[Part 2 of my 2002 interview with the late Eve Adamson, former founding artistic director of the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre, picks up right where Part 1 left off. (If you haven’t read the first installment of the transcript, I recommend that you go back and do that first.) The thrust of the interview was Adamson’s work with Tennessee Williams on the workshop début of his one-act play Kirche, Küche und Kinder in 1979. (Dr. K~ is the professor for whom I conducted this interview and a couple of others for his research on Williams’s late one-acts.) ]
RICK: Did you do The Red Devil Battery Sign?
ADAMSON: No. No.
RICK: I didn’t think so. When Dr. K~ mentioned it in his e-mail, I wrote back that I didn’t remember . . . . Somebody recently did it, I think back in the ‘80s—WPA did it. [It was the WPA Theatre, 26 Oct.-1 Dec. 1996—I was off a decade—with Elizabeth Ashley; the theater, which was in Chelsea, was an independent Off-Broadway company in New York City and should not be confused with the New Deal government program (which included the Federal Theatre Project).]
ADAMSON: Oh, that could be.
RICK: The late ‘80s.
ADAMSON: That could be.
RICK: And it was in the early part of the revival of interest in his late plays.
RICK: I remember there being an article in American Theatre that made a point—that other people had been making, but it was the first time I’d seen it sort of written out—that the directors who had grown up with the Williams of Kazan and Mielziner and had that impression burned into their minds, that this was what Williams was, had not so much passed from the scene but their influence had been dissipated, and that these young directors—many of them not American—British or other non-Americans—were approaching the late Williams plays with a completely fresh mind—were not tainted by the idea that they all had to be Summer and Smoke and Streetcar. [The article in question is Frank Rizzo, “Raising Tennessee: For a new generation of admirers, Williams is the playwright of the hour,” American Theatre 15.8 (Oct. 1998): 20-25.]
ADAMSON: I think that’s a really good point.
RICK: These directors were reimagining them and that the critical reception that had tainted them when they were first produced in the ’60s and ’70s and dismissed, was very often infected by the fact that everybody—that the critics also, as well as the directors—thought of them as being bad versions of Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, and Glass Menagerie, but they were completely different and needed a different approach.
ADAMSON: I think that’s absolutely true.
RICK: I’m sure it is.
RICK: As I said, it was not a new idea, it was just the first time I’d seen it written out in that fashion. There was a brief interest in all of these plays, all at the same time as The Red Devil Battery Sign—I think it was at the WPA.
ADAMSON: I’ve always been a great defender of his late work, and I feel really passionate about this. And, you know, what I usually say is, when Picasso was the age that Tennessee was when he was writing these plays, he was making paper sculpture, and nobody said, ‘Why aren’t you still in the Blue Period.’
RICK: Of course, he had changed so many times that people sort of got used to the fact that Picasso stayed with a style, you know, five minutes.
RICK: But there was an interesting column in the ’50s, by Max Lerner, that discussed that very fact, to which Williams then responded—that a young artist, particularly playwrights, he said—other artists tend to be accepted when they change—but a young playwright—or newly-emerged playwright, regardless of age—who establishes himself as substantially as Williams did with his early plays, are very often not allowed to change. They’re not allowed to experiment. They become what he called the “Number One Boy”—that was the title of the column. And they’re expected to continue to do the same thing. [This is all in reference to Max Lerner, “Number One Boy,” New York Post 6 Mar. 1951: 28 and Max Lerner, “Letter From A Playwright,” New York Post 16 May 1951: 44. I wrote about searching for these publications on ROT in “A Tennessee Williams Treasure Hunt,” 11 April 2009.]
ADAMSON: That’s absolutely true.
RICK: And if they don’t, they get rejected.
RICK: And somebody sent Williams—he was on Key West at the time—somebody [it was Wolfe Kaufman, producer Cheryl Crawford’s press agent] sent Williams the column and he wrote back—the column ran in the New York Post—and then Lerner published the letter, the response. But Williams responded very positively: ‘You are the first person who has said that, and I appreciate it—because that’s true. We are not allowed to experiment and try new things.’ [I paraphrased Williams on the phone; the actual quotation is in the blog article.]
