Tennessee Descending




I went to the theatre last night. I never learn. The last production of Tennessee Williams I went to see, Vieux Carre, a late effort, was so bad it left me concerned - why do actors put themselves through the nightly ordeal of ersatz anguish? - and mildly soiled. OK, so there was no gratuitous nudity and no exploitative rape in Orpheus Descending, but it was bad enough to make me realise that Vieux Carre was not a sad lapse from a great playwright in decline, but typical form. He was always rubbish. 

The plot: Val, a handsome youth with two treasured possessions - a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Woody Guthrie and King Oliver (?) - sends the community of a backwater town in the Deep South into uproar when he shacks up with the store-owner’s wife, Lady. The store-owner is upstairs, slowly dying but mostly out of sight and out of mind. Subsidiary characters are stock Southern stereotypes: bigoted sheriff, religious maniac etc. Then there’s the free-spirited and wayward sex-kitten, a type only encountered in Tennessee Williams plays, a monstrous nurse and Lady’s ex-beau. “I have never told you this before,” shouted Lady from the top of the stairs. The ex-beau repeated “I didn’t know” often enough for several of us to suspect that he had forgotten his lines, and exited, never to be seen again.   

Not one member of the cast got the accent right, but the strain of it made natural dialogue impossible (not that natural dialogue was ever Tennessee Williams’ chief concern). Lady was supposedly an Italian emigre but Imogen Stubbs located her in Poland or somewhere else middle-European. 

The situation was hokey, the emoting was intense but trite, Val had a nice torso (not on show for very long, alas), but no discernible musical (or acting) ability, the racist rednecks were straight from Hammer horror rent-a-mob (if nothing else, the play gives work to lots of actors). And cliches which had merely been stupefying in the first act tipped into full-scale bathos in the second, when the forgotten store-owner recovered enough to climb downstairs and shoot Lady. She was pregnant with Val’s baby, we learned, hard on the heels of another shock revelation: the store-owner was the cause of Lady’s father’s death. This, to underline three times in red that he was a bad man. Val was lynched off-stage, in deference to the strict rules of Greek legend rewrites and the tropes of Southern Gothic. 

Melodrama is a kind word for this combination of overripe emotion and implausibility. Pedro Almadovar might be able to do something with Orpheus Descending, but you know what? It would still be rubbish. 

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