When The Gentleman Caller begins performances May 5 at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre, playwright Philip Dawkins takes audiences back in time to the beginnings of two of America’s foremost playwrights: William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Before Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie, Inge—then a newspaper critic—invites the playwright to his apartment for an interview. What happens inside, as imagined by Dawkins, changes the course of American theatre.
“They were after honesty,” says Dawkins of the two playwrights whose voices helped him find his own. But it was still a challenge to take on these figures of theatre. “Steeping myself in everything both men had written certainly helped me figure out what was important to them, what they wanted to say and how,” Dawkins explains. “But that doesn’t necessarily tell me how they’d order a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, you know?”
Here, Dawkins talks about inhabiting the worlds of the pair—together and individually—to create his own 1944-set memory play.
How did you first approach crafting the voices for Inge and Williams?
Luckily both gentlemen were pretty prolific, so I started with their writer's voices. Then I branched out to letters, diaries, interviews, memoirs (there's decidedly much more of this type of material for Williams since Inge was so fiercely and successfully private) and then finally following my writer's gut and a healthy dose of conjecture. As a playwright, I think I'm already infected by their voices a bit, anyway. I just had to listen for them, and they started to speak up.
What play of each writer’s was most helpful in identifying that voice?
For Inge, it was his thinly veiled autobiography, My Son Is a Splendid Driver. He came the closest to revealing himself, I feel, in that book as he did in any other piece, and you can hear his pain seeping through all the negative space in those pages. I also think there's an awful lot of Inge's voice in Virgil Blessing from Bus Stop, the older, avuncular pal left literally out in the cold at the end of the movie, while everyone else disappears to go be in love or hide from society. I hear a lot of Inge in Virgil. For Tennessee, he's all over the place. But this play concerns specifically Tom in his early 30s, before he'd experienced any success (or too much excess), and that's a much different voice than latter-day Williams. I found the collected letters and memoirs to be more helpful in needling out Tennessee's voice than his earlier plays. I feel like Tennessee, like most writers, was still finding his writer's voice in his earlier plays. But his journals and letters are pretty solidly consistent and have a huge stylistic signature. I'm pretty sure he must have suspected they'd have an audience one day...or at least hoped they would. I also got personal anecdotes from people still living in Independence, Kansas, about Inge as a youngster.
How would you describe Inge’s personality versus Williams’?
Two very different sides of the same coin, only it's a trick coin used by a street magician, and the tails/Inge side has been glued over with another false "heads" side. A false face to the world. Both men were deeply closeted in a time when there wasn't a community to come out of the closet to. They both chose different paths to deal with their extreme lack of resources. But they also took similar paths for much of their journeys: substance addiction, an obsession with success in the theatre, a need for praise at every turn, wanderlust, money, etc. While Williams found a way to become more comfortable in his own skin than Inge was ever able to, they both felt like fugitives in their own lives, the only escape being into their own work. Tennessee is, of course, more outgoing, ostentatious, performative and socially awkward in a boisterous way. Whereas Inge is desperately hanging on to rules of propriety and masculinity. It's his armor, and he's nearly incapable of removing it.
Now having stepped into their shoes, to which of their famous characters do you think each is most akin?
[In addition to] Bus Stop, notoriously [Inge is akin to] the professor character in his short play The Strains of Triumph, who sits on a hill overlooking the high school sports field and delivers a very Tea and Sympathy-esque, heartbreaking, and disturbing monologue about his role in the world as someone who does not participate but only watches. That has Inge all over it. I also have this theory that the Inge-iest character in all his plays is usually whomever speaks last in the play, particularly the voyeuristic, yearning Helen Potts in Picnic.
Tennessee is all his characters, I think, but there's something about the characters in The Two Character Play (or Outcry) that feels very raw and very Williams. It's an often overlooked work of his, and a blow-up stemming from his own vulnerability around this piece ended up costing him his decades-long relationship with his agent, Audrey Wood, but I do think it's a fascinating, very honest look into his mind and heart. But I think perhaps the most autobiographical character for Williams is found in The Glass Menagerie, and it's discussed in our play. So, I'll just let there be a dot dot dot for the moment.