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Tennessee Williams is hotter than ever
It could be argued that the hottest playwright in the country right now is a man who has been dead for more than 20 years.

Tennessee Williams may have shuffled off this mortal coil on Feb. 24, 1983, but his work has never been in greater demand. (Photos: Tennessee Williams' life and work)

Decades after film versions of his classics A Streetcar Named Desire (with Marlon Brando) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (with Elizabeth Taylor) made him a household name, the bard born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Miss., is enjoying a new resurgence in visibility and appreciation:

• A Broadway revival of Cat starring Ned Beatty, Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, now in previews, opens Nov. 2.

• Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater recently wrapped a production of Williams' The Night of the Iguana.

• Another major regional company, Connecticut's Hartford Stage, is in the midst of a two-part retrospective called 8 by Tenn, featuring five seldom-seen one-act Williams plays and three that are being produced for the first time.

• In nearby New Haven, the Yale School of Drama will stage Orpheus Descending Nov. 4-8.

• In Newark, N.J., African Globe TheatreWorks just completed an African-American version of Streetcar.

• And between May and August, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., will present new productions of Streetcar, Cat and The Glass Menagerie as part of Tennessee Williams Explored. The festival also will include the one-act collection Five by Tenn and Letters From Tennessee, a one-man show adapted from his early notes to friends, family and professional associates.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser paid similar homage in 2002 to musical-theater composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, another creative giant whose output is viewed as both progressive and accessible to mass audiences.

"A lot of people have read Williams in high school or college but haven't re-explored his work as adults," Kaiser says. "I think now people are coming back and realizing how great they are. These are not plays for weary commuters, though."

Tom Erhardt, the theatrical agent charged with licensing the rights to Williams' material, agrees that the playwright's challenging populism doesn't ensure profitability. "There are many lesser plays available," Erhardt says. "Many of Williams' plays aren't as commercial, and most have big casts, so they can cost a lot to produce. If you want to make money, you can put on a Neil Simon play."

Erhardt is in the process of selling Streetcar rights for a Broadway production that could arrive next year, and has sold Menagerie, "which will probably be done in 2005," he says. "I'm also selling Period of Adjustment and contracting for Sweet Bird of Youth. It's a very, very active time."

Allean Hale, an adjunct professor of theater at the University of Illinois who has written extensively about Williams, says this activity is long past due. "We finally have to call Tennessee Williams the great American playwright," she says. "He wrote at least 45 full-length plays and 60 shorter works, many more than Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill. And he initiated more expressionistic staging with The Glass Menagerie, creating a new American style of production."

Of course, Miller and O'Neill, whatever their foibles, weren't as controversial in art or in life as Williams, who suffered substantial professional failures before 1945's Menagerie, which played 563 performances.

"His late plays were pessimistic, dealing with insanity and death," Hale says. "But he didn't pull any punches in his early plays, either."

Personally, Williams was plagued by battles with drugs, alcohol and depression. "Tennessee was a heretic," says actress Elizabeth Ashley, a friend of Williams who starred in director Michael Kahn's acclaimed 1974 Broadway revival of Cat and has appeared in many other productions of his work. "He broke all the rules. He was never a member of the club, for many reasons."

Among those reasons was Williams' homosexuality. He rarely addressed gay issues directly in a dramatic context. Kahn, another close colleague, identifies And Tell Sad Stories in the Death of Queens ..., a previously unproduced short play, as "his only overtly gay play, where he wrote about four gay men."

But repressed and thwarted desire figure prominently in his best-known efforts, from the desperate Blanche DuBois' conflict with crudely sensual brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar to Maggie and Brick's tortured marriage in Cat, with its suggestions of Brick's hidden homoerotic longing.

"Tennessee was touched by anyone who was crippled, whether sexually or emotionally, or in any other way," says fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote. "He asked you to see things that we didn't face in those days."

Even at the height of his popularity, Williams' work was considered potentially dangerous ground. 1947's Streetcar "hit the public like a bomb," Hale recalls. "They say it brought the American stage into adulthood because of its sex and hint of homosexuality."

Director Elia Kazan, who adapted Streetcar into a movie, faced an even greater challenge in bringing Cat to Broadway in 1955.

"The '50s were so conformist, and the whole gay element was thought of as extremely shocking," says Anthony Page, director of the current Broadway production. It didn't help that his last play before Cat, the more dreamlike Camino Real, had flopped. "Everyone was anxious that this new show shouldn't fail, which is why Kazan pushed him to make it more commercial."

Page's Cat draws on a revised script that Williams crafted for the 1974 revival, with a darker, more realistic resolution. "Everyone speaks their truth in this play," says Ashley Judd, now playing Maggie. "That's how Tennessee Williams lived his life, at a time when it wasn't OK to do so."

An earlier Maggie isn't sure how much progress has been made. "Protestant Puritanism is still the foundation of American life and culture," Elizabeth Ashley says. "That fundamentalist perspective denies pleasure. We see that in politics today — the lack of logic and irony, the utter madness of it.

"But Williams knew there was a price to be paid for pursuing pleasures of the flesh. The thing that most people don't get about Tennessee, in fact, is that he was a Victorian. Like Southerners of his class who grew up the way he did, he was a refugee, a fugitive."

Hale points out that Williams' grandfather, an Episcopalian minister, "reared him for the first seven years of his life because his father was a traveling salesman. I think Williams was as spiritual as he was sexual, but naturally, the sex got more attention."

Clearly, what Ashley describes as "the decay of the soul" haunts much of Williams' writing. Steve Lawson, who adapted Letters From Tennessee from a collection of personal writings called Selected Letters, has been equally impressed by what he feels was Williams' underrated flair for comedy.

"There's a lot of raffish humor in his work," says Lawson. "When he came out, which was quite late — I think he was almost 30 when he had his first affair with a male — he wrote to a friend, 'Well, my dear, when I now appear in public, the children are called indoors and the dogs pushed out.' "

Jason Patric and Ned Beatty, who play Brick and his father, Big Daddy, in Broadway's new Cat, have found wit even in their characters' doomed existences. "When you hit the right note," Beatty observes, "the audience does one of those laughs where you can tell that they're surprised it's funny. That reminds me of Chekhov."

According to Kahn, Anton Chekhov was one of Williams' favorite playwrights, along with Federico Garcia Lorca and Shakespeare. "There is no American writer who used language as brilliantly as Tennessee," Kahn says, noting that Williams also was a prolific poet. "And there is a hunger for that kind of power of words in a society where so much language is debased. Tennessee's ambition was to take the darker, more complex issues of humanity and put them in a beautiful form."

Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson says many critics and fans never forgave Williams for "moving away from well-made plays about sin, sex and the South." Wilson suggests, only half-jokingly, that Williams might be compared with a contemporary chameleon also known for dabbling in sin and sex.

"There was this Madonna aspect in how Williams kept reinventing himself," Wilson says. "In the '30s, (he wrote) plays where the working-class man was the hero. His plays moved from Broadway successes to great stories for the screen. As theater changed with the '60s, he tried to change with it. But people didn't want that."

One of the entries that Wilson chose for 8 by Tenn, 1966's The Gnadiges Fraulein, focuses on a former nightclub singer reduced to a cruel existence. "You feel that Tennessee is writing about the savage treatment he received as an artist," Wilson says. "But he kept going."

And, Ashley adds, Williams kept the faith. "The theater is meant to be the arena of dangerous ideas. Tennessee always addressed that which dare not speak its name, one way or another. And what other purpose does theater have?"

 
 
 
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