Plays age, like people and ideas, at a variable rate. Some few seem to grow nobler as they go gray, but most of them lose the glow of their youth and come to seem shabby or cranky or otherwise unattractive as the years go by. After four decades few still possess the power to command any but a polite attention. This sad truth has been underscored by the current dearth of new growth in the New York theater, as producers have ever more systematically mined the 1940s and 1950s for plays that still have some recognition value (often because their film versions have been haunting late-night television for decades). Recent seasons have seen revivals of All My Sons (1947), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), Our Town (1938), Born Yesterday (1946) and those two unsinkable showboats A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). It is as though Broadway had become the most cautious of summer theaters, reviving only those plays that might still turn up as winning answers on Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
By virtue both of his prolific output and his exemplary career (a huge success and shuddering fall), Tennessee Williams is the most interesting still-unresolved case study in the mutability of theatrical fame. Some few plays of his seem guaranteed of immortality, while the very last ones, such as The Red Devil Battery Sign, would surely defy even miraculous powers of resuscitation. What never lived can't be revived. There remains a large body of work that is still in dispute: his claim, in a sense, to have his own large oeuvre appear, as O'Neill's has, under the aegis of the Library of America. On the evidence of Peter Hall's new production of Orpheus Descending, William's claim looks more solid than ever.
When it first appeared as Battle of Angels in 1940 it flopped in an out-of-town tryout; in its Broadway recension as Orpheus Descending in 1957 it had a short run but received reviews that croon over the playwright's demonic powers. It was filmed in 1960 as The Fugitive Kind with Brando, Magnani and Woodward, in which form I swallowed its message hook, line and mythic sinker. The message--that provincial life maims sensitive spirits and is particularly dangerous for young men of a poetic temperament--is scarcely original to Williams. Dreiser, Lewis and many others were there before him, but no one has ever served up that message with quite the same horrific conviction--or with the particular subtext that eventually became an open secret: William's sensitive, doomed souls were homosexuals.
In William's heyday this was still a sin that dared not speak its name, and so the playwright's homosexual subtexts generated plummy grande dame characters, sometimes with a promiscuous past, and darkly brooding young studs with whom the grande dame falls tragically in love. This polarity is at the center of Streetcar, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Sweet Bird of Youth (recently revived on TV with Elizabeth Taylor as Alexandra del Lago, the most self-aggrandizing of Williams's grande dame self-portraits) and Orpheus Descending.
Williams has said that every playwright has an interior repertory company who are cast in all his plays, and that one of Shakespeare's greatnesses was that his rep company was so large. It may be Williams's greatness that he could write so many plays for such a small company. And almost all of them are present in Orpheus: the grande dame (Lady Torrance), the doomed stud (Val Xavier), the twittering neutered crone who represents the Eternal Artist (Vee Talbott), the patriarchal S.O.B. (in Orpheus he is Lady's husband; more usually he is the ingenue's father), his henchman, whose job is to announce that the doomed stud better be out of town by nightfall (Sheriff Talbott), and the ingenue, who is either a nymphomaniac or working at it (Carol Cutrere). Around these central figures Williams arranges choruses of cretinous rednecks. For a write whose work is so focused on the South, particularly in its oppressive aspects, blacks are curiously absent from William's mise en scene. In orpheus thee is only Uncle Pleasant, a mad conjure man who appears, like the Fate theme in Carmen, when the author would have our flesh creep.
I can't say my flesh really crept for this Orpheus, but it wasn't for want of professional exertions. Vanessa Redgrave has a lovely love scene and a grandiose death scene, a lot of sly humor, and skates past the purple passages so that she never seems responsible for the gloppy moments, the onus for which falls on the shoulders of Kevin Anderson. His Val smacks more of Dylan than Brando--a surly cuss who is only authentic when he's banging his guitar. Anne Twomey as a drunken nympho is regularly over the topo, but when have drunken nymphos evern been discreet? Everything is over the top, including Stephen Edwards's electronic score and the "Tunnel of Terror" lighting design by Paul Pyant and Neil Peter Jampolis. Hall has exerted no more effort to give the ostensibly naturalistic text a gloss of quotidian truth than one would expect to find in the average production of Il Trovatore.
It may be that Southern Gothic works, as ghost stories do, by virtue of an unearthly and anesthetizing atmosphere. At the time his plays were being written they surely struck audiences and critics as hyperbolic. "First-nighters sat spellbound throughout the harrowing dip into Hades," wrote the Daily Mirror's reviewer of Orpheus, and for the Post it was a "searing look at the dark and tormented world of Tennessee Williams." Williams's vision was applauded because it could be dismissed as private and skewed.
Now, I suspect, almost the opposite is true. The myths that Williams dramatized have become so deeply rooted in the national psyche, through having been echoed in the work of lesser writers (and on the nightly news), that he may seem genteel or disingenuous. His subtexts have become the topics for discussion on TV talk shows. State governments are more likely to fund artists than to persecute them. What his plays require, now, is the extra excess that Peter Hall has laid on, so that his myths may again have a whiff of forbidden knowledge, the kind we all want.