Chicago: A Novel, a Book That Made Me Cry

NSBJ-Chicago-cover-artThe first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.

I fell in love with the book from the first page.

“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”

wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.

Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.

It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.

Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.

nsbj-briandoyle-headshot (1)When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.

Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.

“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”

Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”

I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.

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Paterson: Busdriver/Poet Makes This a Don’t-Miss Film!

Jim Jarmusch. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jim Jarmusch. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Paterson, the fine new film by Jim Jarmusch, has finally opened in Chicago. And it’s getting some of the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful film about nothing much. The life of a bus driver named Paterson, in Paterson, New Jersey, who observes the life around him on his bus and in the city. And he writes poetry in his spare moments. On the bus, while eating his lunch at Paterson’s Great Falls of the Passaic River. His wife, played by a delightful and funny actor named Golshifteh Farahani, stays at home and makes art…and yearns to be a country singer. Oh, and there’s a dog too.

I saw this film last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival and it’s been haunting me ever since. I wrote about it then and also included in my list of A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck.

Paterson is showing now at Chicago theaters, including Century City Cinema. Here’s the review by Steve Prokopy from Third Coast Review. His comments perfectly encapsulate why this is such a wonderful film.

The poems that Paterson writes in the film are by Ron Padgett, a poet whose work I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve now read a lot of his poems online and just ordered two of his books. Jeffrey Brown interviewed Padgett and filmmaker Jarmusch last night on the PBS Newshour.


Kill Your Darlings: I’m Baring My Soul in Stories and Improv

 

KYD-typewriterKill Your Darlings, a traditional piece of writing advice*, is the title of the live lit series I’m participating in, along with other Third Coast Review colleagues and a crew of other writers and performers. We’re having a great time with it – and it’s consuming a huge amount of my time.

Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup is the full title and we’re performing for the next six Wednesday nights at ComedySportz Theater on Belmont. We have writers and actors who read their own stories, plus improv players and sometimes live music. Each night has a theme based on one of our website’s cultural categories. And we’ll have a celebrity guest reader each week.

Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup
7pm Wednesday, August 10, is Food Night
Csz Theater, 929 W. Belmont

Hear me read a story about potato pancakes
and my Jewish/non-Jewish heritage

I hope you’ll come out and see us this Wednesday and any Wednesday thru September 14. For each night, I’m writing a new personal story (something like a blog essay), baring my soul in some cases, editing, refining, rehearsing and refining it. I mention this as sort of an explanation why I haven’t been writing for Nancy Bishop’s Journal very much lately.

(Of course, I’m still editor in chief and theater critic for Third Coast Review. Check out my recent reviews on the Stages page. I’ve recently reviewed War Paint; Between Riverside and Crazy; Byhalia, Mississippi; Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys; and Einstein’s Gift. I also enjoyed interviewing and writing a feature on Ron Keaton, the actor who starred in Churchill and, along with Kurt Johns, has formed a new theater company, SoloChicago.)

* What does “kill your darlings” mean? Slate magazine tried to track down the original source a few years ago when a film of the same title came out about Allen Ginsberg as a young writer. Basically, the advice means “get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”

So the idea for this live-lit series is that we each resurrect various darlings we’ve killed in the past and turn them into new, sharply written stories. And a few of mine actually do include or were inspired by something I wrote in the past but never published.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

Here are the stories I’ll be telling for the next six weeks. Opening night was last Wednesday and I told the story about my film addiction and my favorite film directors, focusing on Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director who made films you never heard of. The Darlings, our improv team, performed along with me. I was on a DVD and they paused me now and then to comment on my “lecture.”

