Tennessee Williams’ “Small Craft Warnings,” now being performed through May 10 at Crystal City’s Clark Street Playhouse by the Washington Shakespeare Company, is one of Williams’ most self-revealing works, a gritty, unyielding pastiche of raw nerves and downtrodden lives taking place in a beach-side dive bar. The current staging of the seldom-performed work is fully engaging.
Williams wrote it first as a short story, then perhaps doubling as a form of personal therapy helping his recovery in the early 1970s from a full decade of literary and emotional paralysis. All of his greatest achievements, “Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “Night of the Iguana” and many others, had all been written, produced and most turned into films by 1961.
“Small Craft Warnings” was first staged at the off-Broadway Truck and Warehouse Theatre in April, 1972. When it moved in the summer to the larger New Theatre, Williams himself performed a major role, at least for the first week, ostensibly to help the gate receipts, but also perhaps to underscore the new level of revelation of the playwright’s personal life that the play represented.
Being written at the same time as his legendary and provocative Memoirs (New York, New Directions Books, 2006), first copyrighted in 1972, “Small Craft Warnings” earned extensive references in this autobiography, and is explicitly homosexual in major portions.
While Williams played the character, Doc, when he took stage for about a week, his life and personality are more seen in three other characters, one who never appears but is referred to, being Haley, the deceased younger brother of Leona, one of the main characters, the other, Bobby, a runaway teenaged Iowa farm boy, and the third, Quentin, a jaded older homosexual man who’d picked up the farm boy on the road.
From his Memoirs, it is evident that Williams was depicting his own youth in the farm boy and deceased brother, veritable mirrors of each other in the play, while in the older man, he was portraying something of what he’d grown into by age 61, when the play was first produced. In fact, one soliloquy by Quentin, could go down as among the more eloquent in all theatre. With some editing by me, its core content is this:
“Yes, once, quite a long while ago, I was often startled by the sense of being alive, of being myself, living! Present on earth, in the flesh, yes, for some completely mysterious reason, a single, separate, intensely conscious being, myself: living! … Whenever I would feel this … feeling, this … shock of … what? … self-realization? … I would be stunned, I would be thunderstruck by it. And by the existence of everything that exists, I’d be lightening-struck with astonishment … it would do more than astound me, it would give me a feeling of panic, the sudden sense of … I suppose it was like an epileptic seizure, except that I didn’t fall to the ground in convulsions; no, I’d be more apt to try to lose myself in crowd on a street until the seizure was finished…
“…This boy I picked up tonight, the kid from the tall corn country, still has the capacity for being surprised by what he sees, hears and feels in this kingdom of earth. All the way up the canyon to my place, he kept saying, I can’t believe it, I’m here, I’ve come to the Pacific, the world’s greatest ocean! … as if nobody, Magellan or Balboa or even the Indians had ever seen it before him; yes, he’d discovered this ocean, the largest on earth, and so now, because he’d found it himself, it existed, now, for the first time, never before … And this excitement of his reminded me of my having lost the ability to say: ‘My God!’ instead of just: ‘Oh, well.'”
This testament to a lost sense of the exhilarating experience of life, itself is, in fact, the heart and soul of the play, consisting of not so much a plot as a ménage of losers and drunks except for Bobby, who fails, himself, to win the affection of Quentin. While the setting is a small, sleazy bar on the Southern California coast, it resembles what many are like in Key West or New Orleans, among Williams’ primary homes.
I never met Williams, but when visiting New York in 1972, I stayed with a friend who went to a party where he was present, and described him in detail. Quite fetching, my young friend had become the object of Williams’ special attention for the evening.
Coincidentally, also that year while living across the continent, I wrote a seven-part series for the Berkeley Barb on the varied aspects of the gay scene in San Francisco. One of the segments described a dive bar on a Sunday morning in the seamy Tenderloin District of the city not totally unlike the bar, replete with the characters, depicted in “Small Craft Warnings.”
Williams is an authentic genius of extraordinary magnitude, with an irresistible passion for unfiltered truth and an incredibly lyrical command of the language. In a brief essay written March 26, 1972, just prior to the opening of “Small Craft Warnings,” and appearing in a publication of the play soon after (New York: New Directions, 1972), wrote, “Is it or is it not right or wrong for a playwright to put his persona into his work? My answer is, ‘What else can he do?’ – I mean the very root-necessity of all creative work is to express those things most involved in his experience. Otherwise, is the work, however well executed, not a manufactured, a synthetic thing? I’ve said, perhaps repeatedly, that I have two major classifications for writing: that which is organic and that which is not. And this opinion still holds.”
He concluded, “It is the responsibility of the writer to put his experience as a being into work that refines it and elevates it and that makes of it an essence that a wide audience can somehow manage to feel in themselves: ‘This is true.’ In all human experience, there are parallels which permit common understanding in the telling and hearing, and it is the frightening responsibility of an artist to make what is directly or allusively close to his own being communicable and understandable, however disturbingly, to the hearts and minds of all whom he addresses.”
Michael Paller, in his valuable book on Williams entitled Gentleman Callers (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2005), shows a special appreciation for “Small Craft Warnings” and its significance for Williams.
In the interesting and creative Washington Shakespeare Company rendering of the play, Jay Hardee directs John C. Bailey as Monk, Joe Palka as Doc, Mundy Spears as Violet, James Finley as Bill McCorkle, Erin Kaufman as Bar Spirit, Kari Ginsburg as Leona Dawson, Brian Crane as Steve, Christopher Henley as Quentin, Thomas Wood as Bobby and Michael Sandoval as Tony.
More information, including show times and ticket info, is available at www.washingtonshakespeare.org.