ADAMSON: It is true, and then, I mean . . . to this day and in this society, we don’t consider theater an art form. Other countries do. And that’s one of the problems. And I know talking with him to audiences was amazing because audiences would feel betrayed. When we did Something Cloudy, we’d get questions like, “Well, why haven’t you written one of your wonderful female characters?” And I’d say, “Well, look at the male character he wrote.” [Laughs.] You know . . . . There was a sense of ‘How could you do this . . .’
ADAMSON: ‘. . . to me?’ Yeah. And it was very, very strong. Those early plays really, I think, burnt themselves into our collective subconscious.
RICK: And with good reason.
ADAMSON: Yeah, and with good reason.
RICK: This is not to put down the early plays.
ADAMSON: No, not at all!
RICK: I’ve seen, you know, recent productions of those early successes and they’re still of immense power.
ADAMSON: Oh, they’re wonderful plays.
RICK: I did an extensive study of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities—which was, of course, not well received . . . . [I meant, of course, that Eccentricities of a Nightingale wasn’t well received on Broadway in 1976, not my study, published as “Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” in Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Greenwood Press, 1998).]
RICK: This was an off-Broadway revival.
ADAMSON: But that doesn’t negate his later works.
RICK: No, no. That’s the point.
ADAMSON: And people responded so passionately and so negatively to him doing exactly what a mature artist does, which is explore uncharted territory.
RICK: Which is odd, because now you’re talking . . . oh, I don’t know, 30 years later, 20 years later, after Max Lerner wrote that column, and that’s exactly what he said.
ADAMSON: Yeah, that’s wonderful.
RICK: That people essentially get angry at them . . .
RICK: . . . for doing this.
RICK: They’re not allowed to.
ADAMSON: Mmm-hmm. And that’s terrible. And it was deeply, deeply painful to Tennessee. Because he was tremendously courageous, exploring this new territory. And he was just shot down everywhere he turned.
RICK: What most people . . . many people don’t realize today is that he was tremendously courageous with his plays in the ’40s and the ’50s.
ADAMSON: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true.
RICK: Of course, today we look back at them as standards, but, of course, they were groundbreaking in their own way.
ADAMSON: He was always tremendously courageous. I mean, he was an artist of the theater. It’s just that when he was young, there was just Broadway. You know, I think . . . .
RICK: Of course, in those days also Broadway did new stuff.
ADAMSON: Yeah. Yeah.
RICK: But, of course, a lot his stuff didn’t start on Broadway. He broke ground in places like Dallas.
ADAMSON: Right. Right.
RICK: And Chicago.
ADAMSON: Soooo . . . . That’s about all I can say to these specific questions.
RICK: Well, let’s go back to the sort of, you know, general questions—although you’ve been doing that all along, but just sort of to end it with the, you know, the general impressions of the play and working with Williams. Dr. K~ asked, “Did Williams have any commentary on the parts of the play, the action, symbols, or what he called the ‘theatre of the outrageous.’” But, just more generally, things he said about the work—either the production or the play, the script. As you recall.
ADAMSON: Uhh . . . . Very little. Very little. Again, because he, you know, he didn’t talk about that. The play was an entity in itself, that was coming to life on the stage. And, as I say, we worked much [more] closely together on Something Cloudy than we did on this. I mean, he came to rehearsals for this . . . uhh . . . but he wasn’t . . . .
RICK: He was described in something that I read about Something Cloudy as essentially becoming a playwright-in-residence at the Cocteau during the work on that.
ADAMSON: Yeah, that was . . . .
RICK: Which gave me the impression that he was there all the time and working while you all were rehearsing.
