The ghost of Tennessee Williams is palpably felt these days around Houston's Alley Theatre as it prepares to present the American premiere of a recently rediscovered, unproduced play by the late, great playwright. Not About Nightingales, directed by Trevor Nunn, bows on June 10 at the Alley's new space, the Aerial Theatre, following an acclaimed run in London.
"There's no question that Tennesee Williams is present," says Gregory Boyd, Alley's artistic director, who worked with the playwright shortly before his death in 1983. "You can imagine him cackling in the theatre, happy that this work is finally being presented. Sometimes finding an 'unproduced' play is like finding Mozart's socks. But this is like finding a concerto."
The prison drama, which was written in 1938 by the then-unknown 27-year-old Williams, was discovered in 1996 by the actress Vanessa Redgrave and brought to the attention of the Alley's artistic director, Gregory Boyd. Redgrave and her brother Corin, who head the London-based Moving Theatre, were then collaborating with Boyd in a repertory of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. They decided that their next collaboration should be Williams's unknown work, so they enlisted Nunn and his Royal National Theatre to join them in a co-production whose cast of 18 would include both English and American actors. It would first play London's intimate Cottlesloe Theatre and then Houston. The production, starring Corin Redgrave as a tormented, power-crazed prison warden, opened on March 5 to rave reviews -- a vindication 60 years after it was written and failed to win in a Group Theatre playwrighting competition.
"You can clearly see why it was rejected," says Boyd, referring to the violence, homosexuality and agitprop politics, which permeates the drama set in a two-tiered structure of prison cells, "a corner of hell," according to the inmates. "You can see that it is Southern Gothic, but you can also see Bertolt Brecht's influence. It's a political hot potato in terms of what it has to say about prison reform. Tennessee is on a soap box. It's the work of a socially-committed writer."
Williams, of course, would go on a few years later to achieve his first great success with The Glass Menagerie and then A Streetcar Named Desire. And many critics have pointed out that the prison warden played by Redgrave pre figures such malevolent Williams characters as the castrating Boss in Sweet Bird of Youth. But Boyd disagrees. "He's a divided, ambivalent person, a family man who loves his kids and knows what he's doing. His conscience is modern and accessible. That's why the play feels so relevant. I think Corin's achievement with the role is immense." Still, despite the social content and dramatic fireworks in Not About Nightingales, what is most impressive about the work, according to Boyd, is its "sheer poetic power" -- all the more noticeable in a contemporary theatre scene, which seems devoid of much lyricism these days. "What you get in Nightingales is the compelling vision of one of the great seers of the theatre. You see this theatrical imagination working in this 27-year-old man. Tennessee has a love of the spoken word in a theatrical setting, and this play shows off that love of theatre and poetry."
The next stop, Boyd adds, may well be New York. Who knows? Perhaps by next May, one of the Pulitzer Prize winners or Best Play Tony nominees will be the young and immortal Tennessee Williams.
-- By Patrick Pacheco