Michael King on Tennessee Williams

Spring Storm reviewed

SPRING STORM.By Tennessee Williams.

166 pages. $12.95.

Nothing gets a theatregoer’s blood rushing like a new play by Tennessee Williams. That Poor Tom has been dead for more than fifteen years hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm: two years ago, the Texas birthing (with Vanessa Redgrave’s indispensable midwifery) of Not About Nightingales

opened to international acclaim at Houston’s Alley Theatre, moving to London, New York, and a Tony like so much posthumous clockwork. Nightingales has been followed (out of the Williams archive at U.T.-Austin’s Humanities Research Center) by a slightly earlier script, Spring Storm, which in November received its world premiere in Austin: the opening production of a spanking new company, the Actors Repertory of Texas. A slightly different and longer version, nicely edited by Dan Isaac, is now available from New Directions, sustaining a boomlet in the reputation of the stage’s Spirit of St. Louis. After the long shadow of critical disdain that dogged his later years, Tennessee would certainly have reason to be proud.

Whether he would have welcomed the inevitable poring over his juvenilia is another matter; despite its many charms, Storm is no Nightingales, which is no Sweet Bird of youth. One suspects that if ever prevailed upon to stage his collected papers, at a minimum Williams would have insisted upon extensive rewrites, followed by tryouts out of town. (And deny as it might, Austin is still very much out of town, although each year makes more credible the claim of a live theatre scene in the capital.) But even lesser Williams is very interesting drama indeed, and an audience can find in these early plays much that is characteristic of his major work: a sweeping romantic canvas; brave hearts, high feelings, emotional risks; a driving energy of thrumming eroticism, stymied and twisted by social constrictions; grand and unembarrassed rhetorical flourishes; and above all, outsized and memorable characters, seemingly larger than life but often drawn directly from Williams’ Southern roots.

Not About Nightingales is an agit-prop workshop piece drawn directly from newspaper headlines about brutality in a Pennsylvania prison, and (particularly as staged by the Alley and the Redgraves’ Moving Theatre company) is a revelation of an aspect of Williams’ political perspective largely disguised in his major plays. Spring Storm, on the other hand, is a sharp reminder that when Williams adopted a pen name at about this same time (from the friendly gibes of classmates at the University of Iowa), it could just as easily have been “Mississippi.” Spring Storm is set in Port Tyler, Mississippi (a dramatized version of Clarksdale, home of Williams’ grandparents), in a late thirties spring (precisely which year apparently remains a textual muddle). The action portrays the literally stormy tale of four young lovers who cross paths and passions several times over four rainy April days, while their hearts and the mighty Mississippi rise to flood stage. At the center of this whirling vortex is Heavenly Critchfield, a fiery belle besotted with a rough-hewn riverman, Dick Miles, while she is earnestly wooed by the wealthy-but-sensitive Arthur Shannon, himself secretly desired by the homely town librarian, Hertha Neilson.

As that summary may suggest, Spring Storm is over-long, grandiose, and often melodramatic when not downright silly. But it has undeniable moments of the true Williams fire, and an onrushing romantic intensity that maintains excitement until the explosive final moments, which prove more preposterous than cathartic. But the play is also brimming with bravely romantic eroticism (which Williams later said had dismayed his professors at Iowa), old Southern rhetorical flourishes, and a handful of great roles, beginning with the combustible Heavenly Critchfield. In the manuscripts, the wonderfully named Heavenly began as “Helen” — perhaps Williams’ sly allusion to the femme fatale that launched a thousand ships. Heavenly’s unquenchable sexuality, made metaphorically akin to the great river’s floodwaters, is at the center of the play’s brooding themes. In short, Spring Storm turns out to be as much about imprisonment as is Not About Nightingales. Williams had discovered his great subject.

