“I’ll start writing, but not about nightingales,” says Canary Jim (Finbar Lynch), the reluctant poet at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ newly performed “Not About Nightingales,” and it’s to the American theater’s incalculable gain that Williams didn’t share his hero’s resistance to the muse’s call. If ever a dramatist found music in the sad and plaintive lament of the human spirit, it was Williams, who never stopped addressing its often thwarted efforts to take wing. At the National for a limited 38-performance run, the sense of discovery doesn’t stop here: The play is expected to move in June to Houston’s Alley Theater, three of whose actors add their distinct voices to Williams’ socially minded cri de coeur.
Does “Not About Nightingales” itself sing? Yes, for reasons that have as much to do with the empathy of an English director (Trevor Nunn, making a very real virtue of the confined Cottesloe space) and star (a lacerating Corin Redgrave) as they do with the sense of discovery accompanying a newfound work by a long-dead American artist. Simply put, these Britons redefine for the theater the so-called Anglo-American “special relationship,” as they put flesh on a hitherto unknown example of Williams’ bleeding, indeed suppurating, heart.
“Not About Nightingales” owes this belated premiere to Corin Redgrave’s sister Vanessa, a longtime Williams proponent (“Orpheus Descending”) who unearthed the manuscript and brought it to Corin’s attention as a possible project for their Moving Theater Co. What could be better for a politically motivated troupe than a 1938 play that finds Williams, at age 27, in angry, propagandistic mode? Listen to some of the play, and you hear strains of the headline-driven agitprop of the day typified by the likes of Clifford Odets. (His Lefty finds a nominal echo in this play’s Swifty.) But pay closer attention, and you find seeds of the primal conflicts that would propel Williams ever forward, in the clash between one man’s brutish destructive impulses and another’s no less fierce desire to be free.
The play’s agent of destruction is Redgrave’s Boss Whalen, warden of the large American prison whose inmates are preparing to rise up across Richard Hoover’s clanging, metallic (and impressive) set. Heading the insurrection is Butch O’Fallon (James Black, a welcome Alley visitor to London), a feisty convict whose bravado — in typical Williams manner — couches a femininity that, even at his most feral, he cannot but unleash. While Butch launches the prison’s hunger strike, Boss makes purring phone calls to his Shirley Temple look-alike of a daughter and makes sleazy advances on new stenographer Eva (Sherri Parker Lee, also from the Alley), whose desire for work leads to a grim self-sacrifice.
Caught between the men is putative stoolie Canary Jim (a physically miscast, if commendably agile, Lynch), who will do little to risk his imminent parole. Not that he remains oblivious to the injustice in his midst: As Jim tells his new girlfriend, Eva, romantic flights of fancy constitute so much “sissy stuff.” Leave the nightingales to Keats; more urgent matters loom.
Jim, by his own reckoning, is a caged canary. And his sentiments are of a piece with a play that wants to be more a “living newspaper” than a lyrical exhortation, a call to arms in the American prison system at a time when the world was awaking to the larger-scale horrors of Mussolini and Hitler, both of whom get invoked (the latter as “that monkey with the trick mustache”). There’s more than a suggestion of the European death camps in Boss Whalen’s preferred means of torture: relegation to the so-called Klondike, where jets of steam raise the temperature as high as 150 degrees.
Eventually, there’s no separating Butch and Boss, who face off with the doom-laden destiny with which Williams would, nine years later in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” pit Stanley against Blanche. “It’s been you and me a long time,” says Butch, speaking the same rhetoric of charged inevitability that would later characterize Stanley, though Butch’s reveries of his beloved Goldie (Sandra Dickinson) mark him out as the haunted male equivalent of the memory-plagued Blanche.
“Not About Nightingales” frequently anticipates later, greater Williams plays in which the rather touching naivete of the early work gives way to the sophistication, and hard-won wisdom, of someone bruised by life’s all too genuine blows. There’s no escaping the cliched, formulaic nature of Butch’s fellow inmates, “small-time grifters” all, who include the jock, the gay and the Jew, the last of whom — Joel Leffert’s Shapiro — eventually gets the cringe-making line, “I have it in my blood to suffer.”
Equally, one senses fantasy, not Williams’ desired adherence to fact (the play was prompted by a real-life prison rebellion in Pennsylvania), driving Eva’s recitation of Keats’ “When I have fears that I may cease to be” — the secretary as Romantic scholar.
Still, it’s foolish to expect a full-fledged masterwork from a young firebrand, who here seems to be trying on various guises for size, polemicist included, all of them respected by Nunn and his cast without a trace of condescension.
As remarkable as Williams’ raised consciousness is, Nunn’s careful balancing act between honoring the play as written, however piecemeal (its title headings look forward to those in “The Glass Menagerie”), and shaping it to suit an audience likely to be far more cynical in 1998 than was an impassioned playwright in zealous, if unseasoned, flow.
Are we too “adult” now for “Not About Nightingales”? Perhaps, if only because our century has lived through far more than Williams in 1938 could ever have dreamed of. But if the play grips us, and it does, it’s because it arrives shot through with an idealist’s fervor transmuted by his veteran collaborators into the stirring beginnings of something approaching art.