Breathing Life into the Classics: How Suffrage Plays and Tennessee Williams Complicate 20th-Century Theater

Rachel Tils is one of 37 college students who spent the last two months working at the Library as part of the 2017 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program. She is a rising junior at Pomona College studying history and theater.

 

The American/Century Play Company Collection held by the Music Division at the Library of Congress contains an array of some of the most acclaimed works of 20th-century American theater. Purchased by the Library in 2010, the APC/CPC Collection features about 1500 scripts from 1894-1997 that were represented or considered by the production company. Their clients represent a who’s-who of theater, including Eugene O’Neill, George Abbott, Rachel Crothers, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, there are business papers that deal with author representation, show production, publishing, and licensing for television, film, radio, and stock production.

Margorie Benton Cooke. On Women’s Rights, 1903. Script in the American/Century Play Company Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

As two lovers of theater and musicals, Clare Harris (my colleague processing this collection) and I suspected that we would discover some hidden treasures in the heaps of folders and boxes we were given. To our delight and surprise, the collection features a significant number of female playwrights like Margorie Benton Cooke and Harriet Ford, whose works at the beginning of the century drew farcical comedy out of issues of suffrage and gender relations. In Cooke’s monologue, “On Women’s Rights,” in 1903, she writes phonetically in a quasi-southern dialect. “Women frum the first hez ben the leader-Eve led Adam, an’ we’ve ben leadin’ men ever sence, so of course some rights hez ben growin’ along with us, she writes “-1, the right to change her mind-2, the right to say the last word-3, the right to ask her man what time he got in-4, the right to mean yes when she says no.” (121-122) Beyond offering our co-workers an opportunity to test their Scarlet O’Hara impressions, such texts demonstrate how theater became a platform for a range of arguments for and against American suffrage in the early 20th century.

Yet one of the most exciting discoveries we have made has been a series of four early drafts of Tennessee Williams’ first great success, The Glass Menagerie.

 

 

The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway on March 31, 1945 to great critical acclaim and financial success. It follows Tom Wingfield, a character many consider to be a veiled representation of Williams himself, as he recalls memories of his overbearing, debutante mother, Amanda Wingfield, and shy sister, Laura, and his decision to leave them in pursuit of a more fulfilling life.

Opening of Act I, Scene 1 of Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, ca. 1944. Script in the American/Century Play Company Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

One of the more notable drafts is rich with multiple edits, full monologues and pieces of dialogue that appear in subsequent drafts and in the final published version. A significant majority of these edits focus on the lines exchanged between Tom and Amanda. The very first lines of Tom’s opening monologue appear as additions on the play’s first page.

In the original script, Williams opens on Tom’s line “in that quaint period-the thirties-the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind,” a sentence that contextualizes the play within a larger characterization of the country in a period of transition. Yet in the revisions, he gives Tom a more personal opening statement, “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve-but I am the opposite of the stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” With this change, Tom is able to establish his role as a kind of omnipotent narrator from the play’s beginning, one whose recollections influence every subsequent event.

Revisions for Act I, Scene 3 of Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, ca. 1944. Script in the American/Century Play Company Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

 

 

 

 

Likewise, huge swathes of Amanda’s lines and exchanges appear as handwritten notes scribbled onto the backs of pages and into margins. In scenes 3 and 5 of Act I, Williams adds monologues for Amanda in which she compares her acquaintances to “Christian [martyrs],” language that accentuates her hyperbolic tendencies that verge on fantastical.

In its final, published form, The Glass Menagerie is centered on the dynamic between Tom and his mother, an aging, irrational southern belle from a bygone era versus a son acutely aware of the difference between sensationalism and reality. These drafts show us the process through which Williams created such a dynamic. They suggest that Amanda was not always the forceful character with the intensity that, today, encourages the likes of Cherry Jones and Sally Fields to take on the role. They reveal that the depth and complexity of her role came not from the play’s inception, but rather from development at the typewriter and in the rehearsal room.

 

When actors and directors work with scripts, they typically only engage with final products. The written play is merely their springboard for exploration, an opportunity for artists to evolve their blocking, lighting, costuming, and character choices rather than a component of such experimentation. I think very few directors would question the prose of playwriting giants like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. The lines and monologues from works like Mourning Becomes Electra and A Streetcar Named Desire have become canonized to a certain extent, famed pieces of text that are now staples of scene study classes and Broadway alike.

The edits and additions found in this collection are thus central for theater scholarship because they allow readers to engage with processes of playwriting they might otherwise take for granted. I envy the researchers who will get to really dig into this collection and look forward to learning what other discoveries they make. Someday, I hope to be among them.

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