  • August 10. The theme is Food. My story is “Potato Pancakes—and Why They’re Not Latkes.” Monica Eng, the WBEZ food editor, will be guest reader.
  • August 17, Music Night. My story is “How I Became a Bruce Springsteen Fan and How It Governs My Life.” My friend, June Sawyers, who has written a couple of dozen books on pop music topics, will be the guest reader.
  • August 24. The theme is Stages and I’m curating the night. The concept will be how social media and the comment community are affecting theater reviews. My story will be about the uproar around the Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, This Is Modern Art, which I reviewed last year with my 17-year-old grandson. Kerry Reid, theater critic for the Tribune, will be the guest reader.
  • August 31. The theme is Beyond, beyond now, beginnings and endings. My story for this night is about my divorcee love life — it includes a long poem. My son Steve will accompany me with an improvised solo on the tenor saxophone. The guest reader will be Ian Belknap of the Write Club.
  • September 7 is Art night. I haven’t decided what I’m going to write for this night yet. I may even skip the reading, but of course I’ll attend.
  • September 14 is Lit night and appropriately, it will be set in a Chicago saloon. NU prof Bill Savage, the guest reader, will critique our readings in real time. My story is about my obsession with the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps life will get back to normal after that. Although I’m not sure what my normal is any more.


Art and the poetry of solitude: Stuart Dybek and Edward Hopper

 

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Stuart Dybek at the Art Institute. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Last week I spent an hour wandering around the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with Chicago poet Stuart Dybek and a bunch of other poetry fans. As I described in my article on Third Coast Review, the Pop-Up Poetry event was designed for a poet to discuss works of art that influenced him—and how they related to the writing to be discussed.

Dybek talked about a period in his life when he was interviewing for jobs and used the Art Institute as a place to hang out between interviews. Its pluses were that it had phone booths and clean rest rooms, but it also had light—light streaming in from skylights, but also the light glowing from the paintings of the Impressionists. He read a section from his book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, called “Killing Time” about that experience.

He talked about standing in front of those paintings and feeling that he could walk into them. He wrote, “I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”

But he would always end up standing in front of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” because he felt he needed the darkness to balance the light of the Impressionists.

While talking about Hopper, he mentioned a book I was not familiar with. It’s The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, with poems collected and introduced by Gail Levin. He mentioned that the works of many well-known as well as obscure poets created word paintings that brought new meanings to Hopper’s imagery.

Hopper’s work is quiet, even when several people are in the space within the picture frame. Are they lonely? Not necessarily. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. Lovely solitude.

NSBJ-HopperbookThe book sounded fascinating and I looked it up when I got home. Nope, it was not in any bookstore I could find. Since it was published in 1995, I was afraid it would be out of print. But not so amazingly, I found it on amazon.com, for sale from one of the Amazon Marketplace vendors. I’ve had very good luck buying quirky, hard-to-find books that way, so I immediately ordered a copy that was described as being in very good condition. I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox yesterday and it is a treasure. It’s hard cover, a slim 80 pages, with a dust jacket. The size is 7.5 x 7.5 inches.

Levin’s introduction is a lovely essay on the themes of poetry and solitude and the public awareness and appreciation for Hopper’s work. (The Art Institute’s 2008 exhibition of his work was beautifully curated with thought-provoking legends about his life and his work.)

In The Poetry of Solitude, poet Larry Levis tells a story about the woman in the 1931 painting titled “Hotel Room.” He suggests she has just finished arranging her mother’s funeral and her small estate.

Her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting … .
You sell the house and auction off each thing
Inside the house, until
You have a satchel, a pair of black acceptable
Shoes and one good flowered dress. There is a check
Between your hands and your bare knees for all of it —
The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it , or why ….

Four poets reflect upon the 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” and the stories of the four people in the painting. Joyce Carol Oates writes,

The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest, she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand thinking
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him?

Of the 1930 painting, “Early Sunday Morning,” showing a row of storefronts, John Stone writes,

Somewhere in the next block
someone may be practicing the flute
but not here

Where the entrances
to four stores are dark
the awnings rolled in

Nothing open for business
Across the second story
ten faceless windows

In the foreground
a barber pole, a fire hydrant,
as if there could ever again

Be hair to cut
fire to burn ….

As I described in my post about my hour spent with Stuart Dybek, he read his own poems and the work of other poets and reflected on the nature of words and images. The book gives even broader meaning to the relationship of words and images, narrative and abstraction.

