Paul Birchard writes:
U & Me & Tennessee
certainly taken a lot more time than I envisaged when we started
out in June, 2005...! Persistent lack of money leads to delays -
the need to earn money to continue the work takes time away
from editing, rostrum, music - the entire project is forever balancing
on a knife edge - will we get it completed? Or will we all die
first ? (God forbid!) - But frustrating as it is, that's
simply standard operating proceedure in real independent movie-making.
Jack O'Brien (Tony Award-winning director of Hairspray)
observed to a tired actor during rehearsals of His Girl Friday
(when I worked with him back in 2003):
Well - You wanted to be in the show! "
friend asked me recently how I'd managed to maintain my focus
and enthusiasm for U
& Me & Tennessee
over such a long haul ?
suppose that boils down to answering this question:
does Tennessee Williams mean to me?
Well, first of all, as a young actor discovering Tennessee's work
by grappling with his early one-act plays - The Lady of Larkspur
Mooney's Kid Don't Cry, Something Unspoken (to
name only three) - fiercely rehearsed by me and my fellow student
actors late at night or in the early morning hours before Charles
Vernon's Acting class in the basement of Royce Hall at
U.C.L.A. - big, challenging roles in bite-sized plays that
we watched one another bring to varying degrees of life......
"a book is a machine to think with," Tennessee's
one-acts are well-crafted, sturdy devices to learn to act
Vernon, my Scottish Acting teacher, summed up Tennessee's
dramatic method as follows:
Poetic Expression of the Sub-Text "
and this still seems to me to be entirely apt.
of Charles's other students included Forrest Whittaker,
Tate Donovan, Ally Sheedy and my dear friend the
late director Charlie Hall.)
Glass Menagerie is undoubtedly
a masterpiece, and a powerful reminder that the personal, the
particular is the universal, the political.
his lifetime, various pundits remarked that Tenn's plays are not
sufficiently political in their outlook, and he suffered some
rebuke because he did not champion homosexuality more openly in
Hopkins and I recently saw The Fugitive Kind on the big
screen - directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Tennessee and
Meade Roberts - and it is a really great movie -
are minor things in it that one might quibble about ( I would
like to have seen Marlon Brando actually play that guitar
at least once !), but watching it in the context of the ongoing
rape of Iraq by pathologically murderous elements of American
(and other) power, and remembering Vietnam and too much else -
I could clearly see the entire foundation and much of the superstructure
of the death-loving, criminal combine currently in the ascendant,
portrayed in the clearest detail in Tennessee's script - brought
to terrifying life by Victor Jory (Jabe) and R.G. Armstrong
Tenn wrote in his introduction to A Streetcar Named Desire:
"I think the problem
that we should apply ourselves to is simply one of survival.
I mean actual, physical survival !"
in the late 1950's, Anna Magnani's smouldering, fiery Lady
- Marlon Brando's restrained, reflective Val, Joanne
Woodward's disengaged, alienated Carol all point toward
the future - now - when Americans would need to
realize that we are but one nation among many - that all people
are connected - that we must repudiate deliberate cruelty and
those who practice it (whatever their momentary, specious justifications
for doing so).
central challenge of our time is to make war spiritually
on the ingrained attitudes that precipitate most of the suffering
we endure because of cold-hearted, callous people of the type
Tenn clearly portrayed in Jabe Torrance and the Sherrif
in The Fugitive Kind.
me, as I've come to think deeply about him during the making of
this movie, it's obvious that Tennessee understood and waged
this spiritual battle, with might and main, over many decades.
fought the good fight in his work.
in his personal life, Tennessee was certainly capable of deliberate
cruelty...He was candid about some of it. A lot of it he probably
he himself admitted, he was both Blanche and Stanley.
U & Me & Tennessee
because we do not avoid this paradox in Tenn's nature. The impact
of his complex, contradictory personality on Konrad Hopkins is
the very subject of the film. As Konrad makes clear, Tennessee
was capable of being extremely generous, delightful, kind - but
he was also cruel - if not sadistic - cold, thoughtless and self-obsessed.
what's remarkable to me - wonderful - about Tennessee is
that even in his cruelty he could impart priceless lessons in
the art of living - Konrad certainly feels this now, though it
took many, many years for him to arrive at this understanding.
the reason we can still make interesting work about Tenn
- nearly twenty-five years after his death - is
not only because of his piercing intelligence, nor what even a
trenchant critic like Frank Rich had to acknowledge was Tennessee's
almost unobstructed channel to the collective unconscious - nor
is it due to his notorious lifestyle, chronicled in his Memoirs
and Notebooks and by others.
isn't even because he produced so many masterpieces - A Streetcar
Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird
of Youth, and so many other memorable, arresting plays, movie
scripts and stories.
The reason Tennessee Williams is still news, still evokes curiosity
and avid interest is because of his unquenchable committment to
his work - to working every day no matter
Rader has written a wonderful book about his close friend:
Tennessee Williams - A Cry of the Heart. In Britain it
was subtitled "An Intimate Memoir" and it certainly
asked him why he worked every day. I have known a lot of writers
who claim to work every day - I've even made that preposterous
avowal - but Tennessee is the only writer who ever actually
try to work every day, baby, because you have no refuge but
writing. None. When you're going through a period of unhappiness,
a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some
other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing...Could
you live without writing, baby? I couldn't...if my work is interrupted
I'm like a raging tiger."
of life is showing up. Tennessee showed up virtually every day
of his life - and worked hard.
(It's interesting to note that JAMES T. FARRELL, the
other writer Konrad Hopkins knew well, also worked
incredibly hard - writing twenty to thirty pages a day,
most of the time! Konrad edited three of Farrell's
books for him. Unlike Tennessee, Farrell had no qualms about
allowing another's editorial sense to shape his work.
Konrad still writes about 1,000 words a day himself !)
If you want to hear Tennessee's voice, you might
get ahold of a copy of the new edition of his Collected
Poems. New Directions books have included a CD of Tenn
reciting some of the poems !
National Public Radio also featured an
interesting piece a few years back, still available on the web,
about some old cardboard phonograph records made in a penny arcade
in New Orleans by Tennessee and his then companion Pancho, which
had been lying at the bottom of a trunk full of stuff Tenn had
left at Donald Windham's place - It's worth a listen.
There is a lot more I'd like to say - but - long
story short ? -
When I began work on U
& Me & Tennessee I was prepared to believe that
Tennessee had behaved very badly toward Konrad Hopkins in particular,
and by implication and recorded fact, many other people as well.
As I've read and thought more deeply about him
over these past two years, I've come to have a more balanced view
of Tennessee Williams, and a respect, an admiration for Mr. Williams's
unceasing artistic efforts and achievements has been born in me,
which continues, each day, to grow stronger and deeper.