BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Tennessee Williams had always wanted to reimagine Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, The Seagull. He considered it the greatest of modern plays after Brecht’s Mother Courage, and he felt it had never been properly released from the confines of the translation straitjacket.
“The translations are all so stilted,” he told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1981. “They don’t have cadence or any of the other things a writer can bring to a translation. I have tried to make a different play of it while preserving its atmosphere of poetry and romanticism.”
Williams chose Vancouver for the first staging of what he called his “free adaptation” of The Seagull because “I’ve had happy experiences here in the past and I love the city.” He had been writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia in 1980 and had been pleased with the Vancouver Playhouse’s remounting of Red Devil Battery Sign, a play about the Kennedy assassination that Williams rewrote after it closed prematurely in Boston in 1975. Williams was confident the Playhouse would also do a good job with The Seagull, which he had retitled The Notebook of Trigorin, because “I have taken so many licences with it; I had to bring something of myself to it.”
Williams said he had felt the need to do more than simply craft a rewrite based on the existing Seagull translations because he found things in the original Chekhov text that needed to be expressed more directly. “I have always loved the delicate poetry of Mr. Chekhov’s writing, but now I find that he held too much in reserve,” he told me. “I have a feeling there were things that he would not have been able to explore in the social climate that he lived in. So, certain of the characters in his play I have explored more from my own insight, and more deeply.” One of those characters was the title character, Trigorin, a discontented novelist that Chekhov had presented as the apparently heterosexual lover of a fading actress named Arkadina. In Williams’s version, Trigorin was bisexual, chasing after the stable-boys on a friend’s estate.
As much as he enjoyed doing the adaptation, Williams planned to withdraw Trigorin from circulation after it finished its short Vancouver run. “I don’t want to be in competition with Mr. Chekhov’s work,” he explained. “I’ll certainly have to work harder on it before I release it again.” That meant him rewriting and polishing what he still considered a work-in-progress. The Vancouver director, Roger Hodgman, would recall many years later that he started preparing for the show with just a disparate collection of scenes that Williams had sent him “usually written on hotel notepaper from all over the world.” “But he wouldn’t finish it,” Hodgman told the Vancouver Sun. “He wanted to write all the big scenes, but he hadn’t put all the bits between in.” It wasn’t until he got to Vancouver in 1981 that Williams started to insert the missing links.
While Trigorin was being put on its feet in Vancouver in 1981, Williams had another new play, the autobiographical Something Cloudy, Something Clear, opening off off-Broadway. It had been 20 years since his last major commercial success, The Night of the Iguana in 1961, and he told me he didn’t expect Something Cloudy would come anywhere close to matching that achievement. It was all because of what he called the “declivity of my reputation, and my decline in popularity.” The critics kept expecting him to produce another Glass Menagerie or Streetcar Named Desire, and Williams had long moved away from that kind of pseudo-realism to what The New York Times called a “more impressionistic form in which time and memory have become the dominant motifs.” The Times, however, was no longer in his corner, Williams felt. “You must have The New York Times back of you if you want to bring any work uptown (to Broadway).”
He characterized his relationship with the Times as “rather frigid.” He had done an interview recently with the paper’s theatre reporter, Michiko Kakutani, in which she quoted Williams as saying he considered himself lucky to have been able to “turn my borderline psychosis into creativity.” “That kind of article doesn’t do anybody any good,” he told me. “And besides, I didn’t say it. I’m not a borderline psychotic. I’m just a terribly harassed old man.” (He was then 70.)
Williams said he considered himself fortunate “to have lived as long as I have in such a state of tumult as writing for the theatre.” Normally reticent about his creative process, he opened up to me in describing his writing as the “pursuit of a very evasive quarry that you never quite catch. Truth, the inner reality of things to the extent that we can perceive it, is hard to capture. But I think at times I have come close to achieving it.” In his later work, he added, “I find that I’ve become more abstract. I’m dealing with the spiritual world and that isn’t as easy to communicate to a mass audience.”
Looking back over his career, Williams said he was generally satisfied with his contributions to the dramatic literature of the English-speaking world. “If theatre continues to be valued in the western world, or wherever, my plays will continue to be done, and that’s some comfort.” If he had one big disappointment, it was that Russia, which produced such great playwrights as Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy, never sent him a penny in royalties for his plays that had been translated and staged there. “They’ve been ripping me off for years.”
He died at age 71, just 18 months after our interview. The New York City medical examiner said he choked to death on a plastic bottle cap while trying to ingest barbiturates. Williams had struggled with depression and a variety of illnesses, some of which were caused by his increasing reliance on alcohol and drugs.
The New York Times, as Williams predicted, had given a negative review to Something Cloudy, Something Clear. “It’s no use pretending that the long dry spell in Tennessee Williams’s career has ended with Something Cloudy, Something Clear,” wrote Frank Rich. Most of the characters were “left stranded on a beach waiting with the rest of us for Williams’s imaginative tide once more to come in.”
Williams worked on the rewrites of The Notebook of Trigorin until his death. After that, the play was kept under wraps for more than a dozen years by his literary executor, Maria St. Just, who reportedly disapproved of the work. When it finally resurfaced in 1996, after St. Just’s death, Trigorin was misleadingly promoted as a “newly discovered play by Tennessee Williams.” When it was finally produced for the second time, in London in 2010, the Guardian critic Michael Billington described Trigorin as “an intriguing collector’s item.” But Billington felt that Williams’s The Glass Menagerie was “closer to Chekhov’s spirit than this egotistical act of homage.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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