Steppenwolf acknowledges error in Tennessee Williams controversy | Bleader

Monday, October 20, 2008

Steppenwolf acknowledges error in Tennessee Williams controversy

Posted By on 10.20.08 at 08:51 AM

Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, has added her voice to the recent furor surrounding actress Nambi Kelley's blog post suggesting that playwright Tennessee Williams is in hell because of his "troubled life."

Kelley is playing the fragile Laura in Steppenwolf's new production of Williams's The Glass Menagerie. On September 29, she posted an item on Steppenwolf's artists' blog which concluded: "If Tennessee Williams is in heaven (which I doubt knowing the troubled life he led), mayhap he’ll hear the gentle strumming of his words, from our lips to his ears. And if he is in the other place (which is more likely knowing the troubled life he led) mayhap the music will be so clear he won’t be able to escape it, even there."

The suggestion that Williams's "troubled life" might have consigned him to hell led some readers to wonder whether Kelly was referring to the playwright's homosexuality.

Kelley later sought to clarify that by "troubled life" she was referring to Williams's dysfunctional family situation, the inspiration for The Glass Menagerie. But the questions kept coming in on both Steppenwolf's blog and the Reader's. Finally, on Friday 10/17, Lavey posted a statement on the Steppenwolf blog that says, in part: "I believe Steppenwolf erred in not clarifying the meaning of the statement with Nambi before we posted her blog. We should have been more sensitive to the possibility that Nambi would be misinterpreted and ought to have asked her to make her remarks more clear. . . . We regret any offense the blog caused our readers and I regret that Steppenwolf did not suitably protect our artist from misinterpretation."

Lavey also quoted Steppenwolf literary manager Joy Meads as saying that Kelly's reference to "the other place"--i.e., hell--was a metaphor for what Meads called "a prison of [Williams's] own making." Indeed, The Glass Menagerie does express Williams's lasting regret and guilt over not having interceded when his mother decided to submit his sister Rose to a lobotomy--an operation that left the young woman mentally incapacitated for the rest of her life. Williams's alter ego in the play--Tom, the narrator--is trapped in a psychological prison, haunted by memories of actions not taken and words spoken in anger.

The presumption that Kelley may have been criticizing Williams's homosexuality has a historical context: Williams's dramas, noted for their powerful yet deeply troubled heroines, were criticized early on as the misogynistic fantasies of a sexual deviant. This criticism was often coded because homosexuality was not something openly discussed in the press, and Williams was frustrated and pained because he was unable to reply candidly to the attacks. Today, Williams is recognized as one of America's greatest writers, and his homosexuality is openly (and, in general, nonjudgmentally) discussed as one source of his art. He is both a literary giant and a gay icon.

The blogging controversy raises a larger issue than whether or not Kelly's comments were literal or metaphorical. If blogging is supposed to be a personal and spontaneous form of published communication, should Steppenwolf have edited Kelly's comments to clarify them or let them stand as she wrote them even if they invited misinterpretation and angry backlash? As my Reader colleague Tony Adler wrote in a posting on Thursday, October 16, "Blogging may have a positive effect on audience-building, but the affaire de Tennessee suggests that it also has the potential to inhibit every theater's core mission of creating art."

On the other hand, art shouldn't be safe. Controversy is a necessary, desirable, and inevitable aspect of art, as it is of journalism. Steppenwolf is certainly no stranger to controversy. If the theater's blog can be seen as an extension of the theater's artistic process, then the highly-charged debate on this matter is all to the good, even if it was sometimes uncomfortable.

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