By RORY LANCE
When I was a freshman in college, my dramatic structure professor showed us that there is a direct line from classical drama to modern American theatre. Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, connects directly to Eugene O’Neill, whose unique voice defied the European styles that had influenced the American stage until his emergence: both playwrights focused on our relationship to the cosmic forces that influence our destinies. Sophocles, he said, connects to Arthur Miller, both writing of the society and institutions that we ourselves create but often become obstacles to our happiness. Finally Euripides, whose plays focused on our continual battles with our fellow man and the interpersonal struggles that play out continually, was most perfectly represented in the twentieth century by Tennessee Williams. Language and performance techniques may have changed over the centuries, but these basic themes remain. Thank you, Professor Broomfield.
So you can imagine my excitement when I read that a new play by Tennessee Williams, Vieux Carré, was set to open on Broadway while I was studying at The Stella Adler Studio in the mid-1970s. I had already seen some major productions of Williams, including A Streetcar Named Desire at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with Rosemary Harris and the Circle In The Square production of The Glass Menagerie starring Maureen Stapleton. These were magnificent stagings of plays I already knew very well, but now we would have the chance to see something brand new, a historic experience that I wanted to be part of. Also, one of the books I had been reading on the subway ride to class was Williams’ recently published Memoirs. It was the most frank and honest personal reminiscence I had ever read; as he presented his own early self-discovery in vivid detail, I noticed extremely strong parallels with my own life.
One day during a break in class I brought up the subject of Vieux Carré with my classmate Sarah, who I believed was from the South (although it may have just been South Philly). She was all in. She had loved Williams ever since she appeared in The Lady Of Larkspur Lotion in high school. So that afternoon after Play Analysis class (in which Miss Adler was able to uncover ten qualities of Nora in A Doll’s House just from reading the opening stage directions!), Sarah and I trekked over to the St. James Theatre and purchased two balcony seats for a preview performance of Vieux Carré.
I loved it. Here was everything any Williams admirer could ask for: a sensitive young writer, a toxic masculine brute, a neurotic old lady, and a tragic young heroine. It was obviously inspired by Williams’ youthful days in New Orleans, and I was able to notice the relationship between how he chose to present his life in dramatic fiction and the non-fiction memoir I had just read. Plus, I was thrilled to see Sylvia Sidney play the neurotic landlady: she’d had a special place in my movie-watching history for years, ever since my mother and I sobbed our eyes out over her in Street Scene. I was pretty devastated when I read that Vieux Carré was going to close soon after it opened. I had really liked it and felt a part of theatrical history, being in the audience of a new Tennessee Williams play. But history is not kind to flops and most are soon forgotten. However, my own brush with history was yet to occur.
A few days after Vieux Carré, I met some friends for dinner at Ted Hook’s Backstage, a fashionable new hangout next to the Martin Beck Theatre, a block away from the St. James. As I made my way toward their table, suddenly -- who do I see sitting all by himself having dinner? The great man himself, Tennessee Williams! I froze, then started to shake, to lose my breath. Should I go over and say something? Do I dare interrupt him? But there he was, the subject of my essay for Professor Broomfield’s dramatic structure class. I knew I would never have this opportunity again. So I gathered my courage and went over to his table. “Excuse me, Mr. Williams, I don’t want to interrupt your dinner but I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed both Vieux Carré and Memoirs. I feel like I know you so well even though we’ve never met.” With that he laughed and said, “I’m glad you enjoyed my life.” Knowing when to make an exit, I told him to enjoy his dinner and thanked him. I spent only a single moment with Tennessee Williams, but in that moment he showed grace and good humor. By giving me a moment of his dinner time, he gave me a moment I will carry for all time.
I am so happy to know that even though Vieux Carré was not much appreciated during its initial Broadway run, it has been produced all over the country and has found deserved critical and audience praise. And I once spoke to its author.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.