ADAMSON: Well, he was there, but he was also—at that same time, he spent some time during our rehearsal period in Canada. Where did they do the Trigorin, the Chekhov thing, the Writer’s Notebook? Umm . . . somewhere in Canada. He went there for a while. [The reference is to The Notebook of Trigorin: A Free Adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull; the première was at the Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in September 1981.]
But, oh, gosh—it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience working with him.
RICK: Can I ask you just a personal thing?
RICK: I’m sure that Dr. K~ has no interest [in this]. Was it . . . was it . . . . Did you know it was wonderful at the time?
ADAMSON: Oh, yeah.
RICK: Or was it wonderful looking back, that you had this experience with, now, the late Tennessee Williams? You knew at the time that this was really a special . . . ?
ADAMSON: Oh, of course. How could one not?
RICK: I don’t know. ’Cause you’re involved in something and you figure, well, he’ll be around. You know, you don’t know that he’s not gonna be there anymore.
RICK: You figure, oh, you know, we’re just doing this play. It happens to be Tennessee Williams, but we’re just . . . umm . . . .
ADAMSON: No, how could one not? It was, uhhh . . . well, it was sort of like being with this incredible combination of artistic mentor and helpless child. [Chuckles.] Sooo . . . .
RICK: Yeah, that sort of describes the way he was all his life.
RICK: People gravitated to him—especially women—because he was this helpless child. There’s a whole description about how Audrey Wood became involved with him, almost from the point where she first met him, because he was this lost child. [Wood (1905-85) was Williams’s long-time literary agent—and personal caretaker-cum-surrogate mother.]
ADAMSON: But the helpless child could be very maddening.
RICK: Yes. And they went on to say that, too.
ADAMSON: But, I mean, it was just . . . . No, he was wonderful and working on the plays was wonderful and . . . you know, sitting with him and having the same thought at the same time was wonderful. And the collaboration was wonderful. And, of course I knew it at the time. It was a great privilege and a great responsibility. Because, you know, as I said, I do primarily classics—and, I’m known to take great liberties. I don’t superimpose concepts, but, you know, I’m . . . . Something that’s been written 400 years ago, you know, you can certainly edit and play with. And I’ve done very little original work, actually. Umm . . . . So in working with Tennessee, I knew that my responsibility was to try to make the play happen as he had conceived it, as opposed to, ‘Gee, here’s a script. What can I do with this?’ [Chuckles.] You know? In the new plays . . . .
RICK: That notion of his conception . . . did that come simply from your reading the script or did you and he talk about it, or did he tell you something that clued you in to what that conception was—as he conceived it?
ADAMSON: Well, it didn’t really get articulated. It came out in things like “Fellini film,” “late Turner,” uhh, “What do you think of this?”—you know—“Have you read this poem?” Uhh [chuckles], you know. It sort of came out . . . I mean, I don’t mean to sound mystical or non-verbal about it, but it sort of came out by getting on the same wave-length. Because we were creating something . . . .
RICK: But that, of course, is what a director and a living playwright working together do do. Actors and directors do it, too.
ADAMSON: And we were bringing life of a stage to something that had only lived on a page before.
RICK: How did you come to get Kirche, Küche und Kinder? How did it come to you and how did you . . . and since you did do mostly classics—do do mostly classics . . . ?
ADAMSON: One Thanksgiving, and again I’m bad at years—nineteen-seventy-something—some German television company rented the theater on Thanksgiving Day to tape Tennessee reading some of his prose pieces. And he said to me, “What do you do here?” And I said, “We do classical repertory, and we’ve done a couple of plays of yours, by the way.” And he said, “What plays,” and I mentioned that among them was In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.
RICK: So you’d already done that?
ADAMSON: Yeah, yeah. And I love that play. And he said, “I love that play”; I said, “I do, too.” He said, “Please do it again.” So, of course, I did. [Chuckles.] And he came with his agent at the time, who was Mitch Douglas.
RICK: Late . . . . No.
ADAMSON: The late Mitch Douglas, did you say?
