Private Prisons

Thomas Lanier Williams had not yet become Tennessee Williams when he wrote Not About Nightingales in 1937­38, though he used the name when submitting a packet of plays that included it to the Group Theater, which sensibly awarded him $100 for his one-acts, and sent Nightingales back, to lie undisturbed in his files until Vanessa Redgrave dug it up. She might have let it lie without undue harm. A literary curio that adds no more than a few footnotes to Williams's reputation, Nightingales is mainly notable as a lesson in the ways even a self-generating, poetically fecund talent like Williams can learn by mimicking the currently popular models, and shaping his sensibility to his idea of the market taste. Though streaked with hints of the real Williams to come, the play is chiefly an imitation of something else— a standard-issue '30s prison movie— carpentered up to please somebody else: the "socially conscious" New Yorkers who made up the Group and its audience. Though based on a horrifying actual case (see Jay Dixit's article in issue 7), Williams's script runs through the predictable types and relationships set up in early talkies like The Big House and The Criminal Code, dressing them in his notion of Depression-era p.c.

More interesting than Williams's attempts to replicate the slick pattern are his lapses from it. The villainous warden who drives the men to revolt and then tortures them is given a gaze of hypnotic power, in the Gothic-monster tradition. (Some of Williams's earliest stories appeared in Weird Tales.) An overtly effeminate prisoner, called The Queen, is written to be played for pathos instead of comedy, a notion that would have sat no better with Broadway-goers of the time than with the keepers of Hollywood's Production Code. In quick-flash scenes that might still raise questions about authorial motive and ethics, Williams shows the agony to which the rebellious prisoners are subjected, locked in a windowless room at 150-degree heat. And he has his proletarian hero, Butch O'Fallon— even the name sounds tailor-made for Wallace Beery— bounce back from the torture to exact an equally brutal revenge, without even a letup in his tough-guy speechmaking; the last few scenes evoke Monogram Pictures rather than reality.

At its worst, Nightingales confirms skeptics like Mary McCarthy, whose famously captious review found tourist-trap images of lowlife even in A Streetcar Named Desire. That there's another side to the argument is indicated here by a device that virtually invites the audience to join Williams in tourist class: The play opens and closes with a voice-over from the deck of a tour boat passing the prison island— a boat which, at the end, unknown to its guide, may be carrying the better-spoken of the play's two heroes to freedom. Canary Jim, the warden's pet trusty and resident snitch, has been playing for the convicts' side all along. "I was your friend," the warden pleads with him at their final confrontation, to which Jim replies, in one of the script's few truly great moments, "I wasn't yours." The man who could build a factitious, cliché-ridden script to that exchange would surely go on to write something extraordinary.

Hard time on Broadway: Corin Redgrave in Not About Nightingales
Joan Marcus
Hard time on Broadway: Corin Redgrave in Not About Nightingales

Details

Not About Nightingales
By Tennessee Williams
Circle in the Square
Broadway and 50th Street
239-6200

Bright Lights, Big City
By Paul Scott Goodman
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
460-5475

Snakebit
By David Marshall Grant
Century Theatre
111 East 15th Street
239-6200

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If we had a real repertory theater that might put up a few dozen performances of Nightingales as part of its ongoing work, expending resources on this curiosity might make sense. But New York has no such theater, so the work has been mounted, as a commercial speculation at Broadway prices, in a coproduction by institutional theaters in London and Houston that does neither city very much credit. The uptown Circle in the Square is notoriously the worst possible place to stage almost anything, but Trevor Nunn's flat, perfunctory production strikes a new low even for that spatial hell. Hints all over the script show Williams's interest in the Group's Stanislavsky-based way of creating a scenic atmosphere and a sense of each character's life that gave their productions such excitement. Nunn not only doesn't do this, he does nothing else instead, plodding blankly from one line to the next to form an unshaped and almost rhythmless pileup of repetitive scenes, in which virtually no one carries any past experience or undergoes any but the briefest emotional conflict. The one arguable exception is Sherri Parker Lee, as the job-desperate nice girl who goes to work in the warden's office and falls in love with Canary Jim. Though victimized by some of Nunn's worst staging ideas— including a hypnotism scene that makes Trilby look like a medical textbook— Lee at least finds a center for the role, and holds to it without lapsing into monotony. Her colleagues, unfortunately, either hammer their single notes into unbearability, like James Black's Butch, or drift into the implausible while trying to dodge the obvious, like Finbar Lynch's Canary Jim, whom it's impossible to imagine surviving for eight seconds the life Williams describes. But the casting's only what you'd expect from this kind of trade-off, with a director in charge whose take on the text is so mechanical. This is the most ineffectual, mediocre work we've seen from Nunn since he established his criminal record with Cats; I hope someone spays his directing career before it litters again.

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