NEW YORK — When the curtain finally went up on Tennessee Williams’ “A House Not Meant to Stand,” the critics stayed away in droves. Now 26 years later, they might get the chance to reassess.
“The general feeling was that he was embarrassing himself and he was embarrassing them,” says Greg Mosher, artistic director at Chicago’s Goodman Theater when Williams presented his last major work there in 1982.
Down on his luck at the time, the writer asked Mosher three times to stage “A House,” first as a one-act called “Some Problems for the Moose Lodge,” then twice as a full-length work before settling on the final draft. That text — which Mosher calls “a damned good play” — will have its first printing from Williams’ preferred publisher, New Directions (which is distributed by W.W. Norton) this month.
There are a lot of reasons most theatergoers haven’t read or seen “A House,” a dark, semi-autobiographical comedy about the fragile state of a family. One is thesp Maria St. Just, Williams’ friend and the late executor of his estate.
“There’s a whole industry of Maria St. Just bashing,” Mosher concedes. “I’m not in that industry.” St. Just was notoriously stingy with rights to the Williams canon — when she did allow a high-profile production, it came with a tight leash.
When St. Just died, the floodgates opened and the estate began to spill out lost one-acts and short plays. But none were as substantial as “A House Not Meant to Stand,” which had been largely forgotten.
The biggest reason for the delay may be the lingering stigmatization caused by Williams’ late-career track record.
“I would have produced it even if it had been a bad play,” Mosher freely admits.
In fact, the odds at the time favored a lousy script — “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” Williams’ play about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, was considered a failure across the board, and nobody was looking forward to his next work.
When “A House” was well received in Chicago (to everyone’s surprise), no one at the Goodman knew how to tell producers and critics that the widely anticipated failure hadn’t actually happened.
Now that New Directions editor Thomas Keith has compiled the definitive copy of the script from its original production, a New York production of the play may become a reality. Mosher has expressed interest in the play and is planning a reading.
“I tried to do it at Lincoln Center in the years that I was there, but Maria wouldn’t give me the rights,” he says.
If a production does get greenlit, it may still have an uphill battle.
“The expectations and standards just aren’t reasonable,” notes Mint Theater a.d. Jonathan Bank, who specializes in staging lost and forgotten plays. “Williams has an even bigger problem than most, because he wrote some really, really great plays. And anything by him will always be measured against ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ ”
On the other hand, the prospect of any new addition to the Williams canon is a tempting one, for Mosher, Bank and most theater lovers. Bank puts it best: “Not everything that is good is known.”