RICK: No, I’m sorry. It was his previous agent.
ADAMSON: Who’s that?
RICK: Spanish name, and I can’t think of it . . . .
ADAMSON: Luis Sanjurjo. [Literary agent Sanjurjo of International Creative Management Associates died in 1987 at age 45. Douglas, no longer with ICM, is apparently not only still living, but still working.]
RICK: That’s the one.
ADAMSON: Ahh. No, he was after Mitch. But Mitch was Tennessee’s agent at this time and . . . .
RICK: I’ve spoken with Mr. Douglas.
ADAMSON: Oh, have you?
RICK: Well, about a year or so ago—yeah.
ADAMSON: Well, if you speak again, give him my best.
RICK: Well, I spoke to him because I was trying to get some information.
RICK: It’s not like I speak to him with any frequency. I was trying to get some information, either for me or for Dr. K~.
ADAMSON: Well, I have nothing but good to say about Mitch Douglas.
RICK: Yeah, he just didn’t know the answer to my question.
ADAMSON: Because he really cared about Tennessee. And Tennessee, of course, was very paranoid about agents. He fired them right and left. It’s really too bad that he didn’t stay with Mitch. Luis Sanjurjo was his last agent.
But, anyway, Mitch came to that production. Tennessee loved the production.
RICK: This is In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel?
ADAMSON: Yeah, yeah. And, uhh . . . .
RICK: I think I did read, now, that’s why he gave you . . . .
ADAMSON: So, then, he gave me this. And, then, in the middle of . . . . You and I had discussed this briefly on the phone the other day. In the middle of the process, he panicked because he had Clothes for a Summer Hotel opening on Broadway, and he panicked about what the critics were going to do about this. And I said, “Well, the hell with it. You know, we don’t need the critics. We’ve got subscribers, we’ve got an audience. We won’t let ’em in.” And he just couldn’t believe that anybody would take that point of view [chucking]. But I said, “It’s about doing the play. It’s not about what some individual writes in the paper.” So, that’s why we called it a “work-in-progress” and didn’t let anyone in to write about it. And, I guess through that . . . well, artistically, first of all, but then through that he came to really, really, really trust me. And that’s why later on, he gave me Something Cloudy. So, that’s how it happened.
RICK: You called it a work-in-progress and you treated it as such, at least in terms of the public. Did he work on the play—he was involved with Clothes, as you said—did he work on the play, not only during rehearsals, but during the performances?
ADAMSON: No, not really.
RICK: Was there revision?
ADAMSON: No. Not with this one. That all happened with Something Cloudy, but with this one . . . .
RICK: Which [i.e., Something Cloudy] was not considered a work-in-progress; it opened—it actually had reviews.
ADAMSON: Right, right. And that was the piece he wrote—and, God, I’m bad with dates, but it was just before Something Cloudy opened—that was the piece he wrote in Other Stages about why we had called the first one a work-in-progress and now we were doing another one and anybody could come. You know, we were gonna brave them all. So, that’s how it happened. That’s how it happened, and I just—as I say, I considered it a great privilege and a great responsibility to have been given this play and to have an opportunity to bring it to life.
RICK: I can’t imagine that it would have been anything but an amazing experience, especially the two of them [i.e., the two plays] together.
ADAMSON: Yeah, it really was.
RICK: My only contact with him—I never met him—but [in] 1979, I did a production of Eccentricities out in New Jersey, at the now-defunct BergenStage—maybe you remember them. I got my Equity card from doing that. And there were rumors . . . . He sent us changes—
RICK: I still have mine—typewritten changes to the script. This was three years after the Broadway flop of that . . .
ADAMSON: Oh, yeah.
RICK: . . . and, uh, there . . . . And he said . . . . There were rumors among the cast that he was gonna come to see the show. And, of course, he did go, very often, to see productions of his plays. And, of course, we weren’t that far from New York. [BergenStage was performing in Teaneck, N.J., a New York City suburb just over the G.W. Bridge in Bergen County.] He didn’t come—he never did come, but, of course, that was constantly on our minds—the belief that he might actually show up . . .
