Not Keats, Not Nightingales, But Wonderful Tennessee

Tennessee Williams’ unproduced 1938 play, Not About Nightingales , at Circle in the Square Theater, shouldn’t be treated for one second as a minor curiosity, a virtuous excavation of the master’s juvenile work. Trevor Nunn’s remarkable production of the savage prison drama, together with the committed work of the British and American ensemble led by Corin Redgrave, have, firstly, done great honor to this forgotten play.

It is a fantastic act of love that we are witnessing, for enormous care and skill have been lavished on this ambitious apprentice work of conscience that would set Williams free. It is the first play that Thomas Lanier Williams signed “Tennessee.” In finding himself, he began to find his own distinctive voice as a dramatist.

Tennessee Williams was a 27-year-old unknown when he wrote Not About Nightingales , his fourth full-length drama. Six years later, his 1944 play The Glass Menagerie would be the breakthrough that made him famous. The socially conscious Group Theater rejected Not About Nightingales (though subsequently awarded him $100 for his one-act plays). Cut to a half-century later when Vanessa Redgrave, then starring in Williams’ Orpheus Descending , rediscovered the lost play. How she came to find Not About Nightingales , she explains in the foreword to the published script, was simple! She read the foreword Tennessee Williams wrote to Orpheus Descending .

“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 Not 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.'”

Vanessa Redgrave tracked down the “lost” manuscript via the eccentric Lady Maria St. Just, a close friend of Williams and executor of his estate. “There you are, Tall Girl!” she exclaimed, handing over the script (which Lady St. Just had never read). The 1998 world premiere of Not About Nightingales took place at the Royal National Theater.

Seeing the electrifying production in New York, it struck me that it’s a blessing it exists at all. The Alley Theater in Houston is one of its distinguished co-producers, and a number of its actors are in the cast. But the poor record of staging Williams’ great plays in New York–let alone an unknown one of his–amounts to criminal negligence. Until recently, the same was true of the plays of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. They were virtually ignored in their own country. Perhaps there’s hope for Tennessee Williams yet! “Truly,” wrote Trevor Nunn, explaining the admiration for Williams in London, “our respect for his work grows with every passing year, as his genius is increasingly revealed with each new visitation to his canon.”

Harold Clurman of the Group Theater, which first rejected Not About Nightingales , became an enthusiastic advocate of Williams’ mature work. “Williams is a dramatist of lost souls,” Clurman wrote admiringly. “His work describes a long laceration.” So the early, compassionate Not About Nightingales is about society’s misfits and a brutalizing imprisonment of the spirit, as well as an expressionist docudrama about inhuman prison life. Williams dedicated the play to Clarence Darrow, the champion of lost causes. And Williams, the lyrical poet of despair and tenderness, is there in the making.

The piece is a “living newspaper” based on fact–four prisoners in a Pennsylvania prison had been roasted alive in the boiler room. In that authentic sense, it’s a public play rather than a personal one, more a social conscience drama in the tradition of Clifford Odets. It’s also clearly influenced by 1930’s prison movies and film noir (which the young Williams frequently escaped to).

There are stock figures from prison movies: the brutish, corrupt prison warden, Boss Whelan (Corin Redgrave, playing bigger and freer, and therefore more dangerously, than I’ve ever seen him). There’s the thug named Butch (James Black) who leads the fatal prison riot, and the outcast homosexual, none too subtly known as “The Queen” (Jude Akuwudike). There’s also a touchingly melodramatic romance between the naïve prison secretary Eva (Sherri Parker Lee) and “Canary Jim” (Finbar Lynch), the stool pigeon who’s as trapped as the 27-year-old Williams felt in his own gray existence.

“Every man living is walking around in a cage,” says Jim, the play’s hero, who will risk everything in desperate flight. As Williams later wrote about the fallen hero of The Night of the Iguana , he’s “another beleaguered human being, someone who is in exile from the place and time of his heart’s fulfillment.”

Williams defensively denied that Not About Nightingales is melodrama. Very well; it’s superior melodrama! The nascent dramatist was going beyond the conventional: His fluidly cinematic 22 episodes anticipate Brecht; he mercilessly satirized a hypocritical, callous clergy; he created a sympathetic black character; he argued for the poet as activist.

Real life, a brutal caged life, is not about an elegiac “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats. The younger, idealistic Williams believed it was about social reform, protest, justice. But even then the romantic idealist within him also believed in an escape to beauty. “He was like you,” Eva says to Jim about Keats. “He had a lot of things he wanted to say but no chance to say them. He got out of his prison by looking at the stars. He wrote about beauty as a form of escape.”

The seeds of the lyrical Williams are in the play, and compassion for fallible suffering humanity never left him. Within the sympathetic character of Eva we find all of Williams’ women. What is Eva’s dark sexual attraction to the abusive prison warden but Blanche Du Bois’ ambiguity of refined manners in her desire for Stanley Kowalski?

Williams’ future is in his past. At the end of Not About Nightingales , the play’s hero makes his desperate escape. It is such a moving moment because we are also hearing–for the first time–the exultant liberation and hope of Williams himself in Jim’s words: “Now is the time for unexpected things, for miracles, for wild adventures like the story books.”

He’ll take the gamble of being shot down, and there’s just a chance he’ll make it and go on to miraculous, unexpected things. “Almost a chance! I’ve heard of people winning on a long shot.”

The awesome, brutal reality of Trevor Nunn’s production – its colorless, claustrophobic hell–is created by set designer Richard Hoover; the lighting design is by Chris Parry. Everyone, as I say, has done great honor to Tennessee Williams. Yes, we should make the pilgrimage and give them all our thanks.

Not Keats, Not Nightingales, But Wonderful Tennessee