So many of the insights of this five-session course on Tennessee Williams I’ve been Zooming from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are directly applicable to fiction writing. The course is led by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.
(The next Book Club, scheduled for spring, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, with its powerful “we happy few, we band of brothers” sentiments.)
Actor Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois in STNJ’s 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, talked about the similar power of Williams’s language. “The language acts you,” she said. She deliberately didn’t play the heartbreak of Blanche’s situation, aiming instead to encourage the audience to keep hoping beyond hope, as Blanche does, that somehow everything will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the play before and remember how it ends. You keep hoping.
I do too. Every time I’ve seen West Side Story, I’m silently praying Chino won’t show up with that gun . . . even though I know better. Reading Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, I read slower and slower in the last fifty pages, knowing how it would end and hoping for a miracle.
Robins and Monte pointed to the “practical core” of many of Williams’s characters that lets them be survivors despite their evident frailties and failures. Even at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Laura (pictured)—who is as fragile as one of her glass animals—seems capable of resilience. Monte believes a good Tennessee Williams actress must possess a great deal of courage because the roles demand so much vulnerability. Think of Alma in Summer and Smoke or Jane in Vieux Carre.
Just as he did with Summer and Smoke and its later incarnation, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (with critics still debating which is the better version), Williams returned to Laura’s story repeatedly, including in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which ends with Laura picking up one of her precious LPs, blowing on its surface a little as if it were dusty, then setting it softly back down. Then she says something enigmatic about her encounter with Jim, the family’s dinner guest who, unexpectedly, is soon to be married and therefore no boyfriend candidate: “People in love,” she says, “take everything for granted.” Where did that come from? It’s so much more worldly-wise than we might expect from Laura and more generous toward the situation than her angry mother is capable of.
This gets to another aspect of Williams’s plays that Monte has emphasized throughout this course, which is kindness. Yes, his characters may be in bizarre and uncomfortable, even brutal situations, but they display unexpected flashes of kindness toward each other. She views Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo as a kinder version of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. What she terms “extraordinary gestures of kindness” are demonstrated by many characters in Night of the Iguana too. “Williams finds the life-saving power of compassion in some very dark places.”
The ability to be both rough and kind, whether embodied in one character or distributed among them, not only requires great actors, but also a director who establishes the right balance between these poles. It’s something all good writers strive for.