Tennessee Williams may have had great luck with a sweet bird of youth, cats, iguanas, and a whole menagerie of animals, but nightingales did not do so well for him. In 1977 he rewrote Summer And Smoke as The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale, which flopped, while his 1938-1939 drama, Not About Nightingales, has never seen the light of day.
Going through Williams' papers, actress Vanessa Redgrave came across Not About Nightingales and brought it to London's Royal National Theatre. The show will have its world premiere there March 5, 1998, directed by Trevor Nunn and co-produced with Redgrave's own Moving Theatre and Houston's Alley Theatre.
The play concerns disturbances at a men's prison, with conflicts among convicts, guards and a sadistic warden. Nunn said in a press conference that "clear indications" of homosexuality in prison may have been the reason the play never received a commercial staging. "It's never been read, it's never been seen, it's never been performed," said Nunn. "The title refers to the kind of rough poetry Williams was intending for the theatre."
Nightingales, written six years before The Glass Menagerie launched Tennessee Williams into the stratosphere, came at a productive but uncertain period in the young dramatist's career. He had just submitted a number of plays to the Group Theatre and was bound for New York to make his name there. According to Lyle Leverich's biography, "The Unknown Tennessee Williams," Williams said after writing the third draft of Nightingales: "It may be very good or very bad -- I don't know -- haven't read it yet -- just writing, writing -- drinking coffee nearly every day -- and feel well in spite of it. But it is only the prospect of leaving St. Louis that keeps me up."
According to Mel Gussow's story in the June 11 NY Times, it was Leverich's book that started Redgrave's search for "lost" Williams plays. "It's like an old movie," Tom Erhardt, agent for the Wiliams estate, told the Times. "It's old fashioned but fascinating. It has 16 or 17 characters."
Other plays by Williams include A Streetcar Named Desire and Camino Real.
Not About Nightingales begins previews at the National Feb. 26. The show's announcement was made as part of Trevor Nunn's first press conference as new artistic director of the National.
Alley Theatre general manager Harold Wolpert told Playbill On-Line, "This all started with our collaboration with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave's Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, produced in rep at the Alley. It was a co-production and exchange (of nine actors) with the Moving Theatre. In the course of the production, Vanessa talked to us about this unproduced Williams play. Trevor Nunn wanted to produce the play as part of his inaugural season as artistic director of the National. The Alley was in from the genesis of this project and will stay involved in London in a significant way. Nine American actors will be employed in the National production, and they'll be selected from Alley's resident company and artists associated with us."
Asked about the Alley's plans for the production, Wolpert replied, "We've been talking with the Moving company and the National in the hopes that after its run in London, the show would premiere in the U.S. at the Alley. The hope (subject to approval from Equity) is that the National company would come straight over to Houston. We would assume a Houston production would happen in the 1998-99 season." (The show runs in the UK through mid-May 1998.)
"It's an early play of his," said Wolpert of Nightingales, "before some of his really great works. It's fascinating to get a glimpse of Tennessee Williams before he was Tennessee Williams, and to do a major production of a barely-known play is very exciting. Trevor was here in March to get a look at the space. It's a really a feather in his cap for his first season, and for our cap as well."
--By David Lefkowitz