20 March 2010

The Lost Première of 'The Eccentricities of a Nightingale'

[This column is adapted from an earlier essay published in The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (11.2 [Spring 1999]: 42-59). It grew out of my research on Eccentricities and its predecessor, Summer and Smoke, which resulted in the chapter on the two plays in Philip C. Kolin’s Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998).]

From 10 to 28 October 1967, Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale was presented at the two-year-old Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Surrey, about 30 miles from London. The production, directed by Philip Wiseman, an American who worked in England, and starring Sian Phillips as Alma Winemiller opposite Kevin Colson’s John Buchanan, Jr., was declared the “world premiere” of this new version of the story of the Winemillers and the Buchanans of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Seven months later, the Theatre Society of Long Island announced the presentation from 14 to 26 May 1968 of the “American premiere” of Eccentricities at the Mineola Theatre. The second of four plays in the inaugural eight-week season of “Long Island’s first all-professional repertory company,” this Eccentricities, also dubbed the play’s “New York premiere,” starred the original Stella Kowalski, Kim Hunter, as Alma, with Ed Flanders as John and James Broderick as Rev. Winemiller. The director was Edwin Sherin, who later directed the 1976 production at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre that went on to Broadway.

The problem with these proud pronouncements is that they were plain wrong. This wasn’t an incidence of reinterpretation or spin; both the British and Long Island producers were simply flat-out overlooking three previous U.S. productions of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, all professionally mounted and duly recorded in local newspapers. Furthermore, because of the publicity from the theaters and the press coverage of the two productions, the errors have become a permanent part of the historical record. In a 1965 announcement in London’s Daily Telegraph, Ronald Hastings emphasized that the British production of Williams’s Eccentricities would be “the first play by this author to have its opening performance in Britain.” The British and international press went on to designate the Guildford Eccentricities, which International Herald Tribune reviewer Thomas Quinn Curtiss further erroneously identified as “the first draft of . . . ‘Summer and Smoke’” and incorrectly predicted would go on to London’s West End “before long,” as its “world premiere.” The local paper, the Surrey Advertiser and County Times, even described Eccentricities as “a hitherto unstaged play by one of the greater American playwrights of the century”; the announcement of the theater’s season one week earlier in the Advertiser had referred to the play as a “World Premiere.”

Then, while acknowledging the earlier British presentation, the Theatre Society of Long Island also asserted in a press release that Eccentricities “has never been professionally produced in the U.S.” These assertions, too, became the record, as Long Island’s own Newsday reported that the show was Eccentricities’ U.S. debut, and Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post wrote that Williams attended opening night “when, at long last, at the Mineola Theater, L.I., ‘Nightingale’ received its American premiere.”

Once on the record for future writers or producers to look up, such statements simply become “The Facts.” In Contemporary Authors, for instance, Williams’s 1990 profile states that the first production of Eccentricities--noted only under Summer and Smoke, as a revision of that play--was in Washington, D.C., in 1966. An earlier profile reports an unspecified “summer-stock tour” in 1964, and records a production at the “Guildford Theatre, London” in the fall of 1967. Aside from its publication with Summer and Smoke, the play isn’t otherwise mentioned in these lengthy profiles; not even the television or Broadway productions in 1976 are noted. Even when the 1976 Buffalo production that moved on to Broadway was reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson asserted that Betsy Palmer had “performed in the first stage version” of Eccentricities when she played Alma in the summer-stock tour that became the Studio Arena’s one hundredth production. Someone who knows that the play had been published in 1964 and suspects that a production had been mounted that year would still have a difficult time locating even the spare New York Times coverage of the event. The Times calls itself “the paper of record,” but looking up Tennessee Williams or The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in the 1964 volume of the New York Times Index, under either “books” or “theater,” reveals nothing. All three pieces that year are buried under the entry for the producing theater, making the record easy to miss unless the researcher already knows a great deal of the actual history. No other U.S. newspaper has indexes that far back, and such usual sources as the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature don’t reveal any articles on either the production or the publication of the text. It’s little wonder, then, that many have missed this significant little event.

