Tennessee Williams’ Big Break
THE PAST, THE PRESENT AND THE PERHAPS
Tennessee Williams’ Forward for Orpheus Descending
One icy bright winter morning in the last week of 1940, my brave representative, Audrey Wood, and I were crossing the Common in Boston, from an undistinguished hotel on one side to the grandeur of the Ritz-Carlton on the other. We had just read in the morning notices of Battles of Angels, which had opened at the Wilbur the evening before. As we crossed the Common there was a series of loud reports like gunfire from the street that we were approaching, and one of us said, “My God, they’re shooting at us!”
We were still laughing, a bit hysterically as we entered the Ritz-Carlton suite in which the big brass of the Theatre Guild and director Margaret Webster were waiting for us with that special air of gentle gravity that hangs over the demise of a play so much like the atmosphere that hangs over a home from which a living soul has been snatched by the Reaper.
Not present was little Miriam Hopkins, who was understandably shattered and cloistered after the events of the evening before, in which a simulated on-stage fire had erupted clouds of smoke so realistically over both stage and auditorium that a lot of Theatre Guild first-nighters had fled choking from the Wilbur before the choking star took her bows, which were about the quickest and most distracted that I have seen in a theatre.
It was not that morning that I was informed that the show must close. That morning I was only told that the play must be cut to the bone. I came with a rewrite of the final scene and I remember saying, heroically, “I will crawl on my belly through brimstone if you will substitute this!” The response was gently evasive. It was a few mornings later that I received the coup de grace, the announcement that the play would close at the completion of its run in Boston. On that occasion I made an equally dramatic statement, on a note of anguish. “You don’t seem to see that I put my heart into this play!” It was Miss Webster who answered with a remark I have never forgotten and yet never heeded. She said, “You must not wear your heart on your sleeve for claws to peck at!” Someone else said, “At least you are not out of pocket.” I don’t think I had any answer for that one, any more than I had anything in my pocket to be out of.
Well, in the end, when the Boston run was finished, I was given a check for $200 and told to get off somewhere and rewrite the play. I squandered half of this subsidy on the first of four operations performed on a cataract left eye, and the other half took me to Key West for the rewrite. It was a long rewrite. In fact, it is still going on, though the two hundred bucks are long gone
Why have I stuck so stubbornly to this play? For seventeen years, in fact? Well, nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play that I now call Orpheus Descending. On its surface it was and still is the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.
But beneath that now familiar surface it is a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them, a difference represented by the four major protagonists of the play, and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all, but expedient adaptations or surrender to a state of quandary.
Battle was actually my fifth long play, but the first to be given a professional production. A brilliant produced two of the others, Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind, but semi-professional group called The Mummers of St. Louis. A third one, called Spring Storm, was written for the late Prof. E.C. Mabie’s seminar in playwriting at the University of Iowa, and I read it aloud, appropriately in the spring. When I had finished reading, the good professor’s eyes had a glassy look as though he had drifted into a state of trance.
There was a long and all but unendurable silence. Everyone seemed more or less embarrassed. At last the professor pushed back his chair, thus dismissing the seminar, and remarked casually and kindly, “Well, we all have to paint our nudes!” And this is the only reference that I can remember anyone making to the play. That is, in the playwriting class, but I do remember that the late Lemuel Ayers, who was a graduate student at Iowa that year, read it and gave me sufficient praise for its dialogue and atmosphere to reverse my decision to give up the theatre in favor of my other occupation of waiting on tables, or more precisely, handing out trays in the cafeteria of the State Hospital.
Then there was Chicago for a while and a desperate effort to get on the W.P.A. Writers’ Project, which didn’t succeed, for my work lacked “social content” or “protest” and I couldn’t prove that my family was destitute and I still had, in those days, a touch of refinement in my social behavior which made me seem frivolous and decadent to the conscientiously roughhewn pillars of the Chicago Project. And so I drifted back to St. Louis, again, and wrote my fourth long play, which was the best of the lot. It was called Nat About Nightingales and it concerned prison life, and I have never written anything since then that could compete with it in violence and horror, for it was based on something that actually occurred along about that time, the literal roasting alive of a group of intransigent convicts sent for correction to a hot room called “The Klondike.” I submitted it to The Mummers of St. Louis and they were eager to perform it but they had come to the end of their economic tether and had to disband at this point.
