by Veronique West
The theatre of Tennessee William—its sweeping tragedy and breathtaking lyricism, as well as its incendiary subject matter and uncompromising brutality—captures our imaginations.
Williams’ later plays (those following Night of the Iguana in 1962), however, have been subject to great debate, controversy and even outrage. These more experimental plays have been slammed by critics as incomplete, incoherent, and overly symbolic. Williams’ later career indeed presents the unique and fascinating opportunity for audiences and readers to see an iconic artist in mid-metamorphosis—and PRISM was privileged enough to hear about this transformation from Williams himself in a 1980 interview.
Williams’ plays, set against the backdrop of the American South, plunge audiences into the most turbulent reaches of human experience. Family tensions, alcoholism, sexuality, madness and death loom large in his writing. Williams has been hailed as the voice of the outcasts, of figures marginalized, misunderstood and misused by his society. His major critical successes, The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Night of the Iguana, portray some of his archetypal outsider characters: faded Southern Belles, fragile poets, lost vagabonds, closet homosexuals and the lowlifes of his culture’s underbelly.
While Williams’ later plays continue to explore these elements, their approach to this exploration is dramatically different. Williams came to feel trapped by the expectations of critics, the press and the public. They applauded all the conventions and techniques of his early works, and presumed that his new works would to continue to fit that mould. Williams, however, was expanding his horizons. Most likely inspired by such innovative playwrights as Beckett, Pinter and Albee, he was beginning to deconstruct his traditional notions of theatre. This brings us to his experimental piece The Red Devil Battery Sign, which was produced at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1980.
When The Red Devil Battery Sign was first produced in Boston, before coming to Vancouver, it was met with scathing reviews and closed after only a week or so. Set in a paranoid, post-Kennedy assassination Dallas, it centres around the unlikely yet powerful connection forged between a washed-up mariachi star, King del Ray, and a mentally unstable streetwalker known only as Woman Downtown. Its confrontational voice, brazen criticism of American politics, and fantastical, almost surreal qualities did not resonate with Boston audiences.
Williams produced The Red Devil Battery Sign while he was Writer in Residence in Theatre & Creative Writing at UBC. He was a fan of PRISM, and he suggested that the magazine print his play.
PRISM was naturally hesitant about printing the play. UBC Faculty emeritus George McWhirter told andrea bennett about the debate earlier this fall, describing it as a battle between PRISM editors St. John Simmons and Joe Martin. According to McWhirter, Martin wanted to publish the play, and Simmons did not. Eventually, after the editorial board had a chance to see a dress rehearsal of The Red Devil Battery Sign, the decision came down to a vote at an editorial board meeting. The first question Simmons posed to the editorial board: Did you like the play? Eight or nine people voted No, while three voted Yes. Second question: Should PRISM publish the play? All hands went up for Yes.
The Red Devil Battery Sign appeared in the Silver issue of PRISM, in Spring 1981. Despite Simmons’ earlier reservations about whether or not to include it in the issue, he teamed up with Joe Martin to interview Tennessee Williams. The interview reveals Williams’ personal reflections about the controversial play, as well as his attitudes about playwriting in the later stages of his career. These reflections shed some light on a work that has perhaps been subject, like many of Williams’ characters, to much misunderstanding.
Read the interview here.