A note on the paintings mentioned here. You can see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. “Early Sunday Morning” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “Hotel Room” is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

If you do a search for “Edward Hopper paintings” online, you can see and enlarge thumbnails of all of them.

 

 


Technology disruption: The revolution happened while we weren’t looking

Did you ever stop to think how the internet and the world-wide web changed our lives without our noticing it? If you’re a Millennial, you didn’t notice it because it was always there. Smartphones, texts, snapchat, all that. For older generations, an earthquake of technology happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. We love it and most of us wouldn’t give it up for anything. And that’s because as consumers, we love everything new and shiny.

But for businesses—of all kinds—the internet/web revolution came as some kind of surprise and upset many business models. Look at what happened to newspapers, book publishing, telecommunications, music, movies, television, retailing, real estate and other industries that weren’t paying attention until their business models imploded.

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Sunday detritus.

Newspapers still haven’t recovered from the revolution in their business model. Most of them ignored the web for the first few years, hoping it would be a novelty and go away. It’s really only in this decade that newspapers have figured out that they have to change the way they do business. Some newspapers and magazines are relatively successful, using a pay wall and retaining digital subscribers. Many are floundering, laying off staff, cutting back publishing frequency. Only the older generations read newspapers at all, so newspapers will die eventually.

The news revolution has affected TV and radio too, although not so drastically yet.

News outlets now are being advised on how to make money in other ways, through memberships, events and beating ad blockers.

NSBJ-books

Soon to be considered “vintage.”

Book publishing also is still floundering, figuring out how to manage and make money from e-books. Amazon, the giant that started this revolution, eventually will get so big that it will fail too and be replaced by something that a 10-year-old kid in Schenectady is dreaming up now. (I think I owe an HT to someone for that kid-in-Schenectady idea, but I don’t remember who.)

The music industry (and TV and films to a lesser extent) also are suffering from the internet notion that all content should be free and available on our terms. CDs aren’t selling much, even though vinyl is making a retro comeback. We want to listen to music on something we carry around, even if the sound quality is poor. And we want to watch TV and movies on our terms, not when the network or theater happens to schedule them.

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Some of my retro music.

Artists, writers and photographers are impacted by this content-should-be-free phenomenon. If no one wants to pay for content, then the publishers of content don’t want to pay for content creation. So, goodbye freelance businesses.

This internet/web revolution didn’t just happen overnight. Decades of technological development went into this phenomenon, but businesses were caught off guard. Even though most of them had some kind of computer or IT departments, the message of the coming revolution wasn’t acknowledged, or passed on. (Another factor in the revolution was the microchip, which enabled the miniaturization of our devices. It was introduced in 1959 but no one was paying attention to that either.)

The revolution happened while everyone was looking the other way.

  • The modem was invented in 1958 at Bell Labs and the router (an Interface Message Processor) in 1967.
  • In 1972, a guy named Ray Tomlinson invented email—a way to send messages across a network. It was his idea to use the “@” sign as the email standard address: user@host.
  • In 1974, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler led the team at SRI International’s Network Information Center. Among other things, they created the Host Naming Registry and the primary domain names we use today: .com, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, .mil.
  • In 1974, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coined the term “internet.”
  • Most importantly, In 1977, Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network, a network for US university and industrial computer research groups. By 1984, more than 180 university, industry and government computer science departments were participating in CSNET.

In the middle 1980s, I was working on my first Mac at home but it wasn’t connected to anything. At work, no computer because the Wang word-processing machines were only for secretaries. My son was a graduate student finishing his PhD in economics and talked about getting “email” from his advisers. “Email,” I said. “What’s that?”

Then in 1989, when AOL started its first online service, I got email too. It was that pitifully slow telephone dialup access, but it was still a thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!”

