The Violent and Cerebral Transgressions of Estelle Parsons

The Violent and Cerebral Transgressions of Estelle Parsons

There should be a scaffolding of experience and self-awareness around all of the work that we do in the theatre, but I feel it is necessary that we also return to the free-standing scabrous rubes that we all were once we are called on to offer the expression of our experiences. I want always a sense of wonder and surprise at what is found at the bottom of a  soul, and I feel that far too many actors now are in the process of acting, in the analysis of character,  the gauging of effects, and the sense of wonder of merely being who they are, doing what they do. This is not acting, but it is sadly what passes for acting in far too many venues today.  Tennessee Williams

Notes from Journal, 1982

JG: Did you enjoy the time of Seven Descents of...

TW: Kingdom of Earth!!  I do not like the title that was ultimately used, and I regret that I acquiesced to it--but, no, it was not an enjoyable time. I take a great deal of that responsibility, because I was not only in a poor state of mind, but I was frequently unable to even find solid footing in the poor and shattered state that was available to me. I was frozen, calcified mentally, physically, and psychically, pickled in alcohol that lulled me into fitful sleep, jerked awake by those ironically named pep pills, and kept sentient by whatever was thrust into my face. Enjoy? I would say no.

José [Quintero, the play's director] was not ideal, either. We were pickled together, and both entirely unaware of what we wanted to achieve. The anchor--in every sense of the word--of that production was Estelle, and I came to love her for her strength and her commitment, even as I failed--and still fail--to understand what her aims and effects are.

She tries too hard, for one thing. I am morbidly repulsed by acting I can see--or writing, for that matter. Once I see the effort, the scaffolding, the wires of the marionette, so to speak, I am entirely disenchanted: The event has all the appeal of an afternoon at the body shop, watching engines and carburetors become dismantled. Or an autopsy. 'Ah, that is where the liver resides. How interesting! Gray in color. Who knew?' Estelle's acting--much like the woman--is strikingly, corrosively intelligent, over-analyzed, over-articulated, loud, and stringent. Estelle's primary devotion is to Estelle, not to the character she is playing, with the result being--not only in Kingdom, but in everything I've seen her do--a replication of a smart, shrill, sturdy woman with the physique of a charwoman and the mind of a Seven Sisters assistant professor.

I was amazed to see that she was capable of overacting while in the process of lifting herself out of a chair. Lifting a glass. I think this is because she cannot simply do those things, but must operate through a gauze of Method bullshit, whereby all of us must watch, presumably in wonder, as she creates a biography of a brow wipe, a raised arm, an arched eyebrow. It was a strenuous performance, but far more industry than art.

I love the woman. I can think of fewer things I like more than to be in her mordantly smart company. She reads, retains, understands, and shares everything: Her generosity insofar as her personal stock is extraordinary, but it is tiresome in application of her work, and I cannot fathom how she cannot see this, or why she wouldn't seek to alter this.

She is one of Lee's broken girls, I suppose--overly dependent on his words and ministrations, as well as those of her analyst, desperate always for a label to append to an action, a motive, a result so that she better understands it. I find her entirely free of instinct, and her generosity disappears on a stage--she is competitive and disdainful of others when she enters her arena.

I await her in later years, when both of us might have learned from our epic failures and failed intentions and dark alleys of the soul--I think then that we might find each other more charitable, open, astringently clean in our effects. With stories to tell, of course, and experience that we will finally understand needs a wise and gentle touch. I think that with time, Estelle will learn that her violent and cerebral transgressions toward texts and fellow players have cleared a field around her in which she can reflect and gather and get to work in a way that honors the craft in which she wishes to work so fervently.

I can't tell you too often that no one needs or necessarily wants what we have to offer. We are only vital when we are told that we are--when an audience gathers, is pleased, considers returning. Far too many actors need to be in the theatre, but they are not needed by the theatre. I was once needed, I think, but this is no longer true. I will either recede, or I will rise. We shall see. Estelle needs to be an actress, needs affirmation, needs applause, and there is a psychic sickness in watching actors--and there are hundreds--acting out their hungers at the expense of a play. I think this impulse is receding within Estelle, and I think she wishes to serve the art of acting almost as much as she needs it to give her a reason to draw breath. She will never provide anything other than an adventure, but one must be strong, brave, a bit reckless to take it with her.



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