Anyone who knows the details of Tennessee Williams's life knows that the last years were quite sad. The playwright was so paranoid that he alienated the people who cared most about him and became more dependent on the paid-for kindness of rent boys. Williams's mind was addled by booze and drugs. He kept writing, but nothing after the early sixties really ticked with the critics (sometimes too harsh on his work) or audiences. Still, he wrote every day.
I have always believed that Williams was never comfortable with theatrical realism, the dominant mode of representation in the American theater. Even in his best work, there is a tension between the poet and the man who is trying to satisfy the relatively conventional taste of a Broadway audience. When the poet overtook the commercial playwright, as it did more and more in the last quarter-century of Williams's life, critics complained and audiences stayed away. Judged on their own merits, there is good material in Williams's late work. He was always experimental, anathema to audiences who want a generic "Tennessee Williams play." There was also the tension between the gay man and the prevailing heterosexism of the age in which he wrote his best work that gave his plays some of their complexity and richness.
IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE, now being performed at the Culture Project in New York, is a work made from the drafts of a play Williams labored on but never completed in the last four years of his life. It's not a great play, but it is essential for those of us who love Williams's work. Clearly the playwright couldn't get all the elements of this work to cohere and the people who created this performing version wisely aim for something other than dramatic coherence. The narrative threads never coalesce into a sensible pattern.
Williams must have been watching reruns of the British tv series, THE PRISONER, for IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE takes place in a combination resort/prison run by the Gideons, a group of handsome gay young men in identical suits and dark glasses. Characters don't know where they are or how they got here, but it seems clear that leaving is impossible. The play focuses on Clarissa "Babe" Foxworth and her retinue. "Babe" is another in Williams's gallery of middle-aged wealthy, booze and drug-addled women. She is at this strange location with Billy, the young husband she has purchased for a marriage that remains unconsummated. Billy is an aspiring poet who has hired his lover, Jerry, to be his secretary. Babe's surly maid is also there, though she seems to spend most of her time having sex with an auto mechanic she met at church. Yes, we have met versions of these characters before in other Williams plays, but now the homoeroticism dominates everything. What chance does poor Babe have in a place where everyone seems to be gay except the auto mechanic and he's sleeping with the maid? Babe's neighbor in this mysterious locale is the bizarre Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, dressed like a nineteen-fifties society lady going to a party at the country club. Mrs. Gorse-Bracken sings opera while her retarded, but very randy son, enjoys being gang raped. Said son, known as Playboy, cavorts wearing only a yellow slicker. They seem to be pursued by a giant Black man who can only make grunting noises and a dwarf who has to translate what the Black man tries to say.
As you can see, this is not a realistic play. It's a smorgasbord of Williams's characters, imagery, paranoia and obsessions. A character observes that the main themes of literature are sex, death and money. Sex is everywhere in Williams's work, but here orgiastic homosex is rampant. At one point, a brush fire burns out of control. Imagery of death is everywhere Is this strange place a way station between life and death? Babe is terrified of the sea. After sex and survival, money seems the prime motivation. Babe's money is the magnet for the men around her. Where do Jerry's loyalties lie. He claims to love Billy, but he also doesn't want to lose his connection to Babe's money.
Williams seems to have been thinking of Pirandello when he worked on this play. We are told that the Gideons -- the gay guards -- love to put on theatrical performances and this may be one of those performances. When Mrs. Gorse-Bracken makes her final, demented exit, one of the Gideons says that next time they have to hire a better actress. Is anyone not a dramatic character in this meta-play? The only person alive onstage at the end is Playboy, the embodiment of mindless gay sex.
Director David Schweitzer obviously sees the play in post-modern terms and engulfs the audience in a bizarre techno-environment. The audience is surrounded by lcd screens. As we enter, the Gideons are broadcasting instructions while surveilling the audience. The action of the play spreads from the stage into the aisles. Lighting becomes progressively less realistic. If only Schweitzer had developed a consistent acting style to match his vision of the play. Babe (Shirley Knight), Billy (Robert Beitzel) and Jerry (Sam Underwood) seem to be aiming for the "poetic realism" of earlier Williams plays while everyone else is working in a highly stylized manner (because they are "actors" in the theater the Gideons are creating for Babe and her men?). The clash of styles is jarring. Knight seems still to be having some trouble with her lines (at least she isn't being fed them through an earpiece like the leading actor in a Williams revival on Broadway [or so it is rumored]) and needs to find her inner Geraldine Page. She is described as a gorgon, but what Knight presents is a dotty older woman. I'd love to see a fiercer actress take on the role (I'd cast British actress Frances Barber). There's certainly enough male eye candy to please the many middle-aged men who were in the audience when I saw the play.
No production is going to mask the flaws in this script, but I found the experience highly enjoyable. There was a lovely young German woman sitting next to me who was having difficulty making sense of the play. I told her to forget any hope of making it coherent. Just enjoy the ride.
IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE by Tennessee Williams. The Culture Project, New York. May 6, 2012.