Because many chronologies of Williams’s life and work don’t even include Eccentricities, this factual confusion’s seldom addressed. Indeed, Eccentricities, which Williams considered a new play rather than a revision of Summer and Smoke, has generally flown under the radar of most Williams chroniclers and biographers. Even when the actual première is correctly identified, the writer doesn’t mention, let alone refute, the other claims, so the error’s not even acknowledged, much less laid to rest. There are, however, records that document the actual chronology of the birth of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.

Summer and Smoke, whose première was successfully presented by Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 in Dallas on 8 July 1947, had received devastatingly bad reviews in New York and closed on 1 January 1949. Having sailed for Gibraltar in December 1948 with his long-time lover, Frank Merlo, and his friend, writer-composer Paul Bowles, Williams was in Fez, Morocco, when he received the telegram announcing the closing. He was devastated and bitter, but the character of Alma Winemiller was indelibly printed on his soul. She “seemed to exist somewhere in my being,” he wrote, and later, during rehearsals for the Broadway première of Eccentricities, Williams candidly acknowledged, “Look, I’m Alma.” Alma had actually first appeared earlier in 1947 as the main character of Williams’s short story, “The Yellow Bird,” originally published that June in Town and Country magazine. She was named Alma Tutwiler then; Williams had first used the name Winemiller in another story, “One Arm,” written between 1942 and 1945. Unable to shake her, even after the rejection of her latest incarnation, the playwright, one of whose friends came to call him “Tenacity” Williams, determined to create a new play for the Nightingale of the Delta to inhabit.

After closing on Broadway, Summer and Smoke had a meager production record until its reputation was resuscitated by the historic Off-Broadway revival in 1952. There was a summer-stock run (22-27 August 1949) at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennertown, Pennsylvania, whose only historical significance seems to be that it’s believed to be the first summer-stock performance to include blind actors. In 1950, the Portuguese-language première, O Anjo de pedra (The angel of stone), opened at the Teatro Brasiliero de Comedia, São Paulo, Brazil, and in October of that year a tour of the Western states went out with film stars Dorothy McGuire and John Ireland as the would-be lovers and Una Merkel as Mrs. Winemiller.

Williams, who seldom let a script alone even after it was published, continued to rewrite Summer and Smoke and in the summer of 1951, while on one of his many retreats to Rome, completed a new version. Letters Williams wrote between January and September 1951 to producer Cheryl Crawford and agent Audrey Wood attest to this. At the beginning of 1951, Williams wrote Crawford, who was producing The Rose Tattoo on Broadway at the time, “I am still working on the new ‘Summer’. It has turned into a totally new play, even the conception of the characters is different,” and in June, he wrote:

I am doing a completely new version, even changing the title as it now takes place in winter, and I think I have a straight, clean dramatic line for the first time, without the cloudy metaphysics and the melodrama that spoiled the original production.

Williams was even contemplating returning the new version to the United States with “a big star like Peggy Ashcroft” or Margaret Sullavan, whom, apparently, Crawford had suggested. By August, he was writing to Wood that he’d completed a draft of the new script, which he was still calling Summer and Smoke, and by September, he must have finished the revision because he wrote Crawford that he didn’t know which version the London company would present, “the new or old one.” He added, “I prefer the new one.”

He rushed off to London where a production of Summer and Smoke was in preparation by producer H. M. Tennant. Met at the airport by his friend Maria Britneva (later Lady St. Just), who was playing Rosemary in the production, he arrived too late to substitute the new script for the one “already deep into rehearsals” under the direction of Peter Glenville who, ten years later, would direct the film version.

