Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
January 17, 2008
DeKalb — Chicago seems an unlikely place for Tennessee Williams to call home, but a noted scholar of his work maintains that the playwright’s career essentially began and ended there.
“Williams has gotten a reputation as being a Southern playwright, and that is not true. He is an American playwright,” says David Kaplan, curator of the acclaimed Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown, Mass.
“His national reputation began with the production of ‘Glass Menagerie’ in Chicago in December of 1944. Right after it opened, there was a huge snowstorm. Two Chicago critics took it upon themselves to keep the production alive by writing about it, and that is why it came to Broadway. His reputation was made in Chicago,” Kaplan adds. “As a result, throughout his life, Williams had a very strong relationship and a positive relationship with showing new work there. The Goodman Theatre essentially created a home for Williams at the end of his life where he could work and where he developed his last full play.”
The relationship will continue posthumously in February, when Kaplan and Northern Illinois University’s SummerNITE will present the world premiere of “The Day On Which A Man Dies.”
Written in 1959 but never produced, the play opens Friday, Feb. 1, at Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield Ave., which is two blocks south of Wrigley Field at Sheffield’s intersection with Clark and Newport streets.
Audiences will experience an evening choreographed exactly as Williams intended, with paintings created and destroyed during the performance, a set made of paper and actors covered in paint. They will witness a famous American painter and his mistress argue violently, reconcile, make love and finally betray one another.
Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays (Feb. 1 and 8) and Saturdays (Feb. 2 and 9) and 7 p.m. Sundays (Feb. 3 and 10). The running time is about 70 minutes, and there is no intermission. All tickets are $15 and are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com or by phone at (800) 838-3006.
Kaplan, who serves as director and designer, is a longtime friend of Christopher Markle, head of performance in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance and the artistic director for SummerNITE. The four-member cast includes NIU student Faith Streng.
Alex Gelman, director of the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, says the invitation to produce the world premiere was remarkable enough for SummerNITE to make a rare wintertime appearance.
“A university is a place of teaching, and it’s a place of learning. The learning part comes from existing truths and discovering truths. Who would not jump at the opportunity to do a play by one of the greatest masters of the stage – ever – that no one’s ever done? How do you not do that? When given the opportunity, in large part thanks to Christopher Markle’s professional reputation, we jumped at the chance,” Gelman says.
“Anybody who’s not a specialist but thinks that they know Tennessee Williams’ work will be amazed,” Gelman adds. “This is not what we typically associate with him. This is not ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ This is not ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ This person strove, learned, challenged himself, worked in forms that were not in his comfort zone, shall we say, and that’s striking. Plus, it’s a fascinating piece theatrically.”
The play first came to Kaplan’s attention two years ago.
Allean Hale, a scholar from Champaign-Urbana, discovered its existence within “a stray comment” she read in an old interview with Williams and tracked it down to a folder in the UCLA library, its pages unnumbered and not in order. Handwritten by Williams, its title page categorizes it as “Finished 1960.”
Although Williams revisited the basic story in 1971 with a different script and title – a work that was produced in 2001 at the White Barn Theater in Connecticut – the upcoming SummerNITE production is the world premiere of the original text. Editor Annette Saddik, who determined the proper flow of the pages, will publish the text this spring.
Kaplan says the publisher and editor knew his work as a director and suggested he direct the play at the Tennessee Williams Festival he curates. “I thought it was something so special it should be done on its own, and Chicago made sense to me, given the energy of the actors there and the city’s connection to Williams,” he says.
“This particular play, I think, is very significant among Williams’ work. This is not something he wrote when he was older. It’s not something he wrote when he was young. This is something he wrote at the height of his powers,” he says, mentioning “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “The Night of the Iguana” as its chronological contemporaries.
“What excites me about the play is what excites me about Williams in general: He is a shaman. In the writing of his plays, he is a visionary who is reporting on a world that he sees, and in the words that he uses to describe that world, we share those visions ourselves,” he adds. “This is a very clear example of that in its use of stage directions, in its use of raw color and in its use of Japanese stage techniques that we now understand are very avant-garde Japanese performance art techniques.”
Indeed, Kaplan says, Williams dedicated “The Day on Which a Man Dies” to Yukio Mishima, a post-WWII Japanese homoerotic novelist.
The action takes place in a Tokyo hotel room, meanwhile, and the theatrical imagery draws on the Japanese “Noh,” a 14th-century form that combines dance, music, storytelling and acting, and “Gutai,” a Japanese art form inspired by Jackson Pollock.
“There’s a sequence where the painter gets down on the canvas and moves the paint around with his whole body. He’s covered with red paint. It looks like he’s been hit by a car, and that’s when his mistress comes in,” Kaplan says. “There’s a sequence where he walks into the room like that, trying to have a calm conversation with the Japanese lawyers, and it looks like he’s covered in blood.”
Color always played a prominent role for Williams, a friend of Pollock’s, who created oil paintings throughout his life. It began as early as the lighting instructions in “The Glass Menagerie,” Kaplan says.
“The stage is like a head. On one side of the brain is this; on the other side is that,” Kaplan says. “Doing what he asked, we have this wild, anarchic, swirling, red painted world. We have this very clean, high-fashion 1959 Tokyo hotel room in muted colors.”
Kaplan will take “The Day on Which a Man Dies” elsewhere after its SummerNITE premiere.
He has no plans to stage the play in conventional places, however.
“He was a painter – Williams himself – and he knew all about the process and theory,” Kaplan says. “I want this perceived as his artwork, and I think that would be clearer if it’s seen in a museum or a performance art space.”
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