Saturday, October 6, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "The Making of Blanche DuBois" (on Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

the making of blanche dubois

by Douglas Messerli


Tennessee Williams (screenplay, based on his rewrite of Summer and Smoke), Glenn Jordan (director) The Eccentricities of a Nightingale / 1976 (TV movie)


The other day I watched a filmed version of a production of Williams’ little-known play (based on a production at either the Louisville Actor’s Theatre or the Old Globe in San Diego—both are named at different sites). The Eccentricities is a rewrite of his Summer and Smoke, but the characters behave quite differently than they do in the former play and the tone is completely different, as Williams himself noted, far less melodramatic and certainly less symbolic that Summer and Smoke, first performed a year after his great A Streetcar Named Desire.

     One recognizes immediately, in fact, this play’s close relationship with Streetcar, whose central character, Alma Winemiller (Blythe Danner), shares many similarities with Blanche Dubois, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of some of the forces behind the over-the-top figure of Williams’ earlier play (Summer and Smoke, in earlier versions, however, predated A Streetcar).

     Alma, the daughter of the Glorious Hill, Mississippi Episcopalian minister, is a fragile being, as we recognize from the very first scene where she is frightened over and over by the fireworks going off around her on the 4th of July. She has also been performing, singing, and, particularly since—as everyone observes and she herself admits—she feels the songs so strongly, she describes herself as being overwrought. Also, she perceives her next-door neighbor, John Buchanan, Jr. (Frank Langella)—a young doctor who has been away to school at Johns Hopkins University—has temporarily returned home and, between long conversations with his mother and others, stares at her as she sits with her father (Tim O’Connor) and mother (Louise Latham) in the square. The mother, who we soon discover, is insane, is quickly whisked away, as she is throughout much of the play, Buchanan coming over to speak with Alma. But he too is soon taken off by his mother (Neva Patterson), who insists that he pay a doctorly visit to a patient that his father is too tired to attend to. Thus, Williams’ immediately sets up the situation: Alma is clearly aflutter in the presence of Buchanan, and Buchanan is obviously dominated and controlled by his mother.

    What is also apparent is that the still beautiful but virginal Alma is— in a word the play itself uses to describe her—almost hysterical, using any reason to swallow down the small white pills the doctor has prescribed for her (probably just placebos). Her father, in fact, attempts, to have a heart-to-heart talk with her in the very next scene, now Christmas, about her fluttering hands, her exaggerated gestures and speech, and—the most comical of accusations—her penchant for feeding birds in the town square. She is getting the reputation of an “eccentric.” Despite her father’s stern warnings, however, Alma stands up for her own behavior quite strongly, and we realize that despite the tensions of her home life, she has attempted to play role of a supporting daughter quite ably. Yet she is hurt, feels shunned by the local community, particularly when local carolers visit the Buchanan house but turn away from the Winemiller home. Alma seeks solace in a small gathering of town would-be intellectuals, odd people who mostly have inflated egos, confusing Blake with Rimbaud, and writing endlessly long verse plays. Only Alma, of the group, seems to know anything about poetry or literature.

     She invites Buchanan—who has again returned for a stay in Glorious Hill—to the gathering which ends in unpleasant bickering among the group and, once more, the young doctor’s being led off by his mother, who has a very different view of whom her beloved son will marry.

     The scene with the two of them, mother and son, in the Buchanan home is as close to love scene as the young doctor ever gets. Mrs. Buchanan clearly is the smothering type, who continues to control his life. Yet despite his mother’s interference, he has managed to make a date with Alma, whom he admires for her intelligence and the exciting flashes of change that run across her face. Her very eccentricities, he observes, is what makes her so special, so different from all the other women he has met and certainly sets her apart from any woman his might wish him to marry.

     Langella plays this scene, as well as others, with a kind of gentle passivity that almost angered me: why doesn’t he speak out, speak up for what he sees in Alma? Why can’t he show some anger at his mother’s bourgeois visions for his future life? Instead, he merely answers with quiet irony and, we later perceive, coded phrases that make him appear detached.

     Alma is fearful when evening arrives for their date that he won’t show, and when he does, she is almost overwhelmed with a kind of energized force, telling him after the movie of her life-long love for him. She even suggests that they go someplace for sex, to which he demurs. Alma admits that she does not expect this friendship to any further, but if she only she might have one night, a whole evening to remember… Again he demurs, but finally agrees to take her to a hotel that specializes in just such encounters. Once there, however, it becomes apparent that nothing will happen. What doesn’t get said is quite obvious: the young doctor is gay, disinterested in sex with a woman. Alma perceives the situation immediately. And in the last scene of the play, described as an epilogue, we see her seated on the same park bench where she sat early in the play. She has aged. When she encounters a young salesman, she begins a conversation, suggesting that they visit the same hotel. Apparently, she has now found regular companions for the one-night encounters she had sought out.

     This might almost be a reincarnation or glimpse of an earlier Blanche Dubois, the young woman of entitlement, given to romantic notions of the world, but also desirous of the pleasures of sex. Like Blanche, her first love turns out to be a homosexual, unable to give her what she desires. Alma has already begun on the long downward spiral where Blanche ends, in the arms of a teenage boy in a similar seedy hotel.

    Danner’s performance as Alma is splendid, and her stunning portrayal of Williams’ “eccentric nightingale” brings this play to life in a way that Summer and Smoke, with its smoldering old maid at the center, never achieves. I might even go so far, after watching this excellent TV production, as to suggest that Eccentricities of a Nightingale is one of Williams’ best works.


Los Angeles, October 6, 2012

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2012).

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