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Top Tenn Centenary

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It will be the centenary of Tennessee Williams on Saturday and I hope I shall find a way of celebrating suitably when I'm in Turin for the weekend. One plan is to find tickets, somehow, for Verdi's Sicilian Vespers at the opera house.

Another is simply to reflect on his plays, toast him in a good glass of wine and anticipate seeing one I've never even heard of, A Cavalier for Milady, at the Cock Tavern next week.

John Lahr's long-awaited critical biography is not yet complete; the last time I bumped into Lahr he told be he'd got Tenn on the couch and over the bump of his greatest plays. The thing about him was, of course, he never really wrote a dud line, and even the lost juvenilia come up with surprises, as has been proved at the Glasgow Citizens, the Finborough and most recently the Northampton Royal.

Ironically, Christopher Bigsby has just published his "great book" on Arthur Miller, the other major American dramatist of the last century, and I see that David Thacker has returned to Miller's The Price at the Bolton Octagon, acclaimed by Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph yesterday.

But Williams, easily the greatest of all modern American dramatists, seems to have slipped under the wire, what with all our revisionist breast-beating over Terence Rattigan in his centenary year, and articles by right wing columnists proclaiming the return of Flare Path as a vindication of true values in the theatre and one in the eye for the Royal Court brigade.

While it is true there was a period of rebuff for Rattigan as the new wave broke on the Royal Court strand, it is absurd to suggest, as Charles Moore did in the Telegraph, that happy endings went out with the cocktail cabinet and French windows.

And Rattigan's plays after The Deep Blue Sea in 1952 - which all the critics loved, especially Kenneth Tynan (though he harboured an insuperable aversion to Peggy Ashcroft for some mysterious reason) - simply were never as good as the ones before it.

Williams endured a much tougher time, and for longer, in the late 1960s and 1970s, when plays like Kingdom of Earth (soon to be revived by Lucy Bailey at the Print Room), Out Cry (recently reinstated), Small Craft Warnings (a static but beautiful bar room reverie, memorably featuring Elaine Stritch at Hampstead Theatre) and The Red Devil Battery Sign (awkwardly staged at the Roundhouse) were routinely abused and dismissed.

I love most of Williams' work and I especially love his titles. The Night of the Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore are just as good in the titular department as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even the overlooked one-act plays of his early period have a ring about them. I mean, wouldn't you want to see something called The Case of the Crushed Petunias, or I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix?
Williams would surely have loved the sound of his A Cavalier for Milady performed at the Cock, and might even have rewritten the title to include the venue, too. And I wonder what low backroom dive he'd now like to see host another of those lost pieces, featuring an old dear clinging to an imaginary past on a rubber plantation and a young writer fantasising about fame: The Lady of Larkspur Lotion.

I'm surprised that one of our fringe venues hasn't gone way beyond the Cock and mounted a complete season of Williams's short, rarely performed and unknown pieces. And shouldn't someone have had a look at his piece about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Clothes for a Summer Hotel?

All of which is by way of saying that, much as I like Flare Path, and am looking forward to seeing Cause Celebre at the Old Vic, and testing the viability of the play I excoriated at its premiere, In Praise of Love, at the Northampton Royal, I'd much rather see an indifferent Williams to an alright Rattigan any day of the week. Should I be proud to be so unpatriotic?


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