Williams insisted that that script, which Britneva “put safely away,” was The Eccentricities of a Nightingale--though that title didn’t appear until later correspondence--and that it didn’t resurface for “some 10 or 15 years.” A typescript of Eccentricities in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Billy Rose Theatre Collection bears the date 20 June 1961, and letters to Robert MacGregor and Jay Laughlin at New Directions, Williams’s publisher, indicate that he was working again on the new play, now under its present title, in 1963 and 1964. Except for a subtitle (deleted before publication)--The Sun That Warms the Dark (A very odd little play)--the typescript’s nearly identical to the 1964 published text. It would certainly be in keeping with Williams’s practice to have reworked his new play over a decade. It’s on record, to be sure, that Williams had begun Summer and Smoke, originally entitled A Chart of Anatomy, in St. Louis as early as February or March 1944. He continued to work on it in Mexico in 1945 (where he went to recuperate from one of a series of cataract operations); in New Orleans; in Taos, New Mexico; on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in 1946 (where he shared a cottage with Carson McCullers while she dramatized The Member of the Wedding); and on until after its successful Dallas première. A typescript of Summer and Smoke in the Billy Rose Collection is labeled “Rome Version (March 1948)” and hand-annotated “Produced by Margo Jones at the Music Box Theatre, 6 October, 1948.” If he reworked a “successful” script for four years, why not a “failed” one for a decade? It’s not inconsistent, surely, and he did, indeed, furnish typed additions to the script of Eccentricities for a 1979 New Jersey production, three years after the Broadway outing. Even if Williams didn’t see the revision of Summer and Smoke for a decade after 1951, he clearly worked over the new play between at least 1961 and the performance in 1964.

In any event, New Directions scheduled publication of Eccentricities in a single volume with Summer and Smoke for October 1964. The New York Times’ June 1964 announcement of the forthcoming publication noted that the new play would receive its première later in June in Nyack, New York, but in a February 1965 review of the book, eight months after the première had closed, theater writer George Freedley, the first Curator of the New York Public Library’s Theatre Collection since 1938, noted that his “own researching shows” that Eccentricities “has not been seen on any stage.”

On 2 June 1964, the New York Times announced the imminent première, something over three weeks before it opened, and the New York Herald Tribune covered the opening on the day of the performance. Edie Adams, the widow of Ernie Kovacs and already an accomplished star of television (The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1952-53, 1956; Here’s Edie/The Edie Adams Show, 1963-64) and musicals (Wonderful Town, 1953; Li’l Abner, 1956), was to play Alma Winemiller in the summer-stock production directed by George Keathley at Bruce Becker’s Tappan Zee Playhouse. Eight years earlier, Keathley, a friend of Williams and fellow Key West resident, had directed The Enemy: Time, the one-act version of Sweet Bird of Youth, at Studio M, Keathley’s theater in Coral Gables, Florida. That production starred Alan Mixon, who played John in the première of Eccentricities. (Mixon had so impressed Williams that the playwright sent the young Floridian to his own agent, Audrey Wood, who convinced the actor to move to New York. He’d go on to play many Williams roles both before and after John Buchanan, Jr.)

Local coverage began three days before the opening with an announcement in the Rockland County Journal-News of Adams’s impending appearance on the Nyack stage, though the paper made its own mistake by stating that Eccentricities would be Adams’s “east coast stage debut.” That certainly had occurred at least on 25 February 1953 at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre when she opened in Wonderful Town. The première of Eccentricities was seen as such a major event in Nyack that “Miss Adams and the cast, subscribers, New York and local celebrities” were bidden to a “Special Buffet” at the St. George Hotel after the début. Proclaiming, “Many top celebrities have been invited to the opening,” the Journal-News noted that after other opening nights, the “meet-the-cast party” would be at the YMCA.

The Journal-News made much of Adams’s “returning to her home area”--she had grown up in nearby Tenafly, New Jersey, and attended New York City’s Juilliard School of Music--and her original intention to become, like Alma Winemiller, a music teacher. Adams saw the production as an opportunity to stretch her dramatic muscles, acknowledging, “I had to fight to get away from the dumb blond parts. And I did. I was the ingenue and dumb blond so long that nobody thought I could do anything else.” Declaring, “This one’s for me. . . . It’s a rewrite, all on the girl. You’re on stage expounding for two and half hours,” Adams suspended her busy schedule of “singing, dancing and frothy musicals” to do the production, which New York’s Morning Telegraph still called Summer and Smoke, as “part of her education as an actress.” Explaining that working in material like Eccentricities, was necessary to establish a reputation and talent for serious acting, Adams observed that “if I wanted to do summer stock shows and make money I could do that. . . . But I wouldn’t be proving anything. I’d just be away from home.”

