I directed Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Williams at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington and one day Tennessee happened to be in town and came to the show with his lady executrix and supporter and human guide dog.
Till then, the audience – because Williams was meant to be tragic and tortured, according to the critical wisdom/fashion of the time – hadn’t known whether to dare laugh or not at the obviously funny bits of the plays. Yet Period is blankly a comedy – his only one according to one critical guru of that time. I had already been told, subversively – out of the side of the artistic mouth, as it were – by then that Williams himself thought all his plays were comedies! (But he was known to be slightly mad and we, of course, always know better).
Well… from the moment the show started – it begins with one of these very recognisable American local radio news and weather broadcasts – Tennessee started laughing. It was an odd laugh, not so far off a thinnish high-pitched giggle. And he went on laughing right through the play. The audience took their cue, relaxed and it was an absolutely wonderful evening. In those days lots of Americans came to the King’s Head, some of them straight off the plane, and they were the worst for needing permission to let themselves go and laugh. Incidentally Holly Palance played Isabel and Tony Doyle played Mr. Bates.
Tennessee’s hair was down to his shoulders and he wasn’t stylishly dressed but extremely pleasant and generous and we chatted briefly and shook hands, after. It confirmed for me, the time I’d directed Streetcar for Dick Condon at Norwich, that surely there were a lot of laughs in Williams. I’d tried to convince an unfortunate lady called Anne Rodgers who played Blanche that it was O.K. for the audience to be amused. Anne just couldn’t get her head round that idea and wanted to be Lady Macbeth and Medea rolled into one but, fortunately, the rest of the cast were brilliant and leavened the event with a great deal of – uncomfortable – humour.
I blame Elia Kazan for distorting a whole generation’s view of Williams’ work; seeking to inflate it to bombastic, home-grown U.S. pseudo-tragedy. Peter Hall got Williams wonderfully right when he cast Julie Waters in The Rose Tattoo. He cut the fat off the play went for the acerbic comedy and we triumphed at the Playhouse (till Ken Stott broke his leg on the stage rake!) Almost all of Williams’ work is about sexual frustration and I have discovered that he thought sexual frustration was extremely funny – most people don’t.
Coming back from touring The Dream in the States, a while back, I was persuaded to direct Portrait of a Madonna. And it hit me again. That little play is so boring if you play it as tragedy. But Lucrezia Collins, a spinster of a certain age who phantasises that she’s being shagged daily by a long-ago crush and tells the hotel staff she’s pregnant by him, is especially painful when it’s also funny.
You hear Williams talk and realise he spent a good deal of his life frustrated himself, so it was either take a look, be amused or go entirely crazy – given the times he was living.