Monday, February 1, 2010

Tennessee and Me*

First off, I am not about to compare myself to Tennessee Williams. Not at all. He was a freaking, goddamn, bona fide super-duper genius. No question, no doubt. I am a pretty good writer (though some disagree), but a genius? Probably not. So before I go any further, let me repeat: I am not comparing myself to Tennessee Williams. Okay? Clear enough? Good. Moving on.

Last week, when I was working on this post, I dug into Tennessee Williams' bibliography. As I said then:
He wrote 8 full-length plays, almost all of them produced, on Broadway before getting to The Glass Menagerie. Also, at least one of them was a rewrite of an earlier work. That's a full decade of major productions to work on his craft, to figure out how to tell the stories that were important to him. Some of those early plays have a lot to recommend them, but they're also flawed, damaged and many are only rarely revisited. But that's the path to a Great Play: it runs through less than great plays.
Around that time, I started thinking about what's next for me. Last year, I had a writing plan. This year, I'm toying with self-producing. So I'm thinking about my catalog of plays. When I read about Tennessee Williams' early years, my jaw dropped. His "apprentice" plays, which include one classic, Orpheus Descending (though, really, Wikipedia has that off a bit; Battle of Angels, the early draft of Orpheus, was produced in the 40s, but Orpheus didn't come around until 1957), make a pretty impressive list. Plus 8 plays in 10 years. Not too shabby at all.

In 1936, Tennessee was 25. A bit of a wunderkind, really. So...I start feeling bad about myself. I haven't been working hard enough, I'm not a good enough writer, I'm very much not a genius. But I keep trying it and trying it. And I'm trying to get a picture of what I have. So I start thinking and start counting.

I left grad school in the year 2000. I was 27 then. (Whoa.) In grad school, I'd finished one full-length play (yeah, I grad school...that's another post). Since then, well...I counted and realized that I actually have written 8 full-length plays myself. I have a bit of a rep as a pretty prolific playwright, but maybe I'm just working at a steady pace. Of course, though, ol' Tom Williams has me beat on productions. By a country mile or two. His apprentice plays played Broadway and regionals. Mine...not so much. Different times, I suppose. Different writers.

Comparing yourself to the Greats is a risky, risky venture. Honestly, you're always going to come off looking bad. This time, though...I feel kind of okay, honestly. I'm not saying that my next play will be The Glass Menagerie. (Please see paragraph #1.)'s not impossible.

That's a reason to keep working.

*Cf. That short monologue was something I saw shortly after moving to New York and it still lives with me.


Scott Walters said...

Um, I probably should have noted this in your previous post. If you go to Williams' Wikipedia entry, I think there seems to be an indication that "The Glass menagerie" was the first of his plays to be produced on Broadway. Those earlier plays were either unproduced, or produced regionally. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what it looks like to me...

99 said...

Looking at it again, it seems a bit unclear. The other plays have spotty production histories and the dates seem to range about oddly. A quirk of Wikipedia. Maybe he and I are closer in career than I thought...

But that's a good catch.

Kristen Palmer said...

To get specific...he had 4 plays produced by community theatres in the St. Louis area in his 20s. When he was 28, he won a prize from the Group Theatre in NYC, this got him his agent, Audrey Wood. He also won a Rockefeller Fellowship that year. At 29 he had a play performed at the New School and in Boston, Theatre Guild produced "Battle of Angels" this closed in 2 weeks due to bad reviews.

"Glass Menagerie" is first produced in Chicago, he's 33. When he's 34 it comes to NYC, wins awards and also 2 plays you've never heard of are produced in Pasadena & NYC. He starts writing Streetcar after the success of Glass Menagerie, 2 years later it wins the Pulitzer, he's 36.

99 said...

Thanks, Kristen! Like I said, he's got my ass beat...but in a very different time.