Monday, June 12th, 2017...9:30 am

Spending Time with Tennessee

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This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

MS Thr 91.1 In the fall of 1954 Tennessee Williams was desperate for a hit. After the meteoric successes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire came one respectable showing and two abject commercial failures. It was with this in mind that he presented a new script to Elia Kazan, who had directed both the lauded Streetcar and the critically decimated box office flop Camino Real.

The raw power of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof called to Kazan, but he played coy. He was eager to direct, but only if he could convince Williams to make significant changes that to his mind would ensure a success. After the experimental Camino, he wanted a more traditional story structure, with character development and resolution. Early drafts offered a protagonist in Brick who, aside from a couple of notable outbursts of emotion, spent the play in a drunken lethargy. Whatever trajectory Brick was on in the first two acts, there was no further character development in the final act, which also relegated one of the most dynamic characters of the play, Big Daddy, offstage and mute.

But Williams wasn’t entirely comfortable with such a radical rewrite. He felt Brick’s existential surrender in opposition to Maggie the Cat’s pugnacious vivacity plumbed the very theme he wanted to explore. On the other hand, he knew that Kazan’s suggestions would be far more likely to yield another hit. There were constant maneuverings between the two, mainly resulting in Williams conceding to the director he so wanted to work with. Even when Kazan offered to revert to the original concept, Williams decided to stick with the changes. What resulted was an unqualified success, running 694 performances and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Even so, Williams stewed.

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This script is, in part, a result of that stewing. Williams readied his copy of the production script for publication with small edits here and there, but also re-inserted the original third act alongside an essay damning Kazan with commercial praise.

The script fascinates me for a number of reasons. Even in a world permeated by postmodern theory, we still tend to think of works as authored by lone creative geniuses. But performance in particular is a collaborative art, and its records belie the notion of a lone genius. The influences of playwright, director, actors, stage manager, and editors are laid bare here, often physically, in a way that the published product does not give up. In a graphic display of collaboration, we can see Williams’ edits in blue pen and two editors from his publisher, New Directions, in pencil. (In an embarrassment of riches, Houghton contains not only Williams’ own substantial bequest, but the records of New Directions, which further demonstrate the collaboration between author and publisher.)

While as a fan of Williams I’m drawn to the script for personal and totemic reasons, in a professional context I’ve noticed that Williams’ papers are a part of the Harvard Theatre Collection frequented by practicing artists. I’ve always found it particularly gratifying to spend time with actors, directors and dramaturgs who are working on a production, helping them find what is in our collection, thinking through how it can be of use to them, then having the opportunity to see their work on stage, sometimes shaped in part by the time they spent with Tennessee at Houghton.

Thanks to Micah Hoggatt, Reference Librarian, for contributing this post.

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