  • Finally (and skipping over many key technological advances), in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and Robert Cailliau developed the first web browser for the Macintosh operating system. This is when business should have started paying attention and figuring out how their companies could take advantage of this new web thing.
  • And all this happened years after the US Defense Department invented ARPA in 1958 and ASCii in 1963 so that machines from different makers could talk to each other. ARPAnet, the actual network, was initiated in 1966.

I owe my superficial surf of technology history to the Internet Hall of Fame’s internet timeline. Check it out here. http://www.internethalloffame.org/internet-history/timeline There’s also this http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/world-wide-web-timeline/ and this http://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html

I decided to write this essay because I felt like venting. How could all these revolutions have happened to industries so important to me (newspapers, books, music, movies) without the industries being aware and preparing for the revolution? Big companies all have prestigious “strategy” officers and departments. What were they thinking about in the 1980s and 1990s? Not much, apparently. Or they were listening to big-name management consultants who probably were talking gobbledygook about customer intelligence, global advantage and supply chain management. I know whereof I speak on that one, because I used to work with those guys.

The theater review I’m working on now is about a fascinating play titled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a time-tripping play full of ideas and technology. At one point, a character says, “we’re at this critical moment in our society when technology is developing more rapidly than our social and political infrastructures can keep up with.”

That is one of the problems.

All the photos above taken by Nancy Bishop in her own home, site of prerevolutionary media and all the other kind too. 


The power of performance in two Lillian Hellman plays

Last week I saw two masterpieces of 20th century theater by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright and leftwing political activist. (I‘m a fan on both counts.) The two shows were extremely different in production values but demonstrated the power of performance.

GB-LittleFoxes

Goodman Theatre image.

I attended Goodman Theatre’s The Little Foxes on opening night and reviewed it for Gapers Block. (My review also appears on culturevulture.net and berkshirefinearts.com, by the way.) It was an excellent production with a sumptuous set and gorgeous, richly detailed costuming, especially the women’s gowns. As I said in my review, the production “stars a galaxy of Chicago’s finest actors and surely resonates with some of the current discussions about racism, sexism, domestic abuse and income inequality.”

The venal Hubbard siblings (Regina, Oscar and Ben) who fight over the family legacy and the spoils of a new cotton mill are played by Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering and Larry Yando. John Judd plays Horace, Regina’s husband, and Mary Beth Fisher plays Oscar’s sweet and abused wife Birdie. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The nearly three-hour play (with two intermissions) is not only a visual treat; it’s gripping from beginning to end.

On Saturday afternoon, the Goodman presented an amazing one-time only event; a free performance of a reading of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, which is set in 1900 and was first produced in 1939. Another Part of the Forest is set in 1880 and was written in 1946. Both are set in a town in rural Alabama and are based on Hellman’s own family story.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

The reading was held in a rehearsal room on the second floor of the theater and held probably 60 or 70 seats at the most. (Needless to say, it was a capacity crowd.)

It was a plain vanilla reading, not a staged reading where there is some blocking and action. The actors all had their scripts on paper and usually stood at music stands at the front of the stage area. When they weren’t reading, they sat on folding chairs at the rear.

The most significant thing about the reading is that the 12-member cast was fully equivalent to that in the fully staged production. The acting was superb with attention to accents, vocal intonations, gestures and expressions. Some of Chicago’s finest actors were here too (none of them from the cast of The Little Foxes). Deanna Dunagan (you saw her as the mother in August: Osage County) plays Lavinia Hubbard, the siblings’ mother, whose fading memory comes through in the end. The always superb Larry Neumann Jr. read the part of Marcus Hubbard, the father who made a lot of money during the recent war, trading with the enemy (the Union forces). That’s the real source of the siblings’ later wealth. Neumann is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times. He played the doctor in the legendary Famous Door production of the two-part Cider House Rules, Richard Nickel in Lookingglass’ production of They All Fell Down: The Richard Nickel Story; and Samuel Finkelbaum in Writers Theatre’s The Puppetmaster of Lodz.