Announcements and festive plans, of course, aren’t proof that a performance took place. Neither are press releases or program booklets, which can be published before a performance which doesn’t occur. This, we’ll see, was the basis for the claim made by both the British and Long Island productions.

For the opening of a new play by one of America’s most renowned and respected playwrights, Eccentricities received scant attention outside Nyack. The New York Herald Tribune, while reporting that Adams had no plans to perform the show anywhere else--it wasn’t a tour as Contemporary Authors recorded-- suggested that “she has not ruled out carrying the play further at a future date.” The Herald Tribune later stated that the summer production had been a “pre-Broadway test.” Nonetheless, though the New York Times and the Herald Tribune both announced the performances, neither reviewed the opening on 25 June 1964. (Ironically, both papers covered the closing.) In fact, the only New York City paper which did review the Tappan Zee production was the New York World-Telegram and Sun. After quoting Williams’s statement--composed at the time of the play’s publication and restated in nearly every program and most production reviews--that Eccentricities was a new play and better than Summer and Smoke, reviewer Norman Nadel complained in the World-Telegram that “‘Summer and Smoke’ never looked better than it does in comparison with this revision” and that Williams “has made Alma and the play more, rather than less melodramatic.” He blamed “backstage blundering” for “a production that ranged from indifferent to catastrophic,” specifically citing miscues in Clifford Ammon’s lighting that caused inappropriate laughter when lights went on or off at the wrong times, destroying “what might have been moving moments.” Nadel went on to conclude that casting Adams was a “conspicuous error.” Though he praised “some excellent supporting performances,” particularly Alan Mixon’s, he wrote:

All Miss Adams has done is to superimpose patterned eccentricities on a kooky and rather pitiful young woman who, toward the end of the play, abruptly becomes as overtly sexy as a TV actress doing cigar commercials. Alma in this new version is neither as complex nor as sensitive a character as Williams wrote for “Summer and Smoke,” but her complexity and sensitivity go far beyond Miss Adams’ ability to communicate them more than momentarily.

Nadel’s cigar-commercial reference was to Adams’s appearances as television’s skimpily-costumed “Muriel Cigar girl” from 1962 until 1976. He summed up both the play and the performance by proclaiming, “Subtlety and tenderness have been sacrificed all along the line.”

Nyack’s Rockland County Journal-News touted the “excitement” of seeing “variations on a familiar theme” in Williams’s new version of Summer and Smoke with the “added fillip” of “a new play, still in try-out.” To this was added the appearance of Edie Adams, fresh off her Thursday-night ABC variety show that had finished a six-month run the previous March. Reviewer Mariruth Campbell confirmed that Eccentricities was, indeed, “a very odd little play”; the Nyack production was the only one that ever carried Williams’s subtitle as it appears on the typescript.

Campbell did object that the play was “over-long” and noted, “Unfortunately the on-stage figures moving scenery amused the audience, breaking the continuity of mood for which Williams aimed.” She praised Patricia Nielsen’s set in general, however, and attributed the lighting and staging style--”no curtain, changes in lighting to designate scene changes”--to “ancient oriental stage techniques.” Campbell, in contrast to Nadel, pronounced Adams’s performance “splendid,” and applauded the rest of the cast who “[a]ll worked valiantly to breathe life” into the play, though she did observe that “[m]any of the most important line[s] never were clearly heard.” Blaming some of the “dreariness” on Keathley and the company, she complained, “In real life, words spoken under great stress may be without force, may be whispers; in the theater, those same wor[d]s must be in ‘stage whispers’, reaching the last row.”

