Deconstructing Tennessee Williams

Theatre & Performance Guide and Guru 3

August 2011:  18-19

Kingdom of Earth at The Print Room

Fiona Glascott as Myrtle and David Sturzaker as Chicken
© Sheila Burnett

After a wait of 27 years, Tennessee Williams’ darkly comic Kingdom of Earth (1968) has finally been produced again in London, at Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters’ new 80-seat theatre, the Print Room.  In 1984 Hampstead Theatre mounted the only previous London production of this play about a battle for an about-to-be flooded Mississippi farmhouse.  Then, as with the 1978 production at the Bristol Old Vic and as with all of the major U. S. productions, Kingdom of Earth received mixed or rather poor reviews.  

Director Lucy Bailey has changed all that, however, winning four-star reviews from the Times, the Sunday Times, Time Out, the Guardian and the Independent, along with eight nominations for Off West End Awards.  Kingdom of Earth has never had it so good — a near-perfect present for Tennessee Williams in this 100th anniversary year of his birth, if only he were alive to see it.  Williams was so disheartened by the 1968 reviews that he gave up writing drama for a period, and he remained convinced the rest of his life that Kingdom of Earth was his most underrated play.

A powerful factor in the success of Bailey’s production was Ruth Sutcliffe’s set design, depicting the inside of a farmhouse with a chandelier, two gilt chairs and, in the words of Libby Purves, “drips, puddles . . .  and kitchen squalor, the whole perched on a vertiginously steep clay slope . . . where the three cast members scramble and teeter precariously in the gloom.”   Those three characters are the tarty showgirl Myrtle (played by Fiona Glascott), her new husband, the sickly but refined Lot (Joseph Drake), and Lot’s half-brother, the mysteriously dark-skinned Chicken (David Sturzaker), whom Lot is intent on depriving of the house and surrounding fertile farmland upon his own imminent demise.  A far cry from Williams’ original vision of three rooms on two floors divided by a much trodden stairway, this “slag heap” of a set pushed the play to new interpretive possibilities, eliminating the walls that gave the characters the false solace of temporary separation and forcing the audience to confront the vision of the coming flood and its aftermath.  In their various ways, Lot, Myrtle and Chicken enter the play isolated and lonely, much like Williams himself was most of his life, and they cannot but appear to be seeking something more intangible than the possession of this soon-to-be ruined farmhouse. 

The difficulty of getting up and down the clay slope particularly emphasized the fraught journey that Myrtle in her high heels is making — from a life of many men to settling down with one or maybe two men, a life where more than her loud brand of colourful southern charms is needed to cope.  Tennessee Williams underlined her journey when he changed the play’s title for its 1968 New York opening to The Seven Descents of Myrtle, complying with Warner Brothers’ concern that “Kingdom of Earth” sounded too biblical for a play that the New York Times then characterised as “a comic tale of crude sex”.  (Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay for the 1970 film, which was given an X-rating and yet two more titles, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots in the United States, and Blood Kin in Europe.  The film deservedly flopped.)

Sutcliffe’s set was inspired by Robert Polidori’s strangely beautiful photos of New Orleans interiors after the floods of Hurricane Katrina.  Polidori’s images of toppled kitchen appliances, a four-poster bed filled with mud, a pink living room complete with chandelier and pile of grey rubble found their appropriate echoes in this play where lost gentility is just one of many losses.  As with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams returned in Kingdom of Earth to the beloved Mississippi Delta of his childhood, where he used to accompany his grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin, on afternoon calls to ladies who served him refreshments on fine china, and he and his sister were blessed by the fond attentions of his African-American nursemaid, Ozzie. 

That region was then often imperilled, as it is again this year, by terrible spring floods, inspiring Williams to insert into the climaxes of two of his earliest plays, Spring Storm and Battle of Angels, the dangerous rising of the Mississippi River.  The Great Flood of 1927 left much of the Delta under water for six months and cost the lives of nearly five hundred people, most of whom were African Americans who worked as field hands or sharecroppers picking cotton.  During the flood, thousands of African Americans were forced at gunpoint to remain in concentration camps on the dangerous levees because white landowners were afraid of losing their cheap labour.  Needless to say, in this pre-Civil Rights era, many white Mississippians did not look favourably on someone with “Negro blood” owning a farm.  