John Hoogenakker gave an excellent reading as Ben, the younger version of the character played by Larry Yando. (You may have seen Hoogenakker on TV in Chicago Fire or Empire or in Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh or Other Desert Cities. Steppenwolf’s Tim Hopper (Marie Antoinette, The Night Alive, Russian Transport) played John Bagtry, Birdie’s brother and the young Regina’s sweetheart.

I thought perhaps Goodman would abbreviate Another Part of the Forest, but no, the full script was performed: almost three hours with two intermissions. The story was gripping from beginning to end and proved that great actors make you forget what they’re wearing or what the scenery behind them looks like.

The Little Foxes continues at the Goodman Theatre until June 7. Sorry you missed the prequel. Also you can find 1940s film versions of both plays.

Lillian Hellman’s South—It’s really about the economy

Image courtesy southernliterarytraiil.org.

Image courtesy southernliterarytraiil.org.

Hellman based these two plays on the stories of her southern family, so there are some economic parallels. My published review of The Little Foxes emphasizes the economic aspects of the story, which make the play richer than just a family melodrama, as it’s usually characterized. I wrote:

Hellman’s play is set in 1900 “when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn’t happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.”

Now I’m not an economist, but I do have one on call. However, as a resource here I’m going to call on a poet instead. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body, the stirring book-length verse narrative of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as the Hubbards would call it). Benet’s poem, published in 1927, characterizes the war as preparing the South for its future as part of industrial America, but his prediction is about 75 years off. After 372 pages of the romantic saga of the war, its soldiers, victims, fictional characters, and Abraham Lincoln’s death, Benet wrote this in his optimistic conclusion:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
Bury the whip, bury the branding bars,
….
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The last foray of aristocracy
Based not on dollars or initiative
Or any blood for what the blood was worth
But on a certain code, a manner of birth.
….
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel,
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
….
Out of John Brown’s strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grow,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
Rivet and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light….

Benet’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. It’s not really great literature, because it’s rather uneven and not a little melodramatic. But it’s a great way to read the Civil War story. The book is out of print, but you can buy copies online.

 


Feasting on drama & lit in Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans

Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest 20th century playwrights*, moved to New Orleans in 1939 and spent time there off and on for much of his life. The funky, colorful, bohemian spirit of NOLA suited Williams’ lifestyle, once he overcame the rigidity and religious upbringing of his family. John Lahr details Williams’ life and work in his biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which I wrote about last fall.

*I would have said “the greatest,” but Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller also belong in the greatest category.

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Last week the American Theatre Critics Association met in New Orleans and our five-day agenda included many forays into the New Orleans that Williams loved. The 29th annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was being held at the same time, so we participated in some of the many events. Our hotel was conveniently located at the edge of the French Quarter, so we walked to many venues.

Williams, of course, in known for such iconic plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rose Tattoo, Night of the Iguana, Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Vieux Carré. But you may not know that he wrote dozens of other plays, both long and short, teleplays and screenplays, novels, poems, and letters. Hundreds of letters. Lahr says Williams was a compulsive writer. He stayed sane by writing.

One rainy afternoon, we walked through the French Quarter to the historic Hermann-Grima house to see four of Williams’ “hotel plays.” He often set plays in hotel rooms and boarding houses, which he considered “way stations between life and death.” Each play took place in a single room, with 25 or 30 of us gathered around—and sometimes on the “set.” I asked one of the actors later if he found it distracting to have to walk over an audience member during a monologue but he said, “no, I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me.” The plays performed were:

  • The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, about Mr. Charlie, an aging traveling shoe salesman, “the last of the Delta drummers.”
  • Lord Byron’s Love Letter, in which two midwestern tourists visit a spinster’s historic southern home. It seems she has inherited a love letter written by Lord Byron to her grandmother and she finally agrees to read it. Actor Christine McMurdo-Wallis handles this reading exquisitely (as she does several other roles during the festival).
  • Lady of Larkspur Lotion and Mister Paradise, two short plays performed back to back in a larger room. The first play features Mrs. Wire, the boarding house landlady who appears later in Vieux Carré. Mister Paradise, a poet who appears in both plays, prefers to avoid the limelight despite the protestations of an admiring young woman.