The ten-day run of Eccentricities, which launched the 1964 summer season at the Tappan Zee Playhouse, was scheduled to close on Saturday, 4 July. Sadly, early in the morning of Saturday, 27 June, just two days after the opening, a fire broke out in the theater. Discovered just before 3 a.m. by house manager Bob Olson, the fire damaged the dressing rooms. Though the New York Times reported that the blaze destroyed props and costumes, the Journal-News stated that neither the props nor the lighting instruments were damaged. Separated from the backstage area--a nineteenth-century livery stable to which the theater was added in 1903--by a thick brick wall, the auditorium suffered mostly water and smoke damage. The fire, contained by 125 local firefighters, singed the edge of a drape and the firemen had had to cut into the roof. In its report on the fire, whose origin wasn’t determined, the Times quoted some prescient lines from the script’s last scene:

ALMA: Where did the fire come from?
JOHN: No one has ever been able to answer that question.

Ironically, since the text of Eccentricities hadn’t yet been published, someone at the Times seems to have been present at a performance in order to have noted these lines. Apparently, the Times didn’t deem the production worthy of a published review, despite Williams’s prominence and the intimations that the production had been a Broadway try-out.

Along with his assertion that no production of Eccentricities had been staged by the play’s publication, George Freedley’s Morning Telegraph book review in February 1965 also quoted Williams as stating that there’d been no production of the play, but that statement had been part of his “Author’s Note” for the published edition, prepared in May 1964, before the première. In it, Williams wrote, “This radically different version of the play has never been produced.” This statement, part of the description in New Directions’ advance catalogue, was circulated with review copies of the book. It was amended in August 1964, however, prior to publication and after the stage debut had occurred, to include the words “on Broadway,” and that’s how it appears in the 1964 published text and all subsequent editions. Apparently Freedley, despite his critical and curatorial credentials, accepted Williams’s advance statement as still valid in February 1965, overlooking that a production had occurred in the meantime.

Both the British and Long Island producers gave the same justification for their claim that they were staging premières of Eccentricities. Ronald Hastings, for example, reported in London’s Daily Telegraph that “on what should have been the opening night of ‘Eccentricities,’ the [Tappan Zee Playhouse] building burned down, so the play has never been performed.” Then, in May 1968, the Theatre Society of Long Island declared that the “production scheduled for the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack was cancelled [sic] when the theatre burned down two summers ago.” The Theatre Society of Long Island’s assertion even had the time-frame wrong: the fire had been nearly four years earlier, of course, not two.

None of the published reports of the fire and the closing of the theater indicated that the theater had “burned down,” or that Eccentricities had failed to get on the stage. Becker, who had gone to New York City with his wife and co-producer, Honey Waldman, after the second performance of Eccentricities, believed he could reopen the Playhouse in two weeks or less. On Monday, 6 July, ten days after the fire closed it down, the Tappan Zee Playhouse did, in fact, reopen, using trailers as temporary dressing rooms. Becker had broken a hole in the 14-inch wall to give the actors access to them, but the production that reopened the theater was Preston Sturges’s Strictly Dishonorable. Eleven years later, after several fires severely damaged it in the early 1970s, the historic Tappan Zee did close for good.

In her opening-night review, Campbell, too, quoted ironic lines from the play: “The fire has gone out, nothing will revive it.” The Eccentricities of a Nightingale’s première production stood at two performances. Still, it was a fully union-accredited, professional production of the first performance of a new play. Duly recorded in press reviews, both locally in the Journal-News and in New York City in the World-Telegram and Sun, and in after-the-fact reports of its closing in the Journal-News, the New York Times, and the Herald Tribune, the Nyack Eccentricities fulfilled all the requirements for an official world, American, and New York première, denying the 1967 Guildford and 1968 Mineola productions the right to claim those titles. The Guildford show, of course, remains the British première, but the Theatre Society of Long Island mounted merely one of several revivals in the 1960s.

Furthermore, even if we discount the Tappan Zee production somehow--and there seems no reason to do so--there were at least two productions between the ones at Nyack and Guildford which would have earned the designation of première. First, on 20 April 1966--a year and a half before the production in Guildford and a little less than two years before the one in Mineola--Eccentricities opened at the Washington Theater Club in the District of Columbia as “the major city premiere,” which it was. This production, which ran until 15 May, can arguably be written off as a semi-professional staging. The director was the Theater Club’s artistic director, Davey Marlin-Jones, later the theater and film reviewer for WUSA-TV in the District, and the only name in the cast that might be recognized today was John Hillerman. It was a light-weight production, perhaps, but the one that followed isn’t so easily dismissed.

