"My picture is now hanging in the renovated madhouse," says Jeremy Lawrence, and out of context this makes a haunting and evocative image. Put in context, it's an even more impressive line: Lawrence--who will perform Everyone Expects Me To Write Another 'Streetcar'
, his second one-man play about Tennessee Williams, for a limited run June 16-19 at the Abingdon Theatre Center--counts among his admirers the current occupants of the infamous "madhouse" in Key West, Fl., where Williams wrote some of his definitive work.
"The people who own the house love me, and I love the house," says Lawrence, adding with an impish smile, "But I'm still not sure if I like the idea."
An actor and playwright with an international career, Lawrence performed his previous Williams-based show, Talking Tennessee
, at Williams Festivals in both Key West and New Orleans, as well as at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Kennedy Center. That play led to his being cast in Five by Tenn
at the Kennedy Center and Manhattan Theatre Club. Lawrence based Talking Tennessee
on what are commonly called Williams' "occasional writings"--articles, letters, prefaces and poems. And he had an agenda.
"It was by intent an incredibly positive picture of Tennesssee," Lawrence admits. "I wanted people to know he was a writer who got up every day and wrote. People seem to know about his drug- and liquor-taking, but I wanted people to know he was an artist and a writer with a concept of what theatre should be."
Without losing his admiration for Williams, Lawrence knew there was more territory to cover.
"I always felt I wanted to work on another piece that would deal with some of the darker aspects of Tennessee," says Lawrence, who in addition to his work on Williams-related plays has adapted cabaret songs for Ute Lemper, and who recently won a "Bistro" award for his own cabaret piece, Lavender Songs
, featuring his adaptations of Weimar-era queer cabaret. Everyone Expects Me to Write Another 'Streetcar'
deals with Williams' often poorly received, much-misunderstood later plays; with the 1975 death of his longtime lover, Frank Merlo; with his political development, and, as Lawrence puts it, with Williams' "anger at what he calls the destruction of beauty as an ideal in this country."
One of Lawrence's primary inspirations is a substantive poem that Williams wrote about a breakdown he suffered, which Lawrence also renders in its entirety, titled "What's Next On the Agenda, Mr. Williams?" In Lawrence's telling, the poem's debut is a classic Tennessee story: worrying, comic, inherently theatrical, ultimately moving.
"He was supposed to do a reading at the London Poetry Festival in 1970, and when he arrived it turned out he'd forgotten everything, and had to go to a store to buy a collection of poems," Lawrence recounts. "Then, when he was onstage, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out this phenomenal prose poem--to me it reads like Howl
. I feel like it's just a rocket of passion, hilarious and it's brutal. He got a standing ovation. The audience went crazy."
The new play was also inspired by Lawrence's appearing in two of Williams' late one-acts, Traveling Companion
and Chalky White Substance
, at the New Orleans Tennessee Williams Festival, to which he promised a new Tennessee piece.
"When I was working on those shows, I was very involved with the people who had put on his late plays, so there was a lot of talk about that period of his life," Lawrence recalls. "I was impelled to look at this material."
The "material," in addition to the "Agenda" poem, is mostly interviews Tennessee gave. That made the work of shaping a play difficult but rewarding. Lawrence found that Williams' later work reflected the playwright's "evolved view of the world," which in turn led him to seek a different language from the one he employed in his first few decades of writing.
"He was boldly pursuing a new direction," Lawrence explains. "As he says, 'Certain radically altered circumstances in my life compelled me to work in correspondingly different styles. I hear the mad music of my characters, and the conventional pattern of a play could not contain that frenzy.' His work was no longer so trapped in the poetic loneliness and the need to break through barriers, one person to another. It was more an observation of American society. I think he was one of our great social critics from the start--particularly of the conflict between our Puritan culture and our inherent sensuality, and the violence caused by that conflict."
Lawrence recently enjoyed the Off-Broadway revival of Eccentricities of a Nightingale
, a 1951 revision of Williams' earlier play Summer and Smoke
, and marveled at the difference between the two.
are incredibly different plays," Lawrence says. "His whole point of view changed. Understanding the honesty and the passion and the courage behind that change is what my play is about. If nothing else, Tennessee was someone who endured." Along those lines, Lawrence says he firmly believes that Williams' 1983 choking death was an accident, not a suicide: "That he lived as long as he did is proof positive that he wanted to live. He probably wanted to get up the next day and write."
Though Lawrence never met Williams, he feels he knows him through his work, and those who did actually know Williams seem to agree.
"I don't channel him," Lawrence says. "I have seen interviews, but I don't study him--it's not an impression of him. He does exist as a very vibrant spirit in me. And I've met many people who have known him, and they have been very kind to me about how I've captured him. I know that he was a very complicated man."
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