Tag Archives: Tennessee Williams

A Literary Lady

A Literary Lady

I love Southern literature.

Unabashedly.

Robert Penn Warren, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Lee Burke, Sharyn McCrumb, William Faulkner, Manly Wade Wellman, Anne Rice, Davis Grubb, — you list ‘em, I probably like ‘em.

What is it?

As usual, I overthink it a lot. But I suspect it’s simple; they’re good writers that lack winter.

Wandering in the sensual and furtive Appalachian hills of McCrumb, Warren, and Grubb. Exploring the night-time potential of New Orleans alleys and courts after a rainstorm with Williams, Burke, and Rice. Scanning the critter-filled wetlands with Hurston and Rawlings. Cataloguing the Behinders, Frogfathers, Shonikens, and Gardinels of the Smokies with Wellman.

None of these reading experiences require snow and that’s just hunky-dory with me.
Maybe the best of them all for me is Carson McCullers. Her MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE are winter-less crucibles, in which individual human ingredients are combined with passion, and striving, and sweat, amidst leaves that never fall. Then those ingredients are swirled and re-separated back into their original human shells as changed people. Rarely are the changes clearly for good or ill…even death. Some are changed forever. Some revert to old paths and patterns and expectations.

In a land of no winter to close doors behind you, survival is generally not a concern, but in a land of no winter to close doors behind you, going backward is always an option…an option too often and too quickly employed by too many.

I have a new Southern author to suggest…at least, she’s new to me.

I met Judy Higgins at a meeting of an arts-related board on which we both serve. When I learned she was a published author, I obtained a copy of her first novel; THE LADY, and asked her to sign it. I read it this week.

There are many echoes of McCullers in this novel.

It is a coming of age story, set in rural Georgia in the late 50’s. Television reception is painful, if it exists at all. Entertainment mostly consists of conversations in the kitchen, a grand piano, conversations on the veranda, high school proms, conversations over dinner, visits from neighbors…you get the idea; no texts, no emails, no Netflix…no screens……faces instead. Class/race inequalities and privileges abound. Human strivings, some for more, some for any, abound. Winter threatens no one’s existence, but what will that existence be?

Ms. Higgins seems to endorse the advice of Joseph Campbell.

“Follow your bliss.”

For Ms. Higgins’ young protagonist, music is her bliss.

In her struggles Chopin, Schubert, and Mozart are her weapons and her solace.

Her aunt’s advice?

Don’t let anyone come between you and your music.

Excellent advice from another fine southern writer.

Julie et Jim

The title is a total stretch but there’s a “Julie” and a “Jim” in the tale. I couldn’t pass it up. Sorry.

The Southeastern Theater Conference (SETC) was held recently in Lexington and I’ve enjoyed reading articles about it, and my friends’ reports of their activities during the event. I was particularly interested and inordinately proud of my friends Julieanne and Chuck Pogue’s efforts. Chuck conducted two sessions; “Auteurs-NO!  Raconteurs-YES!!” and “Tips for Adapting Plays from Sanskrit and/or Cave Paintings”. Julieanne packed the house with her session; “Concatenations from the Clash of Jung and the Restless in Tennessee Williams’ Mother Plays”. I may not have those titles exactly right, but I was mightily impressed – so impressed, that it triggered a remembrance of my first visit to SETC.

It was spring of 1970 and SETC was being held in Memphis. I had never been to Memphis, I had a ride with other UK theatre folks, I had twenty bucks, and my friend Jim Varney agreed to split the cost of a hotel room with me. Hey, as Christine Kane says; “When courage comes, you never see it comin’.”

The conference was being held in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. I believe today it’s called the Sheraton Peabody. Jim and I couldn’t afford the Peabody. We went across the street to something called; The Hotel Tennessee. It was five dollars a night, which we split.

There were cockroaches…lots of ‘em…big ones…and bold. One of ‘em sat on the end of Jim’s bed and bummed cigarettes off him. Another one sat on the back of the commode and charged a quarter for access. I went downstairs to the desk to complain and noticed the clerk had six arms and I quailed. I was dubious, but it was cheap and had the asset of proximity.

The proximity paid off the next morning. I awoke to Jim practicing his smile in the mirror (he had just discovered Pearl Drops Tooth Polish and was pretty sure that his new “all-teeth” smile was gonna launch his professional acting ship tout suite). He urged speed with ablutions and let’s get our “petite little small-ass bods” over to the Peabody. We might miss something!

He was right.

The Peabody had a fountain in the middle of its lobby and people gathered around it at nine o’clock AM and five PM for the ducks. That’s right, ducks. At nine AM, the PA system wheezed to life to blare; “Welcome to the Peabody Hotel and the Peabody Marching Ducks!” The elevator doors would then open and a red carpet would roll out to the foot of the fountain. A Sousa march would play on the PA and three white ducks and one brown duck would regally march down the carpet, hop up on the lip of the fountain, and splash into the water to swim the rest of the day until five PM when they would, with similar pomp reverse the process and return to their evening penthouse quarters. The crowd loved it and would applaud. The applause would prompt the brown duck to turn to the crowd from the lip of the fountain, spread his wings, and……well……quack.

Yes, the crowd loved it, but Jim was enthralled. In the brown duck, Jim had found a spiritual brother. He never missed a duck event. He got there early and would sit akimbo next to the carpet and croon in “duck language” to the bird. The duck would pause, turn to Jim, and conduct a quick inventory of available exits in case this madman turned ugly.

