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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Tennessee in Texas A Visit to Hell with the Young Tennessee Williams BY MICHAEL KING NOT ABOUT NIGHTINGALES. A play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Alley Theatre, Houston, June 10July 3. 1 t’s been a good long while since a theatre could boast the premiere of a new play by the legendary American master Tennessee Williams, but last month, thanks to a combination of diligence and good fortune, Houston’s Alley Theatre could proclaim exactly that. Not About Nightingales, a 1938 Williams script excavated by Vanessa Redgrave from the playwright’s University of Texas archives, arrives on the Alley stage as an extraordinary collaboration between the Alley company, Vanessa and Corin Redgrave’ s Moving Theatre, and England’s Royal National Theatre, under the direction of the National’s Trevor Nunn. The relatively brief Alley run is a continuation of the criticallyacclaimed London opening at the Cottesloe Theatre in March, and the companies are hoping for additional productions in New York and London. This is the second coproduction of the Alley and the Moving Theatre; in 1996, the companies staged Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in repertory in Houston and London. A new Williams play of any sort at all would be news enough; particularly serendipitous about Nightingales is that the play is a grandly ambitious and powerful work youthfully raw and rough-edged in execution, but marked with the large gestures and baroque flourishes of Williams’ greatest plays. Much more than just a literary curiosity, the play certainly merits permanent entry into the Williams repertory. Moreover, based on a ’30s Pennsylvania prison uprising and composed in the agitprop style of the WPA’ s Living Newspaper program, Nightingales has a surprisingly topical resonance, painfully reinforced by recent news about contemporary conditions in American prisons. Corin Redgrave and Sherri Lee Nobby Clark Nightingales was initially drafted for an assignment in the twenty-seven-year-old Williams’ playwriting class, under Federal Writers’ Project veteran E.P. Conkle and Edward Charles Mabie at the University of Iowa. Asked to compose a play based on a current event, Williams took as his subject an August 1938 news story from the Philadelphia County prison in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania. In response to a hunger strike over bad food, prison officials had locked twenty-five prisoners into an airtight, waterless steam shed known as the “Klondike,” capable of being heated to 200 degrees. In what Newsweek called “one of the worst prison horrors in American history,” four prisoners were scalded to death. \(At the subsequent trial of prison officials, the Klondike was revealed to be a regular torture method Williams later submitted the play \(dedicated to “Clarence Darrow, the Great Detion sponsored by New York’s Group Theatre \(it was the first manuscript for which he adopted the name and worked on revisions for several years. Though Nightingales was never produced, the company’s interest provided the contacts Williams needed to launch his career, with the 1945 Broadway premier of The Glass Menagerie. In the Alley production, compiled by Vanessa Redgrave and director Nunn from three complete versions and additional related material in the Williams archives, the three-hour Nightingales takes the form of twenty-two feverish, brief scenes, each announced by a tabloid “headline” above the stage. The Alley has borrowed the neighboring Aerial Theatre to allow a warehouse-like traverse staging, with the audience looming on either side; until the violent climax in the oven-like Klondike, scenes alternate between the prison cell block C and the warden’s office, at opposite poles of Richard Hoover’s nightmarish, monochromatic set \(complete with the warthis noirish context \(the editor of the published text, Allean Hale, plausibly suggests as a direct influence the 1935 Wallace Beery prison film Williams conceives a titanic struggle between the brutal and corrupt warden, Boss Whalen \(delivered with villainous relish by Corn con, Butch O’Fallon \(the Alley’s James Black, a two-fisted, razor-wielding match newspapers, the prisoners note with awe the rise of Hitler and Mussolini; among other notions the young Williams toys with is a sort of plainspeech political allegory. Caught between these implacable forces are the play’s figures of romance: prison trusty “Canary Jim” Allison \(the National’s for parole, and Eva Crane \(the Alley’s naive secretary who discovers both corruption and love in the prison’s little corner of hell. Canary Jim, brutalized by the warden and despised by his fellow inmates as a 26 = THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 3, 1998