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  • Scott Carter Cooper

Elia Kazan and Tennesee Williams Gave Me Life

For the past few years, I’ve been interested in the artists of the mid-twentieth century. They are the bedrock of today’s American artists; living in a psychic kaleidoscope in my mind, combining and recombining for new insights with each contact.

I’ve been reading the production notes of Elia Kazan. While I wouldn’t say they are exactly revelatory, they do provide insight into his almost microscopic approach to the texts that he worked with. A good director is like a diamond cutter, taking a rock and turning it into something astonishing and magnetic.

In my wanderings through the works of the greats of American art, I am inevitably led back to Tennessee Williams, and each new contact is fresh. So, of course in reading Kazan’s notes, I have once again come into the presence of Williams. A Streetcar Named Desire is the greatest American play ever written. Each contact, either in reading, live performance, or the films is a personal experience and if allowed to become so, a religious experience.

I suppose my earliest exposure to Williams was in high school and reading three of his plays, major works, Streetcar, Suddenly Last Summer, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I know this because while in high school, I was shuttled around between parents frequently, going to six different schools in the four years of high school. In one of the more dramatic episodes, I inadvertently absconded half a globe away with a few library books, the Williams texts being one of them. I don’t remember my impressions of the plays in those first readings. I do remember struggling through Cat because there were two version of the third act -- and that just seemed excessive to me. In college, I worked on scenes from Menagerie, and Streetcar. The first was because I professor told me I should play the Gentleman Caller one day, (I never did) and the other because a professor told me I would never play Stanley, (he was right) but neither play really stuck. To be honest, not much did for me at that age. I was easily distracted in my late teens and early twenties. And my late twenties. And my thirties... I was, however, smart enough to know that other people thought of the plays as great. I knew it, but I didn’t feel it. In my narcissism, if a play didn’t have a role for me, it wasn’t worth my time and in my acting years I didn’t really see myself in a Williams text. Now, as I approach my dotage, I see that may have been because I didn't want to. Now, every reading is almost like looking in a mirror, and I have to wonder if it's that way for everyone or if it's just some cosmic joke played on me. I suspect and hope that it's the former, but latent narcissism still makes me wonder about the latter.

I did get to play a villainous role in one Williams piece, Orpheus Descending. Williams wrote malignant people almost too effectively, and while the production was well received, and I received comment, I did not like playing the role. However, the rehearsal process was something of a dream for me. In a smaller role, I was forced to listen. Like Shakespeare and Shaw, Williams's language is a valuable experience when read, but cannot be fully appreciated unless heard. And when that production ended I went back to the texts and that’s when the click happened. I needed to see him performed. All of him.

The problem with Williams is that he can be difficult (expensive) to produce, so opportunities to see his work are not as common as other playwrights. Certainly not common enough. But there are films and recorded live performances, and so after reading the Kazan notes on Streetcar I had to rewatch his film version. I’ve seen it five or six times. The first time, it was good. And then I have to admit that there were a couple of times I found it flat, and in one of those viewings couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. And then a couple of years, I rewatched it and Brando leapt off the screen and caught fire in my living room. I’d just read a Brando biography and more fully understood the brilliance of the technique of his acting. Up to that point, because his performance is so effortless, it was easy for me to assume that Brando was just being Brando. No. It is a perfectly executed work of art and artifice. I spent the next few months falling down a Brando rabbit hole, viewing everything I could get my hands on. The only other performance that comes close is his final scene in The Godfather, and that is a very different thing.

Then last week, I watched Streetcar again hoping to connect with Kazan’s brilliance. The film started out sort of corny for me, clumsy, and I was almost ready to dismiss Kazan’s work as outdated. That’s when Vivien Leigh took control. Of course, I always knew it was a great performance, but I never really appreciated how sly it is. The film only really comes into focus on a second viewing, when you've had time to digest Brando's performance and so can look elsewhere on the screen. Brando may have the more difficult role, having to play a hidebound character in an ethereal piece, but Leigh’s performance is by far more complex because she not only lives in a different world, she gives us a Technicolor vision of that world in a Warner Bros. black and white film. It’s a world none of the characters can see, much less understand and so with little more than Williams’s words, Leigh makes us feel that world.

Williams is the modern ur-playwright. All of us working today owe something to him, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. That’s not to say all of his work is flawless, but it may be because of the flaws that a Williams play is endlessly fascinating for an audience and compulsory for a theatre artist. But it took an equal genius to show us that.

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