Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams
National Theatre of Great Britain
Directed by Laurie Sansom
Not out or proud.
In his mid-twenties Tennessee Williams went to a playwriting workshop in Iowa and produced a nearly three-hour-long drama that was caustically received by his tutor and fellow students. Chagrined, he consigned it to the bottom drawer while mining many of its motifs for his acknowledged masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Nothing more was heard of Spring Storm (1937) until twenty years after Williams’s piteous accidental death in 1983. Salvaged from his archived papers, the play was given a reading in New York and a couple of regional stagings, to no great acclaim. Critics called it intriguing juvenilia.
Now the European premiere of Spring Storm, in a superlative production that appeared regionally in Northampton before moving to the National Theatre in London, has caused a sensation – a strange but welcome twist of fate for a work that should enter the Williams canon immediately. It’s a shame that in the general celebration local critics dealt with the plot in thoughtless stereotypes: a capricious, sexually charged Southern belle is torn between two suitors, one a roughneck with no money but magnetic erotic appeal, the other a rich weakling with poetry where libido should be. In such a schema, the heroine, Heavenly Critchfield, sounds like a dry run for Blanche Dubois and her shady sexual past. The play, and Williams, deserves better.
To begin with, the critics sidestepped the closeted homosexuality of the love triangle, which turns out to be pivotal. It’s not rare for artists to emerge from humiliation in their past, but it’s very rare to make humiliation into art. Arthur Shannon, the play’s rich weakling, was taunted as a sissy on the playground, a humiliation he never forgot, especially because the girl he had a crush on, Heavenly, joined in. He grows up to be sensitive, a poetically inclined aesthete, but unable to get Heavenly out of his mind. This war between sexual longing and shame was personal to Williams. In an age of out and proud, it’s hard to remember when the struggle for sexual identity was a matter of life and death, but it remained so throughout Williams’s life (Before his memoirs turn into endless tales of homoerotomania – his own phrase – Williams details an anxious early liaison with an older woman). Arthur is caught in the same snare but without explicit reference to gayness. He declares at one point that Eros is not a cute, curly-haired Cupid but “the biggest guy of all,” the one armed with thunderbolts.
Cowed by Heavenly’s frank, scandalously open desires for men, Arthur gets drunk and attempts to throw himself on the repressed, bespectacled librarian in their stifling river town. When she suddenly drops her primness and reveals desperate sexual longing, Arthur draws back in horror, exclaiming, “You disgust me!” Which, of course, is what Blanche Dubois cries when she discovers her beau ideal in the arms of another man performing an unspeakable act. Homosexual panic shows its twin face.
In Streetcar the young man is so ashamed that he commits suicide; in Spring Storm it is the woman librarian, Hertha, who kills herself. The root cause is the same: the spring storm of the title is the whirling, destructive chaos of awakened desire. All the young people suffer from it, while their parents try to suppress that they ever endured it. We tend, with a knowing psychological wink, to decode Williams’s plots. Blanche is unveiled as a drag queen who wants Stanley Kowalski as rough trade, or in the case of Spring Storm, the roughneck suitor Dick Miles, who declares that it takes a flannel shirt and work boots for him to feel like a real man. But any reduction of Williams’s conflicted poetry falsifies it. Sex is poison and nectar, often at the same time, and his delirious intoxication salves shame and opens a secret wound at the same time. The closeted psyche gets sublimated in an exotic blend of fleurs du mal and moonlight on the levee that holds the Mississippi from breaking its banks (at one point Dick enters covered with mud and sings a paean to such a flood. He dreams of the river as a woman only he can contain). The doomed librarian, foreseeing her future as a shrivelled old maid, explicitly uses the word ‘sublimation’ and shudders at it. Even as he engaged in switching raw libido for perfumed imagery, Williams refused to be fooled – he saw what he was doing. So does Arthur, presenting an orchid corsage to Heavenly while knowing that beauty won’t satisfy when “we mostly love with our bodies,” as she points out, all but panting for him.
The actors in this production exhibit no flaws, and in the case of Liz White as Heavenly and Michael Malarkey (what a name!) as Arthur, there is unembarrassed brilliance. Spring Storm frolics with a young writer’s wit – it owes as much to Mark Twain as to Williams’s avowed master, Faulkner – and most of the humor is delivered in a bravura turn by Jacqueline King as Esmerelda, Heavenly’s upright mother, who hoots endlessly about Southern genealogy and the D.A.R. while obviously cribbing her style from Lady Bracknell. Brave stabs are made at Mississippi Delta accents, winding up in a vague zone stretching from Beale Street to the Kansas territory. But it’s not as if an American cast could have fared much better.
Spring Storm would fail if allowed to slip into self-parody, always a yawning trap and one that the playwright himself leapt into. But director Laurie Sansom has an uncanny touch. He skirts campiness with surreal touches, as when the anguished Hertha screams, unleashing a lightning bolt that sweeps the library into rubble. The play is incredibly overstuffed with purple passages, ripe tenderness, lace handkerchiefs that “smell like an old maid’s memories,” secret caches of whiskey, a statue of Eros in the garden, a tattered Confederate flag dangling from a dead tree, the Critchfield’s decaying plantation mansion, antimacassars with aging aunts to loll on them, an ancestral portrait of a horse-mounted forebear who died leading the charge at Gettysburg, and a speeding railroad train that mangles Hertha into unrecognizable remains – everything but bloody magnolias and demitasses of hemlock. Sansom opens her arms and cries “I want it all!” and therefore so do we. The generosity of Williams’s outpouring is overwhelming here. That he was a genius is as unmistakeable as the fact that he was bursting with his own spring storm. Compared to his aching honesty, the closet was a hundred times too small to contain it.