Then there was New Orleans and another effort, while waiting on tables in a restaurant where meals cost only two bits, to get on a Writers’ Project or the Theatre Project, again unsuccessful.
And then there was a wild and wonderful trip to California with a young clarinet player. We ran out of gas in El Paso, also out of cash, and it seemed for days that we would never go farther, but my grandmother was an “easy touch” and I got a letter with a $10 bill stitched neatly to one of the pages, and we continued westward.
In the Los Angeles area, in the summer of 1939, I worked for a while at Clark’s Bootery in Culver City, within sight of the M-G-M studio and I lived on a pigeon ranch, and I rode between the two, a distance of ten miles, on a secondhand bicycle that I bought for $5.
Then a most wonderful thing happened. While in New Orleans I had heard about a play contest being conducted by the Group Theatre of New York. I submitted all four of the long plays I have mentioned that preceded Battle of Angels, plus a group of one-acts called American Blues. One fine day I received, when I returned to the ranch on my bike, a telegram saying that I had won a special award of $100 for the one-acts, and it was signed by Harold Clurman, Molly Day Thacher, who is the present Mrs. Elia Kazan, and that fine writer, Irwin Shaw, the judges of the contest.
I retired from Clark’s Bootery and from picking squabs at the pigeon ranch. And the clarinet player and I hopped on our bicycles and rode all the way down to Tijuana and back as far as Laguna Beach, where we obtained, rent free, a small cabin on a small ranch in return for taking care of the poultry.
We lived all that summer on the $100 from the Group Theatre and I think it was the happiest summer of my life. All the days were pure gold, the nights were starry, and I looked so young, or carefree, that they would sometimes refuse to sell me a drink because I did not appear to have reached 21. But toward the end of the summer, maybe only because it was the end of the summer as well as the end of the $100, the clarinet player became very moody and disappeared without warning into the San Bernardino Mountains to commune with his soul in solitude, and there was nothing left in the cabin in the canyon but a bag of dried peas. I lived on stolen eggs and avocados and dried peas for a week, and also on a faint hope stirred by a letter from a lady in New York whose name was Audrey Wood, who had taken hold of all those plays that I had submitted to the Group Theatre contest, and told me that it might be possible to get me one of the Rockefeller Fellowships, or grants, of $1,000 which were being passed out to gifted young writers at that time. And I began to writeBattle of Angels, a lyrical play about memories and the loneliness of them. Although my beloved grandmother was living on the pension of a retired minister (I believe it was only $85 a month in those days), and her meager earnings as a piano instructor, she once again stitched some bills to a page of a letter, and I took a bus to St. Louis. Battle of Angels was finished late that fall and sent to Miss Wood.
One day the phone rang and, in a terrified tone, my mother told me that it was long distance, for me. The voice was Audrey Wood’s. Mother waited, shakily, in the doorway. When I hung up I said, quietly, “Rockefeller has given me a $1,000 grant and they want me to come to New York.” For the first time since I had known her, my mother burst into tears. “I am so happy,” she said. It was all she could say.
And so you see it is a very old play that Orpheus Descending has come out of, but a play is never an old one until you quit working on it and I have never quit working on this one, not even now. It never went into the trunk, it always stayed on the workbench, and I am not presenting it now because I have run out of ideas or material for completely new work. I am offering it this season because I honestly believe that it is finally finished. About 75 percent of it is new writing, but what is much more important, I believe that I have now finally managed to say in it what I wanted to say, and I feel that it now has in it a sort of emotional bridge between those early years described in this article and my present state of existence as a playwright.
So much for the past and present. The future is called “perhaps,” which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you.
For more related articles, check out PlayFest Santa Barbara's blog at playfestsantabarbara.blogspot.com