In the late 1940s, driven by the opening-night ovations for A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams embarked on more than a decade of immense success. During this period, he wrote at a furious pace: Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana—a list that carries us from 1948 to 1961, with motion pictures made of everything except Camino Real, and one screen original, Baby Doll. Yet despite his triumphs, nothing could shake his inner certainty—call it dread—that he deserved disaster and ignominy. (Those things would come, if he was patient.)
Over and above the reviews and praise, this was also the era in which Williams became a rich man, a household name, and the apparent owner of a gothic, nightmarish South (which coincided, oddly, with the dawning of the civil rights movement). He was attended to, he was given prizes, he was esteemed, no matter that onstage he had a brave instinct for depicting fineness and creative passion as fugitive urges hounded and destroyed by an unkind world. And so the more Blanche DuBois was led away, the more securely “Tennessee” existed. But in that halcyon period, Orpheus Descending was the one portent of fall and dismay to which Williams clung. So it is the distress signal that may still alert us to one of the best films made from Williams’s material—The Fugitive Kind.
It was in 1940, in New York, that Williams, not quite thirty, had written a play called Battle of Angels, the outline of which is very close to that of Orpheus Descending and The Fugitive Kind: a small Mississippi town; a storekeeper dying of cancer; his frustrated wife, Myra; a roaming visitor to the town, Val Xavier; a love affair between Val and Myra; and a mob that murders Val for the threat of life he brings. The Theatre Guild elected to produce the play, with movie actress Miriam Hopkins as Myra. Williams was not happy with his own text; he was not happy with anything. The play went to Boston first, where, despite some good reviews, it closed because of local fears of indecency and the guild’s belief that it was not working. The production never reached New York.
Over the next seventeen years, during the riot of his success, Williams returned to the play time and again, and eventually renamed it Orpheus Descending; he now employed the Orpheus myth to stand for the angelic Val’s fall to earth in a shabby town. It was Williams’s hope that Anna Magnani would play the wife. He had met her in Italy in the early fifties and been swept away by her impulsiveness. In his Memoirs, he would write, “I often wonder how Anna Magnani managed to live within society and yet to remain so free of its conventions.”
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