Three Plays by Tennessee Williams
June 23, 2010
Back in April, the Criterion Collection released a welcome DVD of Sidney Lumet’s fourth feature, The Fugitive Kind. An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1957 play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is an underrated work, an atmospheric movie wrapped around a searing performance from Marlon Brando (who would never interpret Williams on film again).
But the major rediscovery in this release is an “extra,” a one-hour live television drama called “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” which aired as a segment of The Kraft Theatre on April 16, 1958, and has so far as I know been unavailable outside of museums and archives ever since. Last year Criterion released a box set of eight key live television dramas, which comprised canonical works like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and Rod Serling’s “Patterns.” While it was delight to see these masterpieces in the limelight again, they had all been in circulation on cable and on videotape since the early eighties. The arrival of “Three Plays” implies a commitment to plow a little deeper into the vaults and unearth some classic television that’s not only good but also rare. I’m not sure that Criterion quite understood what they had in “Three Plays” (for one thing, they’ve managed to spell the name of one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, incorrectly on the DVD packaging)*, and most reviewers of the disc have either brushed past the television segment or failed to contextualize it accurately. But all that matters is that it’s out there for all of us to discover on our own.
“Three Plays,” which appears in its entirety (except for the original commercial segments) in the Fugitive Kind release, comprises three one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams in the lean years before A Streetcar Named Desire established him as one of the essential American writers. Apart from Williams, the connection between “Three Plays” and The Fugitive Kind is the director of both, Sidney Lumet, who had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language. All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.
Between them, the three one-acts encapsulate many of Williams’s recognizable motifs in an undiluted form: the naked emotionalism, the fragile female psyches, the decaying grandeur of the Old South, the complex depiction of nostalgia, and what Lumet calls “the destruction of our sensitive souls.” They’re an essential corollary for anyone who ranks the best cinematic adaptations of Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana) among the most vital of American movies during the fifties and early sixties.
“Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” opens the hour, either because it was the earliest of the plays chronologically, or because it features the cast’s only marquee names: the graylisted Lee Grant and Gazzara, who had originated the role of Brick in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Contemporary reviewers scolded Gazzara for overacting, and in “Moony” he does revel in full-on torn-shirt mode. The layer of self-conscious cool that would be an element in his great performances (in the films for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich) is nowhere in sight here, even though Gazzara had it down as early as Anatomy of a Murder, only a year later. “Moony” is bait for Method-haters, two sweaty people screeching at each other in a squalid room without pause, and if the exercise succeeds it’s because Lumet positions the excess of Moony’s and his wife’s outbursts as the prelude to a single, gentle gesture at the finale.
“The Last of the Solid Gold Watches” is the weakest of the trio, a kind of get-off-my-lawn harangue delivered by Broadway actor Thomas Chalmers with a somber dignity that drags against the youthful vitality of the surrounding performances. Zina Bethune, only thirteen at the time, offers the best performance in “Three Plays,” as the grotesquely-dressed Willie Starr, who lives in the ruins of her family home and clings to the treasured memory of her deceased older sister Alva. The technical limitations of live television catch up with “This Property Is Condemned,” in that Bethune speaks so fast and so breathily that some of Williams’s dialogue can’t be caught by the studio microphone. Still, Lumet gets the point across, gradually peeling off the layers of Willie’s monologue to reveal her as an unreliable narrator and a forlorn and tragic figure.
It’s useful to compare Lumet’s succinct vignette to the wreck of a movie directed by Sydney Pollack, which bears the title This Property Is Condemned but deviates from Williams’s material to personify the unseen Alva in the form of Natalie Wood. The Willie Starr scene dramatized in “Three Plays” becomes an expository prologue, sandwiched in the middle of the opening credits. Pollack’s staging of that scene, along a curve in a defunct railroad track, resembles Lumet’s, despite the contrast between the film’s sunny outdoor location and the TV production’s cramped interior set. I suspect that Pollack had seen the Kraft Theatre, and he may have understood that even this bastardized remnant of Williams’s play was better than any subsequent scene in his film. Mary Badham, Pollack’s Willie Starr, is more hardened and less vulnerable than Bethune, so we have a record of two different and, I think, equally valid approaches to the character.
“To live is to change, to change is to live,” says Tennessee Williams, in his live, on-camera introduction to “Three Plays.” Understandably, Williams takes care to label these short works as early efforts, perhaps not up to the level of the famous plays and films for which viewers would know him. He also seems nervous, stepping on the announcer’s intro with his first line and often looking upward at his cue cards. How did the Kraft Theatre land both Williams and his trio of short plays for this broadcast? The answer involves some television heavyweights, and much change of the sort to which Williams alludes.