There were dramatic and musical intervals between the plays, as audience groups moved up and down stairs, from space to space. Clyde Shelby, a talented pianist, played for us in the first floor corridor and the Lagniappe Brass Band also performed.

A Friday night treat was Blue Devils and Better Angels, Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading held in a tented space at the old Ursulines convent in the French Quarter. It was a perfect space for this series of readings from and about Williams by actors and writers including director John Waters, playwright John Patrick Shanley (who read from his upcoming play, Prodigal Son), British thriller writer Rebecca Chance, and “Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson.

Southern Rep Theatre, one of the few Equity companies in New Orleans, is staging Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at the Ashé Powerhouse, a renovated venue in the old Jewish neighborhood. We saw the production Saturday afternoon. The performance was marred by poor sound quality (abetted by the constant hum of the AC system) but it was staged beautifully. The dramatic monologue by Catherine (played by Beth Bartley) about her cousin Sebastian’s shockingly bloody death was very well done.

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That evening, we walked over to the Monteleone Hotel, just around the corner from our hotel, to see a reading of I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, part of the TWNOLF schedule. This Williams one-act contains fragments that evolved into Vieux Carré, a 1973 play that Raven Theatre produced so memorably last year. This short play involves two ongoing arguments. Jane, a former Yankee society girl, and her boyfriend Tye, a stripjoint barker with an easy manner that attracts ladies, argue about their life together and apart. And the director, writer and stage manager bicker comically about the development of the script. The play is a bit disjointed but it helped to have seen Vieux Carré. You can appreciate how the relationship between Jane and Tye evolves.

Vieux Carré, by the way, is set in the house at 722 Toulouse Street, between Royal and Bourbon streets, where Williams lived. An historic plaque now commemorates that. Williams also famously spent time in Key West, which I wrote about in 2013.

The ATCA conference closed with two excellent discussions on our final morning, also part of the literary festival.

nola-johnlahrThe first featured John Lahr, author of the recent Williams biography, noted above, and Robert Bray, editor of the Tennessee Williams Review and an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I had seen Lahr before when he and Martha Lavey discussed his book at Steppenwolf Theatre. This was a much more intense discussion on the writing of the book itself and generated many memorable quotes. Lahr described how his narrative challenge was to cover the public man, the private man and the plays and illustrate how those elements were woven together. Since Williams’ death in 1983, more than 40 books have been published about him. (Most theatrical biographies, Lahr said, involve “a lot of typing and very little writing.”)

The plays were “the interior landscape of my soul,” Williams said. His plays are all ghost stories: spectral and haunted. In his final play, A House Not Meant to Stand, Williams says goodbye to his “repertory company,” made up of his family, his friends and lovers, and himself. The play was produced in 1981-82 at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher, who tried unsuccessfully to move it to Lincoln Center.

nola-shanleyThe second Sunday morning discussion was Playwrights from Page to Stage featuring New Orleans native John Biguenet; Dr. Femi Euba, a native of Nigeria whose recent plays have addressed issues related to Hurricane Katrina; and playwright John Patrick Shanley. Moderator Thomas Keith asked each playwright to talk about how his works took shape on paper and then were transformed to the stage. The comments were wide-ranging, humorous and fascinating. Shanley, in particular, is an articulate and charming commentator on his own work and the act and art of writing.

We saw two other plays (neither memorable for different reasons) and some interesting conference sessions. Bryan Batt, New Orleans native, Broadway actor, and formerly Sal Romano in AMC’s Mad Men, talked one day about his life and theater. He now lives and owns a business in New Orleans. Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave an insightful and well-received keynote address on “Perspectives in Criticism.”

And there was outstanding music, food (including that NOLA special, cold-brewed iced coffee), scenery and people-watching. New Orleans is an amazing city. I’ve been there half a dozen times over the last 25 years for business, vacation and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. I always fall in love with its color and charm all over again.

Photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted.