[On 3 April 2002, I conducted a telephone interview with the late Eve Adamson, then former artistic director of the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre of New York City. I’d been asked to do the interview for a professor of English who writes frequently on playwriting and dramatic literature; he was working on an article on some of Tennessee Williams’s later short plays, one of which was Kirche, Küche und Kinder, which the Cocteau had premièred in 1979 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, the company’s home base in the East Village.
[Adamson, who planted the seeds of the Cocteau Rep in 1971, retired from active leadership of the company in 1989 and died on 8 October 2006 at 68. The company didn’t survive her departure very long, splitting into two camps in 2004. The company didn’t renew its lease on the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in 2006 and the Cocteau Rep’s name disappeared in 2007. The theater at 330 Bowery at Bond Street ceased to exist in 2006 as the 1874 building, one of the city’s premier cast-iron structures, was purchased for conversion into a private mansion.
[I have lightly edited this transcript, which I originally typed directly from my recording of the interview. Insertions and comments after the fact are in brackets. ~Rick]
RICK: Good morning, Ms. Adamson. This is Rick.
ADAMSON: How are ya?
RICK: I’m fine. How are you?
RICK: Shall we talk?
ADAMSON: Sure. First of all, I would like to be sent a copy of whatever it is Dr. K~ is writing. Do you know more specifically what it is he’s writing?
RICK: I do not, but he’s planning to send you a copy.
RICK: He told me specifically in one of his last messages that he’d be sending you a copy.
ADAMSON: Okay. And the other thing that I would like you to communicate to him is that I do want to approve any quotes of me, ’cause I’ve been misquoted so often.
RICK: All right. Well, I’m sending him not only the transcript that I will make of this, but the tape as well.
RICK: So he’ll have the closest record there is.
ADAMSON: Okay, great. Nonetheless, things tend to . . .
ADAMSON: . . . change in print, so just . . . if he does quote me, I’d just like to approve that before it goes wherever it goes.
RICK: When I said he’s going to send you a copy, my own impression was that he’s going to send you a copy before publication.
ADAMSON: Great, great.
RICK: He certainly will be sending you a copy of the published . . .
RICK: . . . article. But my understanding was that he’s going to send you a copy of the . . .
RICK: . . . prepublication just for that purpose.
ADAMSON: Okay, well if you’ll . . . .
RICK: I’ll confirm that, but that was my understanding.
ADAMSON: And if you’re sending him the tape, he’ll hear this part of our conversation, too.
RICK: Yes, he will.
ADAMSON: Okay. Now, what can I tell you? Uhh . . . you don’t know the play [Kirche, Küche und Kinder]?
RICK: No. It’s not published so I haven’t been able to, you know, read it. [It has been published since this interview; see my comment at the end of the interview’s second part.] And I didn’t see the production—although I was in New York at the time.
ADAMSON: Well, let me kind of go down the questions. [Dr. K~ provided an advance set of questions for the interviewees—there were others involved in the same production—so that they’d all cover the same areas of his interest.] First of all, many of the questions are written from sort of an academic-literary-critical point of view, and, of course, he [Tennessee Williams] didn’t think that way at all. He was an artist and wrote directly from his subconscious.
RICK: All right.
ADAMSON: So, a lot of the questions say, you know, ‘Was he consciously doing this or that?’ and the answer is almost always ‘No.’ He was just writing. So, they’re kind of difficult, uhh . . . .
RICK: Well, that would be the answer. I’m sure . . .
RICK: . . . Dr. K~ would, you know, expect you to say that if that were the case. He is . . . . I don’t know whether I told you this: he’s an English professor.
ADAMSON: Uh-huh. Oh sure, and I understand completely. But what he wants is my memory of Williams . . . . At one time we were talking about In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, which is a play of his I did a couple of times [1975 and ’79, I believe], and he was waxing wonderfully articulate and poetic on, you know, the lyrical versus the flesh and all of that, and I said, “Yeah, that’s what In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel was about.” He said, “Oh, really? I thought it was about Jackson Pollock.” [Laughs.] So . . . .
RICK: [Laughs.] Of course, he also said things like that . . .
ADAMSON: Oh, sure.
RICK: . . . just to be provocative . . .
RICK: . . . and amusing—especially if there were other people about.
ADAMSON: But the wonderful thing was that, you know, during the period I knew him, which was late in his life—and this was, of course, true all his life—he wrote every day. He couldn’t not write. And, uh, he was doing what a mature artist does, which is exploring new areas all the time. And that’s kinda what this play was.
So, let’s see—looking at these questions here, umm . . . . Well, the first one: “Working closely . . . blah-blah-blah-blah . . . did he label it a certain kind of play?” Uhh . . . ehhh . . . . Yes, it’s subtitle was An Outrage for the Stage.
ADAMSON: So that’s how he labeled it. And once Craig Smith was talking to him—[the long-time Cocteau actor] who played the central character in both of the new plays I did, this and Something Cloudy—and he said to Tennessee, “Gee, I’ve played you twice, Tennessee.” And Tennessee said, “No, you’ve played me once. The first time, you played my vulgarity.” [Chuckles.] Referring to this play. [For information on the Cocteau production of Something Cloudy, see my comment at the end of this post.]
ADAMSON: So, uhh . . . . So that’s . . . I mean, that was his subtitle.
“The late Linda Dorff . . . .” I didn’t know that she had died. [Dorff (1951-2000) was a professor of theater history who wrote often about Williams, particularly his later works.]
RICK: I don’t know her, so . . . . That’s the second time that Dr. K~ has referred to her as “late,” so I presume that that’s true. Of course, unless he was misinformed.
ADAMSON: She was a young woman. She interviewed me a couple of years back, and . . . huh! I’m surprised to hear that. Anyway . . . .
RICK: That may have been the interview that he mentioned to me.
ADAMSON: Could be.
Uhhhh . . . . “Borrowed a lot of his techniques from cartoons.” Uhh . . . . “Are there any other influences you see in this late play?” I don’t know that he necessarily borrowed techniques anywhere. I, uhh . . . .
RICK: You mean, consciously.
ADAMSON: Right, consciously . . . consciously. I don’t think . . . . As I say, he wrote directly from his subconscious, and some of it was wonderful and some of it was not. Umm. I remember the first time he had given me—this was on Something Cloudy—that he had given me a looong rewrite that he had just done, and I was just thinking, ‘My God, how do I go to Tennessee Williams and say this is . . . no good?’ [Chuckles.] And he said to me, “It’s no good, right?” So . . . . I mean, he just wrote. And then later, he would say, ‘Okay, this works; this doesn’t.’
Uhh . . . . No, I don’t see any influences. Part of this play, however—and this kind of connects to the set question—umm . . . . When we were doing this play, I worked with a designer named Douglas McKeown [a member of the Cocteau Rep], who was very, very sensitive to Tennessee’s work, and, umm . . . . This play takes place in two places, the ‘Kirche,’ which is the place where the central character lives—which is a loft in SoHo that he sort of thinks is his church, or like a chambered nautilus—and the ‘Küche,’ which is where his wife lives, which is the kitchen. And Tennessee had initially thought that it should be done on a . . . two spaces on a wide stage. And, of course, at the Cocteau, we don’t have a wide stage; I like to work on a stage that’s deeper than it is wide. So, Doug and I were trying to figure out how to do this. And, first of all, I said to Tennessee, “Fellini film”—he was very, very visual . . . .
RICK: Williams was the one who was visual.
ADAMSON: Yes, very visual. He painted. And, actually, I learned in this play—because my background had been and still is primarily in classics, so I tend to work with playwrights who’ve been dead 400 years; the relationship is great!—but, I learned quickly on to really pay attention to what he wanted visually. I mean, if he talked about a color or some weird visual image, it really was part of what he was doing. But we [i.e., McKeown and Adamson] couldn’t figure out how to do this, and I said to him [i.e., TW] early on, “a Fellini film,” and he got that—he loved that.
RICK: This was an impression that you had that you were providing him?
RICK: A visual thing?
ADAMSON: Yeah, yeah.
And then, we talked about what Doug and I—the designer and I—talked about: What happens when Dorothy goes to Oz, how black-and-white becomes color? And, we [i.e., McKeown and Adamson] came up with this idea of, since we couldn’t put both spaces—nor did I think it was theatrically terrific to put both spaces side by side on the stage, because nothing was central—we came up with the idea of venetian blinds, which were in primary colors—and the primary colors were important to Tennessee—they were in primary colors on one side and in gray on the other side. So we went back and forth between what looked like a color film and what looked like a black-and-white film. And the ‘Küche’—again the cartoon . . . . But, you know, this is something we [i.e., McKeown and Adamson] came up with—but he [i.e., TW] did love that. But, then he had these other really outrageous, symbolic things like the “Daisy of Day,” which opened up in the morning . . . and, you know, things like that, which I learned were wonderful images. And I’m . . . . Doing mostly classics, I’m used to taking great liberties with what a play should be visually, but I really learned here to listen to him, because he knew what he was talking about.
So, uhh . . . number three: “hilariously satiric . . . against organized religion . . . what pulls all of these targets together?” Ummm . . . . And, again, he didn’t sit down and think, ‘I’m gonna attack religion, the literary estab[lishment]” . . . you know. What pulls it all together, I think, is . . . . This play, unlike Something Cloudy, was very like a collage. And, actually, we worked on it that way. Because, he didn’t work as closely with me on this as he did in Something Cloudy, because at the time he was all involved in Clothes for a Summer Hotel and very anxious about that. [Williams’s Clothes for a Summer Hotel, a play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, opened on Broadway for a brief, 15-performance run on 26 March 1980. It was the playwright’s last play to début on Broadway in his lifetime.] But I would take pieces . . . . I kinda took it all apart and put it back together, and did that with him, and it really seemed to work—the contrasting of the ‘Kirche,’ the church, and the ‘Küche’—the contrasting of the two worlds back and forth. So, I think, that’s what kind of pulls it all together—is that structure that we sort of created together.
Uhhhhh . . . . “Are any of the characters modeled after specific individuals?” Not that I know of. Not that I know of. Uhhh . . . . I mean, the central character is . . . well, what he is in the play is a hustler who’s retired to this loft in SoHo, who lives in a wheelchair and pretends to be paralyzed. And when his wife leaves the room, he jumps out of the wheelchair and does cartwheels and summersaults and all sorts of things—so he’s not paralyzed. And, I think you could certainly read that as an artist who is seen to be ineffectual, who’s not really. And, at the end of the play, the hustler decides to go back to work. And, it’s very interesting, ’cause the play was very bawdy. It’s a . . . it’s a . . . . You know, I’m talking about the contrast of the two worlds—it has in it some of the most beautiful, lyrical writing he’s ever done and it also has some really kind of grade-school bawdiness. And I think the contrast between the two of those is very interesting. Uhh . . . . There was a fellow, a songwriter, who was in his seventies, who came to see the play. And I knew him, and a lot of people couldn’t figure out what the play was about. I mean, a lot of people reacted this way to all of Williams’ late work because it . . . just because it wasn’t his early works. A lot of people couldn’t see what he was doing, which I think is a great, great shame. So, I was a little concerned about this older gentleman being offended by some of the bawdiness in the play, or not knowing what was going on, or whatever, and when he left the play, he said, “Well, I don’t know what all the furor is about. It’s clearly all about an aging artist.” Which . . . . You know, he got it. And . . . yeah, I think a lot of . . . . Well, certainly the two plays I did are about an aging artist, or about Tennessee’s consciousness at the time.
So, I mean, in that sense, I think, the main character is Tennessee. But a lot of art is autobiographical. But I don’t think any other character is modeled after anyone specific.
Uhhh . . . “satirized the Lutherans . . . .” I have no idea . . . no idea what it was about the Lutherans.
Okay, now your question . . . . I’m assuming you have your e-mails in front of you. I’m going down them here. Okay. About that publication? [This is in response to a question I had asked about a collection of tributes to Williams from the Cocteau files that were un-identified.]
RICK: Oh, that one. Yes.
ADAMSON: Yeah. That was a publication called Other Stages . . .
RICK: I remember that.
ADAMSON: . . . which was published by Leah Frank. And that’s where that appeared. [Other Stages was a small theater magazine that focused on Off-Off-Broadway from 1978 to 1983, when it ceased publication. Leah D. Frank has been a long-time theater reviewer, including for the New York Times.]
RICK: You don’t remember when?
ADAMSON: Uhh . . . .
RICK: It was obviously after his death . . .
RICK: . . . shortly after his death from the way . . .
ADAMSON: It was.
RICK: . . . the way it was written. It sounded like a tribute immediately upon his death.
ADAMSON: It was.