RICK: . . . to see our production. Of course, you know, this was, as I said, shortly after the failure of the play on Broadway, so he might very well have had an interest in checking it out. [The Eccentricities of a Nightingale ran for only 24 performances on Broadway from 23 November to 12 December 1976. It’s world première was on 25 June 1964 at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, N.Y. As I wrote in “The Lost Première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” posted on ROT on 20 March 2010, Williams was planning to attend a performance of that production, too, but circumstances prevented it.]
RICK: And he did send us . . . . That’s one of the times I talked to Mitch Douglas, although that was many years ago now—when I was writing the Summer and Smoke/Eccentricities chapter for The Guide to Tennessee Williams—to see if anybody could identify those changes—if they were around anywhere, because all I had—I was Roger Doremus, the suitor who was the bank teller—and all I had were my sides for the changes. Of course, everybody else had their own, and God knows whether anybody else kept them. The director had died, the theater had broken up, so there was nobody around who might have had all of them.
ADAMSON: Oh, dear.
RICK: And I was just wondering if any of these things existed anywhere. I kept trying to find the agent who handled that. Because it was my understanding from the director, I remember, that the agent had sent them. But, you know, I could never find out who the agent was who had handled that at the time—because everybody said, “No, we weren’t representing him at that time,” “No, we didn’t handle him in those days.”
ADAMSON: Well, that’s the problem.
RICK: I never found the agent who handled it; nobody had any recollection of where those changes came from or whether they still existed.
ADAMSON: I was in Mitch’s office one time, and he pointed to a shelf on his bookcase—a whole shelf. He said, “That’s Red Devil Battery Sign. He keeps rewriting it.”
ADAMSON: So . . . .
RICK: There was a comment . . . . A&E ran a biography of him some years ago, just while I was doing that early research, so, of course, I taped it and watched it. And there was a comment by the now-late Lyle Leverich [TW’s biographer for Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (Crown Publishers, 1995) who died in 1999 at 79] that one of his friends—he never identified who it was—called him “Tenacity” Williams . . .
ADAMSON: [Laughs.] That’s great.
RICK: . . . because he never let anything go. I wish I knew who had said that, but the only credit I could give it was that Lyle Leverich said it. [This was in Paul Budline, writer and dir., “Tennessee Williams: Wounded Genius,” Biography, prod. Paul Budline Productions, narr. Edward Herrmann (A&E Television Networks, 1998).]
ADAMSON: He wrote every day of his life. And, you know, I think that’s really kind of wonderful.
RICK: Well, unless you can think of something else that Dr. K~ might possibly be interested in about the play . . . .
ADAMSON: I can’t. I mean, if he comes up with any more specific questions out of this, I’ll do my best to attempt to answer.
RICK: Well, I will be sending him this, and . . . . You’ve been very generous with your time.
ADAMSON: Oh, you’re quite welcome.
RICK: . . . but I do know he wants to hear from them. There is so little published on the play . . .
RICK: . . . either your production or any . . . or the play, itself.
ADAMSON: And, of course, Harris Berlinsky [another long-time member of the Cocteau Rep] played a 99-year-old pregnant woman—Fraulein Haussmitzenschlogger.
RICK: All right. So, I thank you for your time and I know that Dr. K~ is very appreciative of your generosity.
ADAMSON: Okay. Well, good luck with the rest of your endeavors.
RICK: Thank you very much.
[Tennessee Williams’s one-act play Kirche, Küche und Kinder was written in 1979 and first performed by The Jean Cocteau Repertory Company as a work-in-progress on 15 September that year; it ran in repertory until April 1980. (The title, a German folk idiom expressing a woman’s traditional concerns, means “church, kitchen, and children.”) The play was published in 2008 by New Directions in The Traveling Companion & Other Plays. Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71.]