The Field of Blue Children. But first it’s a low-tech poetry class where Dylan reads his newest work. While his girlfriend Meaghan isn’t impressed, his mediocre effort prompts sorority babe Layley to give a few of her own observations. Later Dylan’s girlfriend Meaghan accuses Layley of being bubble-headed, but the lass actually gave a lovely and eloquent oral history.
Layley does want to improve. “Sometimes I have ideas,” she says in more than an off-hand manner. Actually, she’s more poetic than Dylan, who’s ready to steal a good line from her. However, even if he were ready to dump Meaghan, Layley has a beau, too, who’s a college football star.
So whom will she marry? What happens in not dissimilar to what’s been occurring for the last six months at Hand to God. Let’s just say that some people feel if they pretend nothing is going on when something significant is going on, then it really isn’t happening.
(Oh, but it is.)
Part of the fun (yes, fun) of Desire is seeing Williams’ famous characters in different guises. In 1974, shortly after Kermit the Frog had taught us that “It isn’t easy being green,” Williams reminded us that “It isn’t easy being Blanche.” Grimm’s take on Oriflamme shows Anna as a variation on Ms. Du Bois when she flirts with Rodney, who’s minding his own business while sitting on a park bench.
Like Blanche, Anna admires Rodney for having an important occupation – “the lord of the manor,” as she grandly terms it.
She values manners, although she’s more interested in liquor. When Rodney turns his attention from her and back to his newspaper, she can’t stand it.
His question of “You seeking romance?” is answered by “Aren’t we all?” So they dance, which allows him to put his hands around her midriff and very cleverly lift and extend his thumb between her breasts to feel as much as he can. Anna lets him Isn’t any man better than no man at all?
In Henley’s The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin, we meet young siblings Tom and Roe – obvious stand-ins, for Williams’ actual first name was Thomas and his sister’s was Rose.
Religion has been ingrained in these kids to the point where they openly fear that riding a bike could be a sin. What’s more, Tom and Roe don’t play the standard Cowboys and Indians but The Stations of the Cross – right down to Tom’s playing Jesus and lugging two attached pieces of wood around the backyard.
Well, grandmother does state that Tom is “different.” But we know and she knows that the word is the euphemism of the day for “gay.”
Tom always wants to play games, but Roe is more attuned to play the piano. Her teacher arranges a duet with her student violinist, handsome Richard Miles enters. The audience laughs because it knows full well that Richard will come between brother and sister.
But the way Roe handles the situation is the real surprise.
Easily the most intriguing is Guare’s You Lied to Me about Centralia, based on Portrait of a Girl in Glass (1948). Betty and Jim are talking – or, more accurately Betty is gabbing while Jim is listening. She’s unnerved about a recent visit to her uncle, who shares a house with a black man whom, he tells her, is not a servant. This spurs Betty to say “Something is going on in that house that makes me – I don’t know – sick.”
And just when we think the play is about homophobia, it takes a mesmerizing turn when Jim finally gets to speak. He tells about his friend whom he’s nicknamed “Shakespeare” and with whom he works in a warehouse.
Wait a minute, didn’t Tom in The Glass Menagerie work in a warehouse where his colleague called him Shakespeare? Yes, this is Jim O’Connor, better known as “The Gentleman Caller” in The Glass Menagerie – which has Jim eventually tell Amanda that he’s engaged to Betty.
What we now see for ourselves is that she’s a horror and that he’d be much better off with Laura. More absorbing are his perceptions of Amanda: “I don’t see how anyone can resist her,” he says, although anyone who’s seen Menagerie fully understands how everyone could. That Jim doesn’t once mention Laura’s disability supports Amanda’s contention that her daughter is too sensitive and that people wouldn’t even notice her limp.
However, although Williams did write a story with these characters, be apprised that many of these ideas came from Guare.
Desire is performed by nine performers from The Acting Company. They show that they’re versatile enough for the multiple roles and unselfish enough to lend firm support while the others are center stage. They’re successful, too, at letting us recognize so many Williams’ characters, albeit in other forms. Nevertheless, anyone who doesn’t know Tennessee Williams from the Tennessee Valley Authority can still enjoy the plays.