Tennessee Williams’ Hotel Plays: three different times and places

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“James, I’ve got this beautiful Tennessee Williams play, you just must read it! It’s called Green Eyes, it was done in New York earlier this year and it was an absolute success – you just must read it!”  This is James Hillier, director of Green Eyes, the first of the three Tennessee Williams Hotel Plays currently on at the Grange Holborn Hotel, remembering what Tennessee Williams’ UK executor, Tom Erhardt, said when he first approached Hillier about putting on the plays.

“I read it – I loved it – I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that’. So I then read a number of other plays in the compendium, and I found that several were set in hotels, so it struck me: what if we did more than one play?” And so Hillier came to the idea of staging three of these plays set in different hotel rooms – Green Eyes, The Traveling Companion, and Sunburst – on three different floors of a London hotel. The inspiration was practical as well as artistic: “I thought it might be quite tricky just to put on one play; I don’t know how you’re going to get an audience along to see a 25 minute play. These plays are perfect for a small audience.” The plays run simultaneously – as soon as Green Eyes finishes, its audience moves upstairs to watch The Traveling Companion, and a second audience comes in below to watch Green Eyes, in what turns into a conveyer belt of Williams’ drama.

Hillier is exceedingly complementary about the Grange Hotel, where Defibrilator Theatre’s production is being put on. “Straight away they wanted to do it; they do a lot of work with theatre companies, they have an awesome attitude towards the arts, and they are very bold and brave to allow a production like this in their hotel.”

Williams himself spent much of his later life living in hotels, and these three plays, written between 1970 and 1981, draw upon the atmosphere and his experiences during that time. “They’re three very different plays,” explains Hillier. “The first one, Green Eyes, is more familiar territory for most Tennessee Williams fans. It’s slightly inflected with the Streetcar relationship of Stanley and Stella. There’s a man who’s returned from Vietnam; he’s a soldier and he’s met a girl and they’ve had a whirlwind romance and they’ve got married and ended up in New Orleans for their honeymoon and we first find them in the bed. She’s asleep and he’s awake, staring at the ceiling. She’s got lots of scratches and abrasions on her body, and bruises, and he wants to know why.”

Hillier sees the content of the play – with themes including adultery and rape in the honeymoon bed – as symptomatic of Williams’ manoeuvring to find dramatic space in which his particular style could remain effective. “The ‘coming out’ of society in the 1960s, with the youth movement and rock and roll, put the kibosh on Tennessee Williams’ dramatic style, because his style is very much based around the idea that there’s something under the surface, bubbling away. Suddenly it became difficult for him to write these sort of plays, because there’s nothing under the surface, because you can say, ‘I f**ked someone else’ or ‘I’m a homosexual’, all these things that you’d have had to keep a lid on now became acceptable. But in this play he does maintain that sort of tension, because it’s still taboo.”

The second play, The Traveling Companion, is about an older man who arrives at a hotel with his younger travelling companion. The younger man doesn’t want to share a bed with him; “the play becomes a straight negotiation”. Hillier identifies the older man as a persona of Williams himself. “He’s this incredibly eccentric, vain, heartbroken, but still sharp and poetic man.” Written in 1981, Traveling Companion is one of Tennessee Williams’ last plays before his death two years later.

Finally, the audience moves onto the third floor and sees Sunburst. “It’s about a retired actress who’s living in a hotel. Now I was talking to the hotel owner at the Grange, and he said that when he first started out in the hostelry business, there were quite a lot of people that still lived in hotels. And they would have room service, which was effectively a butler service – they would have everything done for them. If you look back to the heritage of the Golden Age of acting and the legends of the ’60s, people like Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris – they lived in hotels, so it’s a familiar idea that this retired actress lives in a hotel.” The actress is unwell, and gets a knock at the door from a worker at the hotel, who pretends to be a doctor in order to try to take a famous diamond, the eponymous Sunburst, from her finger. The play escalates and becomes a struggle between the man and his friend over how they can get the diamond from the actress. “They’re goons in the Woody Allenesque style. They’re hapless, they’ve stumbled into this situation where potentially they could commit a really atrocious crime.”

I was surprised that these plays hadn’t been put on in the UK before, given Williams’ popularity and eminence. Hillier explains: “They weren’t accessible to people. He wrote so many plays towards the end of his life that plays are being uncovered all the time in old manuscripts. The work of Williams is very much in the hands of university lecturers and libraries; there’s a process of unearthing going on. There are lots of versions and drafts, putting them together, releasing them as collections. In this collection there are several plays – none of them have been done – a lot of them are very obscure, some very dark, some quite masochistic, some broad in their humour, and a bit difficult to place.”

Connected by one consistent character, the porter of the hotel, The Hotel Plays allows its audience to explore three different times and places – three different hotel worlds – in the same evening. But more than that, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to engage, from an immersive, interactive perspective, with plays on the furthest frontiers of Tennessee Williams’ undiscovered later work.

The Hotel Plays are at the Grange Holborn Hotel until 27 October. Visit www.thehotelplays.com for more information and to book tickets.

Image credit: Simon Annand

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