RICK: That’s what it sounds like.
ADAMSON: She also . . . Leah also wrote a very nice thing when we were about to open Something Cloudy, whatever year that was—I’m bad at years. Very, very nice piece. Actually, she asked Tennessee to write something. Which he did. Which she published. [I.e., Tennessee Williams, “Something Tennessee,” Other Stages 30 July 1981: 7.]
Okay, now . . . . “Did he have any specific targets in mind in his satire?” I don’t think so.
“What were the specific scene or set requirements to do the play?” Well, I’ve kinda talked about that. Umm . . . . Both times I worked with Tennessee on original material—again, I think, the visual connection at the beginning was very strong.
RICK: His or yours?
RICK: Oh, together.
ADAMSON: Uhh . . . . I mean that . . . . You didn’t talk to him about ideas, you talked to him about images.
RICK: It’s been written, umm, you know, in lots of the analysis of his work over the years that he was influenced by movies as a child.
RICK: And that a lot of his writing has cinematic qualities because that was one of his early retreats—to go to the movies.
RICK: And then, of course, he worked at MGM.
RICK: Beside the painting.
RICK: Before he actually started painting, he had an interest in painting. There were lots of criticism that I have read over the years that talked about the “painterly” quality of his . . . the settings. Not the sets, but scenes the way he describes.
ADAMSON: Right. And his sense of color . . . . Yeah, his sense of color was right on it—much stronger than mine. I mean, I tend not to think in color; I tend to think in form before I think in color. I know, when we did Something Cloudy, I said to him, “late Turner” [English landscapist, Joseph M. W. Turner (1775–1851)] [chuckles], and he . . . that really seemed to ring a bell.
Ummm . . . sooo . . . . I don’t know what more I can say about the set, except I thought we came up with a really ingenious solution and he loved it.
RICK: The blinds.
ADAMSON: The blinds and, umm, there was kind of a cartoonish quality to the kitchen, the ‘Küche,’ and the ‘Kirche’ was quite beautiful. The ‘Kirche’ had an organ in it. And this character, Miss Rose, would come and play the organ. And that was some of the more lyrical stuff.
Uhh, let me see . . . . “Has it been staged anywhere besides the Cocteau?” Not to my knowledge.
RICK: I, of course, did the Billy Rose Collection . . .
RICK: . . .search a couple of weeks ago and there was no mention of any. [I.e., the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.] Usually if there’s something . . . .
ADAMSON: Yup. No, I don’t think it’s ever been done anywhere else.
RICK: The Internet catches a lot of college stuff . . .
RICK: . . . and I never found anything there. All the hits, they were either something having to do with your production or they were about the text.
RICK: Or they were listed as a reference to a production of another play.
Okay . . . the Lutheran question again. I don’t know.
“How does it compare with other late plays that I’ve directed or rehearsed?” Umm . . . .
[In a few days, I’ll post Part 2 of my interview with Eve Adamson. It picks up right where this part leaves off, so come back to ROT to read the rest of Adamson’s experience working with Tennessee Williams on one of his lesser-known scripts.
[The Cocteau, one of the few successful non-union Off-Broadway companies, devoted its repertory to classic plays and adaptations of classic prose literature. In 1981, the Cocteau presented Tennessee Williams’s Something Cloudy, Something Clear under Adamson’s direction; opening on 24 August, it was the last Tennessee Williams play to have its premiere in New York while he was alive.
[Tennessee Williams worked as a screenwriter for MGM for six months in 1943. He wrote the script that would become The Glass Menagerie while he was there, a property he intended for Ethel Barrymore and Judy Garland (though Louis B. Mayer wanted Greer Garson for Laura). Ultimately, the studio rejected The Gentleman Caller, as it was then called, but when Menagerie became a successful stage play in 1945, the studio tried to lay claim to the rights on the argument that Williams had started it while under contract to MGM. Williams’s stalwart agent and defender, Audrey Wood, thwarted the studio’s efforts and the playwright maintained control of his first hit.
Williams loved movies, which had been a refuge when he was little and went off to the local movie theater with his big sister. One of his first bread-and-butter jobs in New York City was usher at a large movie house (an experience that found its way into one of his other one-act plays, These are the Stairs You to Got Watch). But Williams was an avid amateur painter, too, and the influences of both cinema and painting are visible in many of this plays.]