Between 13 January and 5 February 1967, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago presented its revival of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, nine months before the British première and 15 months before the Long Island revival. The Goodman, one of this country’s most highly regarded companies, surely can’t be ignored in a play’s production history. In addition, the Goodman’s production of Eccentricities included a curious historical footnote--possibly even a unique occurrence. Directed by Bella Itkin, the cast included Lee Richardson as John. Richardson, who in 1952 went by the name Lee Richard, played the same character in the landmark Circle in the Square production of Summer and Smoke.

The next significant productions of Eccentricities after 1968 didn’t occur until the end of the 1970s, starting with its “Theatre in America” telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Great Performances” on 16 June 1976 with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella and the belated Broadway première which opened at the Morosco Theatre with Betsy Palmer and David Selby on 23 November. On 15 February 1979, the German première (and the only foreign-language production on record as of 2000) opened under the title Die exzentrische Nachtigall (The eccentric nightingale) at the Kammerspiele in Düsseldorf. Two productions in October that year, one by BergenStage in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the other by the Westchester Regional Theater in Harrison, New York, were the latest documented professional stagings at the time I did my research.

The Broadway première had something of a curious history itself. Betsy Palmer and David Selby headed the cast of a summer-stock production of Eccentricities. Originally directed by Jeffrey Chambers, this production had problems with its design, direction, and some of the supporting cast. Neal Du Brock, Executive Director of the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, took over for the last month of the tour. “The play was being buried under props and scenery,” Du Brock complained. He repackaged the production with the same stars but replaced half the supporting cast and remounted the production at the Studio Arena from 8 October to 6 November 1976. Du Brock brought in Edwin Sherin to replace Chambers and a Broadway-quality design team to redo the sets and costumes. When he turned the direction over to Sherin, Du Brock ordered, “[T]hrow it all out and do it on an empty stage.” The producer wanted “to let the actors speak and not have all that other stuff cluttering things up,” and the result was a spare, almost minimalist production. Sherin, harking back to his 1968 attempt on Long Island, averred, “I think some vibrations are set off, and the play’s effects are felt years and years later.” He came to Buffalo, he said, to take up the challenge of a play he had “failed to ignite the first time around.” Sherin admitted, “It’s bothered me ever since. But now it’s exactly the way I wanted to do it.” Williams, who attended rehearsals and opening night in Buffalo, is reported to have “loved this concept.” Reviewers in Buffalo apparently agreed, though the New York press found the production “skimpy.” The Broadway production closed on 12 December after only eight previews and 12 regular performances.

The record, then, is unambiguous: The Eccentricities of a Nightingale premièred on 25 June 1964 at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, New York. This was incontrovertibly the New York, American, and world première. The production mounted at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in October 1967 was the British première. Intervening and subsequent U.S. productions, regardless of quality or other distinctions, were merely revivals or narrowly-defined premières.

[There were a few singularities among some of the subsequent revivals. On 15 April 1977, a production of Eccentricities opened in Williams’s hometown at the Greene Street Theatre in Key West; Williams attended the opening performance and gave it his own favorable review. For a production on 26-29 October 1978 at the nineteenth-century Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Collingwood Repertory Company commissioned the original Suite from The Eccentricities of a Nightingale from composer Joseph Bertolozzi; the score, in manuscript, is in the collection of the American Music Center in New York City. The above-mentioned 1979 revival by BergenStage (in which I played Roger Doremus) incorporated not only material cut from the official acting edition of the text, but typed additions supplied by Williams, himself.]

1 comment:

  1. Edwin Sherin, who directed the 1976 Broadway début of 'The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,' died at 87 at his home in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 4 May 2017. In addition to 'Eccentricities,' Sherin was also the director of the 1968 Broadway production of Howard Sackler's Tony-winning 'The Great White Hope,' which starred a young James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander (Sherin's wife). Sherin also directed several other notable Tennessee Williams productions in his career, as well as many television shows, most notably 'Law & Order.'