Debates about whether Chicken should be played by an actor of African descent have persisted since the Italian Harry Guardino took the role in 1968.  In the 1975 Princeton production overseen by Williams, the black actor David Pendleton played Chicken.  That all three British productions have used white actors to play Chicken seems justified by the script, however, as Myrtle has no idea throughout most of the play that Chicken is partly African.  In a 1968 publicity piece for Kingdom of Earth in the New York Times, Williams suggested that Chicken was an “octoroon”, or one-eighth African American.  He recounted how he was once at a New Orleans party where he wanted to escape the guests “at my end of the parlour”.  So he lied, saying “gravely, ‘There is something about me that I think it would be unfair of me not to tell you.  I am an octoroon.’”  He was “agreeably alone” in minutes.

It has been widely assumed that Kingdom of Earth is a parody of Streetcar Named Desire, and that, as Lot puts on genteel airs and bemoans the coarseness of his half-brother, his character is a parody of Blanche DuBois.  Chicken’s grasping obsession with documents and ownership indeed harks back to Stanley Kowalski’s concerns, as does his prescribed physique.  Williams’ stage directions describe Chicken as “remarkably good looking with his very light eyes in darker-than-olive skin, and the power and male grace of his body.”   As his private letters make clear, Williams was using the term “chicken” to describe handsome young men in the 1940s.  The short story on which Kingdom of Earth was based was written in 1942, but it was not published until 1966 because of its sexually provocative content, which included Chicken’s account of masturbating.

The character Myrtle is unique in the Williams canon and contests the notion of the play as mere parody.  A bold yet ultimately fragile exhibitionist, Myrtle was derived from Williams’ personal experience in 1940, when, after the breakup of his love affair with the dancer Kip Kiernan, Williams decided to drive to Mexico with a New York prostitute and her new Mexican husband and his three male friends.  Williams relates in his Memoirs that he could see the couple was not happy “in the sack”.  Finally, the bride knocked on the door of his Monterrey motel room in a state “near hysteria”, confiding, “Honey, I don’t know what I got myself into.”  She admitted the marriage was not consummated and “other admissions and wails of trepidation continued for an hour.  She had perched herself in an attitude of more and more permanency on my bed and at last I thought it best to inform her that I was quite ineligible as a surrogate for her bridegroom.  And I told her why.  She nodded sadly and there was a little respite of silence, during which perhaps the germ of Kingdom of Earth was first fecundated in my dramatic storehouse.” 

Uninterested in sex and coughing his life away, Lot’s character likewise contains complexities that cannot be reduced to parody.  In 1963 Williams’ long-term lover Frank Merlo died after a difficult bout with lung cancer, and his death plunged Williams into depression for the rest of the 1960s, fuelled by drink and drugs.  According to Dotson Rader, Merlo had denied Williams sex on several occasions, causing Williams to break with him shortly before Merlo’s cancer was discovered.  When the remorseful Williams returned to share their apartment, Merlo continued to lock the door every night.  Rader recalls that Williams later tortured himself asking, “Did he, poor child, suppose that I would still be apt to follow him in there and use his skeletal body again for sexual pleasure?”  Estelle Parsons, who played Myrtle in the original cast, told Mike Steen that in rehearsals Williams “seemed very naked”, as if he were baring his heart on the stage.   Yet he still laughed outrageously through every rehearsal, much to the cast’s consternation.  His biographer Lyle Leverich reports that Williams laughed in a disturbing manner while viewing most of his plays.  In Kingdom of Earth, Lot is indeed speaking for Williams when, in one of the play’s darkest moments, he is asked by Myrtle what he is laughing at and he says simply, “At life! – I think it’s funny.”

 On hearing that Michael Kahn was to revive Kingdom of Earth in Princeton in 1975, Williams was prompted to make the following observation in his journal:  “What’s grave about the genital itch?  No matter how romantic one is, the urge to ‘lay knife aboard’ can hardly be regarded as a thing of gravity, confined to the evening hours, as though it were Evensong in a high Episcopal Church. . . . And so I’m in a clown today.  I fear it results from reading over my funny melodrama Kingdom of Earth.”