The manuscript also reveals a portrait of the artist as a young Modernist. The play’s working title was “April is the Cruellest Month,” the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the opening scene, presided over by three twisted, wind-stunted trees, is set on a hill Williams dubbed “Golgotha.” In his tale of small-town desire, ambition, gossip, and cruelty, the young playwright was working in the modernist mode, setting ordinary action against mythic antecedents for an emotional and thematic resonance. The attempt is not entirely successful: the painfully symbolic “storms” eventually make the stage so emotionally soggy that an audience might wish Dick Miles and his chums had worked just a little bit harder on that levee.

Voluptuous Heavenly and poor-but-manly Dick are passionately in love, but Dick loves the river and his freedom more. Arthur the aesthete (and avatar for his young author) is obsessed with Heavenly, and is also (as her mother incessantly points out) the most eligible bachelor in town, but Heavenly senses Arthur has yet to discover his own seething passions. Librarian Hertha (an early version of Williams’ repetitive guilty portraits of his abandoned sister) provides Port Tyler’s only intellectual companionship for Arthur, but — in the play’s most bathetic conceit — she cannot hope to be a sexual partner, and is therefore doomed. As one might expect, this heaving expressionism goes riding off the rails in the play’s final scenes, but until then is filled with glorious Williams moments, occasions for the characters to go smashing into each other and filling the air with hot-blooded, baroque speeches, as this, early on, from the desperate Hertha:

Sometimes I wonder if anybody’s ever gone anyplace — or do we always just go back to where we started? — I guess there’s something significant about the fact that the world is round and all of the planets are round and all of them are going round and all of them are going round and round the sun!… You see I can’t get over the idea that it might be possible for somebody — sometime — somewhere — to follow a straight line upwards and get some place that nobody’s ever been yet!

In a scene that didn’t make the ART production but Isaac adds from manuscript drafts, Heavenly’s father makes explicit the natural symbolism the play everywhere implies. Heavenly is lamenting her romantic unhappiness, and asks why even lovers can’t keep from “fighting and torturing” each other. Oliver Critchfield (the play’s wise paternal counterpoint to the ruthless social ambition of Heavenly’s mother) sagely replies:

I guess those things are sort of natural phenomena. Like these spring storms we’ve been having. They do lots of damage. Bust the levees, wash out the bridges, destroy property and even kill people. What for? I don’t know. I s’pose they’re just the natural necessary parts of the changing season….

That’s the most explicit thematic statement in the drafts, and it’s useful to have it, although its baldness makes it understandable why Williams didn’t include it in his most final version. Interestingly, also missing from the ART production are a couple of instances of casual and one might think gratuitous old-Southern racism, although Isaac makes a good case that these moments were important to Williams’ sense of his characters: the lowliest thing these socially-drifting white folks can imagine is to be a “triflin’ nigger.” (Yet for good reasons as well as bad, it may well be impossible to play such moments in a 1999 theatre, and still maintain empathy for the characters.)

If the new ART’s first production remains a true measure, the company (a joint project of the University’s College of Fine Arts and producer Charles Duggan, of that unlikely but worthy theatrical juggernaut, Greater Tuna Productions) should soon join the Live Oak, Zachary Scott, Austin Musical Theatre, and a host of smaller companies in establishing a theatre community worthy of the city’s size and growing prominence. Although several of the borrowed Mississippi accents rang like over-miked bells in the first few scenes, Heavenly in particular was nicely rendered by a young New Yorker, Tertia Lynch. And Jared Reed was also engaging as the poetical but ineffectual Arthur Shannon (like his author, full of promise but uneasy in a coarse and snobbish community), with strong support from a cast of local and New York actors.

Would Spring Storm have been produced and published if it were a newly-discovered script by an unknown or unheralded playwright? Probably not — but the renewed interest in Williams’ work is real and well-deserved, even though it has come with the predictably rancorous and ranking academic and green-room bilge about just who is “America’s greatest playwright.” That’s not a question that needs answering; more to the point is maintaining a cultural and institutional context in which the next generation of young playwrights can find room to work and a viable tradition to work in. The Actors Repertory of Texas shows real promise of creating additional space for that to happen, and Spring Storm is an honorable and productive flower in that community garden.

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