It was a great conference and just got better from there.

At that time and perhaps still today, one element of SETC was a mass audition of actors looking for summer work. That year, 43 casting agents representing 43 southern theatres were observing those auditions. There were 568 hopeful auditionees. I was number 438 and Jim was 437. We stood leaning against the hotel hall wall for hours awaiting our chance for the Golden Ticket/Everlasting Gobstopper/Maltese Falcon/Holy Grail/Door #3.

While we waited, we rehearsed and fretted. (I’m convinced that if the proper studies were conducted, scientists would discover the leading cause for cancer is fretting.)

We were promised one minute for our audition – one minute.

I was good with that. I had a killer one minute segment from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” that was gonna land me on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” within the week.

Jim agonized. He had two pieces and he couldn’t choose. Should he do Hamlet’s first act monologue (“Tis not alone my inky cloak…”), or Tom Wingfield’s diatribe from “The Glass Menagerie” (“I’m goin’ to opium dens…”)? Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams? Argh-h-h-h. Plus, at the rate this is going, we’re gonna miss the ducks!

Fretting…I’m tellin’ ya, it’s deadly.

Then the SETC officials came out in the hall and announced the audition time would have to be cut to 50 seconds or they couldn’t get everybody in.

50 seconds.

A five hour drive and my twenty bucks for 50 seconds.

Fretting went through the roof. What was I gonna do? Pragmatism was all I had to offer at that point…I was simply gonna have to speak faster.

Jim however, became serene. His quandary was solved. Somehow, 50 seconds made things clear; he would do BOTH monologues.

They took us into the audition room in groups of ten. Thus, Jim and I were in the same group and I got to witness the deed. 43 auditioner heads hovering 2-4 inches over their tables and notes in utter fatigue and defeat. Hope had left the building with Elvis.

Jim’s turn came, right before mine. He loped to the center of the room, announced his number, and began;

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

The tones were round and pure, the diction crisp, the anger immediate and like a knife to his betraying mother.

And then, without pause or breath, as if from the same son centuries later;

Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin, I joined the Hogan gang, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case, and I run a stream of cat houses in the valley, they call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, see I’m leading a double life, really, a simple honest warehouse worker by day, but by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, mother, I just go to gambling casinos, spin away fortunes on the roulette tables, mother, I wear a patch over one eye, and a false moustache and sometimes I put on green whiskers, on those occasions, they call me “El Diablo,” I can tell you many things to make you sleepless, mother, my enemies plan to dynamite this place, they’re gonna blow us sky high! And I will be glad? I will be very happy, and so will you be. You will go up, up, up, over Blue Mountain, on a broomstick with seventeen gentleman callers! You ugly, babbling old witch!

43 sagging heads snapped to attention. In today’s litigious times, there might have been a rash of whiplash claims the next day. Jim finished and one voice intoned; “Thank you, Mr. Varney.” Forget about his number. He was Mr. Varney now.

I followed that.

When the callbacks were posted, Jim had 34. I had 15.

Maybe it was the Pearl Drops.

Theatre sucks.

Plastic Cowboy Hats or Iguanas?

Movie Night!

What are my choices this evening?

Political junkie that I usually am, I could lock-in on this week’s political convention (red shirts, plastic cowboy hats, interminable plagiarism discussion loops, and conventioneers I suspect have spent a bit more time at the hotel bar than is advisable before strutting before cameras announcing numbers to millions of viewers – whoop!), or I could skip along the cultural high road with director Riccardo Freda’s giallo classic, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE.

Pass up a title like that? I think not.

I can think of two movies with “iguana” in their titles. What are those odds? The other film is NIGHT OF THE IGUANA based on a story by Tennessee Williams. You may be asking (as I did); “What’s so special about iguanas?” That led me to recall a story by British speculative fiction writer J. G. Ballard. Mr. Ballard is best known for his novel; EMPIRE OF THE SUN, upon which the award-winning film was based. But in his novel; THE DROWNED WORLD, the Earth’s protective ionosphere has been decimated by solar flares and the planet has devolved into a ubiquitous, dank, fetid, swamp. The planet’s cities have decayed. Many buildings now harbor amphibian creatures living in the darkness of the buildings’ long missing windows and doors. For Ballard, these creatures are clearly representative of atavistic impulses and desires that lurk within us all waiting to be triggered and released by drastic changes in the conditions that restrain them. I think that may also true for both of our “iguana” flicks.

There is, of course, a chasm of difference in performance quality between NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr) and THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, and Anton Diffring), but not in one performance.

I have not seen many performances by Valentina Cortese, but I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. Her Oscar-nominated performance in Francois Truffault’s DAY FOR NIGHT is a thing of wonder. In THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (made two years before), Ms. Cortese has a heart-wrenching scene that transcends the tawdriness of the film.

She says of her husband;

“His Excellency has returned to Switzerland and I am alone…as always. How do you expect me to say it? It’s the truth. Behind this façade you are looking at there is the most terrible…unbelievable…emptiness…between me and my children, between me and my………husband.”

The camera never leaves her face. It would be criminal to do so. Score one for director Freda.

Oh yes, this was a much better choice than those ersatz cowboy hats. Whoop indeed!