Williams was a hot literary commodity in 1958, with a decade of important plays and movies to his credit and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, due in theaters in the fall. But Williams’s plays were dense, and too adult to be a natural fit for television. Even in the “Three Plays,” which have little overt sexual content, it’s surprising that the suggestion of Willie’s casual promiscuity comes through so clearly. The person who fought to bring “Three Plays” to television without a great deal of censorship or simplification seems to have been Robert Herridge, one of the great forgotten producers of the live era.
Herridge had passed briefly through prime time, with a summer stint on Studio One – summer was when the heavyweight TV producers fled sweltering Manhattan and let the “B” team take over for thirteen weeks. But he was known mainly for non-commercial programming that ran in the Sunday “cultural ghetto,” minimalist dramas that echoed the style of avant-garde theater and documentaries showcasing the jazz and folk music for which Herridge had a passion. (Camera Three, The Seven Lively Arts, and The Robert Herridge Theatre were some of the umbrella titles for Herridge’s programs.) On Kraft he was subordinate to David Susskind, a talent agent who had become a big wheel in the industry as a “packager” of television properties.
With live drama, and its own Television Theatre hour (which dated back to 1947), in their death throes, Kraft took a chance on bringing in a big wheel like Susskind. Someone, either Susskind or Kraft or Herridge, hatched the idea of adapting a series of important modern literary works on the KraftTheatre. The idea was to attract more talent, more publicity, more viewers than the usual Kraft fare of original, written-for-television dramas. These shows kicked of with “Three Plays” and also included “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” and a two-part, Don Mankiewicz-scripted version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that Herridge partisan Nat Hentoff deemed “a far more seizing transformation of the book than Robert Rossen’s screen version.” Sidney Lumet, who had just been nominated for the Oscar for Twelve Angry Men and had his pick of television assignments, signed on to direct “Three Plays” and “All the King’s Men.”
Susskind, remembered today as a defender of quality television, was no philistine. He launched East Side / West Side and brought a number of other difficult plays and novels to television on the DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week. But Herridge was too far out for Susskind, who called him a “kook” and carped that Herridge “tried to substitute nonconformity of dress for talent.” Herridge earned Susskind’s lasting enmity by shouldering the senior producer aside on the Kraft shows, literally barring Susskind from some of the rehearsals. Susskind’s staffers Jacqueline Babbin and Audrey Gellen, who worked on the DuPont Show and Play of the Week adaptations (sometimes fronting for blacklisted writers), are credited on “Three Plays” as story editors. But I would guess that whatever changes were made to Williams’s text were done by Herridge, or by Williams himself with Herridge’s input.
(Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz, late of Studio One, also appears in the credits of “Three Plays,” as an associate producer. I have no idea whether he was attached to Susskind, Herridge, Kraft, or NBC at that point.)
What’s fascinating about Kraft’s experiment in literature is how short-lived it was. Susskind and Herridge may have produced as few as a half-dozen segments for Kraft, which morphed into the Kraft Mystery Theatre for the summer and dropped from high- to low-brow with adaptations of pulpy short stories (including a couple of Ed McBain’s early 87th Precinct tales). In October of 1958, The Kraft Theatre went off the air for good.
I’d love to see Criterion follow up this release with a package of the other Susskind-produced Krafts, which survive. But to be honest, what I’d like even more is a collection of the lesser-known original dramas from the year or two preceding the Susskind shows. These were teleplays written by some of the finest writers of the late-live television era: James Leo Herlihy, James Lee Barrett, John Gay, Paul Monash, Will Lorin, David Davidson, Robert Crean, Richard DeRoy, Robert Van Scoyk, Alfred Brenner. Larry Cohen, only twenty and still in the army, contributed some of the Mystery scripts, and even Jack Klugman (yes, that Jack Klugman) wrote a couple. I’ll bet an audit of those kinescopes would yield some fine, forgotten work.
Tennessee Williams, television host.
* Update, 6/24/2010: The original version of this piece also noted the misspelling of Gazzara’s name on the Criterion website, which was corrected shortly after publication. Notes on sources: Sidney Lumet quote is from a video interview on the Fugitive Kind DVD; Nat Hentoff quote and some of the Robert Herridge background are from “A TV Exclusive! The Passion of Huckleberry Dracula,” collected in The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001).