When Tennessee Williams’ “ghost play” Clothes for a Summer Hotel first opened in New York in 1980, it was thoroughly thrashed by critics and barely made it through 14 performances (to be fair, there was also a blizzard and a transit strike happening when it opened, if you’ll remember). The panning even caused Williams to vow that he would “never open a play in New York again,” as reported in the August 18 issue of TIME magazine of that same year.
Currently the play, concerning the last meeting of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is being revived by the White Horse Theater Company at the Hudson Guild Theater (441 W 26th Street, through February 21) and it will be interesting to see what the critics have to say this time around (including our own, review coming shortly). After all the play hasn’t been performed in close to three decades.
According to 80s critics the main detriment to enjoyment in Williams’ latest was that the playwright’s “voice,” the one they had come to know and love and expect, was not obvious in this play. In the Times of March 27, 1980, Walter Kerr says as much:
The most dismaying thing about Tennessee Williams’s… “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” is the fact that Mr. Williams’s personal voice is nowhere to be heard in it. It is as though the playwright’s decision to deal with actual people—not only the Fitzgeralds but Ernest Hemingway and the Gerald Murphys as well—had momentarily robbed him of his own imaginative powers.
Real people? Imaginative powers? Will these issues pose problems for contemporary audiences?
Hopefully, the last 30 years or so will allow today’s critics to let the play stand on its own and take issue instead—as does the New York Press‘s Mark Peikert—with a patent failure on the part of society to be literary, instead of putting blinders on to focus on original authorial intent and voice. Enough time may have passed to view the current production as an autonomous entity, and not just the next work from a beloved playwright. Add this fact to our tireless romanticizing of the figure of the doomed alcoholic writer and Clothes may have a shot at wowing today’s picky New York City audiences. The play remains starkly different from, say, Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the possibility that Williams was entering his late progressive/experimental phase is very real—he died three years later in 1983.
On the other hand there are also the always expanding and re-examined mythos of Gatsby (and consequently the life of F. Scott), the hedonism of the roaring 20s, and the fact that it’s again chic to be poor, all of which might make theater-goers more disposed to enjoying this play. A current re-imagining of the cult play Gatz, in which the entire book is read from start to finish during the production, “beat on, boats” and all, is finishing up a short run at Cambridge’s American Rep, and Brad Pitt even lent his storied and chiseled visage to a little known Fitzgerald short not too long ago. Can the current empathy for a poor artists’ tale of love, loss, and too much booze/not enough barbiturates win out over taking Williams to task for deviations in much lauded tone and form? (For my part I think it can, having attended a recent preview performance.) Inquiring minds want to know.
Whatever the case, the White Horse’s uncanny casting of rootin’ tootin’ Ernest Hemingway and Williams’ written dialogue for the self-eradicating author make this show worth the 30 year wait—and the price of a ticket.
(photo credit: Joe Bly)