A Room with a Vieux
Throughout his long career, the American playwright Tennessee Williams drew audiences into a hidden world of sexual desire and sexual desperation. Michael Magnusson hears from director Alice Bishop about the Midsumma Festival staging of Williams’ little known, late career look at his own origins in a low life rooming house in the American deep south.
After becoming one of America’s most successful writers with his landmark plays The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams continued writing until his death in 1983.
One of his later plays, from 1977, takes its name from Vieux Carré (pronounced voo car-ay), the term for New Orleans’s French Quarter. It is set in a dilapidated boarding house in 1930s Vieux Carré where Williams actually lived at the time.
There the unnamed, but obviously autobiographical hero, is a writer grappling with his uncertaiartistic and sexual ambitions while the other tenants grapple with their own emotional and erotic demons. Terminally ill Jane is also terminally in love with the uncaring, sexually ambiguous and drug addicted Tye. There’s a failed artist who lives for booze and quick sexual encounters, a gay photographer who lives mostly for sex, a couple of broken down belles who live in the basement and presiding over them all is landlady, Mrs Wire, who pines for her lost son in an alcoholic stupor.
Director Alice Bishop says the play is based on a short story Williams wrote in the 1940s and that in it are the formation of characters like Blanche and Stanley from Streetcar.
“It’s a follow on from his very great ‘classic’ period, but is very different in some respects in that it speaks frankly to sexuality rather than in veiled references,” she says.
Sexuality abounds in Vieux Carré and there is not one, but two gay characters and even more, according to Bishop.
A third is the brutish Tye who could swing either way depending on the emphasis a director places on him. And even the two ladies are living a very close relationship in the basement of the house.
“Depending on your point of view Williams is all over it,” she says.
Bishop said that when Williams was writing the play in the mid 1970s an entirely new kind of social difference was emerging with Women’s Liberation and the Gay Rights movement.
“There was a new kind of tolerance around people who make other choices. He left those 1950s American social mores behind and because he was now publically ‘out’ he felt he could deal with those subjects in a more ‘head on’ way and it would not only be relevant to his audience but completely acceptable to them too in light of the new developments going on in theatre at the time.”
She added that, as Williams was still writing in the ‘Southern Gothic’ style of his earlier work, the critics were rather unfair.
“It must have been very difficult for him because they expected everything he wrote to be another Glass Menagerie or another Streetcar.”
Bishop, however, thinks otherwise. She read his major works in her 20s, but had read little of his later work. She has made up for it in the past few months, “cutting a swathe” through most of his later plays and writing.
“It becomes quite fascinating to see how he approaches an idea when he was a young man, go back to that idea in the middle years and then to see him turn it in another direction in the later years,” she says.
To better understand the southern accents and characters as well as the music and lyricism of the plays and the importance of New Orleans on them and the author, she visited the city last year.
“It’s just the most fascinating, spirited city. Because it’s a port city, there’s such a diversity of humanity there and, in terms of those accents you hear it’s just extraordinary.
“You hear accents from all over the South and people with Creole heritage, Cajun heritage.”
She said the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city have left a raft of social problems, but she still found the people there to be extraordinary, like the characters in the play.
“You could read it as a very bleak situation but these characters have great stoicism and strength.
“Every character comes from a different social strata and has a different set of social circumstances, but they are living out their lives in a time of discrimination, [however] there is great hope and love throughout.”
So it seems that her taste of New Orleans has paid off although there was one taste she didn’t care for; the cocktail named after Vieux Carré.
“It’s horrible,” she laughs.
(Image) Josh Blau (guitar) and Thomas Blackburne. Photo: Julian Dolman
Vieux Carré, until February 3, Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
information and bookings: fortyfivedownstairs.com