Tennessee Williams on Lois Nettleton: Her Own Magic

Interview with Tennessee Williams
Conducted by James Grissom
New Orleans

In these comments Tenn is referring to three productions of A Streetcar Named Desire that were produced in 1973 to commemorate the play's twenty-fifth anniversary. A Los Angeles production starred Faye Dunaway and Jon Voight, and was directed by James Bridges; Ellis Rabb directed Rosemary Harris and James Farentino at Lincoln Center; and Jules Irving directed Lois Nettleton and Alan Feinstein in a production that began at Lincoln Center and then moved to the St. James Theater on Broadway.

As unfortunate as the silver productions of Streetcar turned out to be, a gift was given to me in the form of Lois Nettleton. There is vicious theatrical prejudice in the world, and I have been--and perhaps will again be--guilty of it. I did not think that Lois was sufficient to my Blanche, and I came to this conclusion based on the fact that the bulk of her work had been in television. I found her proficient and professional, but I could not imagine that she would manage the role of Blanche. I offered no resistance, because, quite frankly, I was exhausted and disgusted, and I had come to believe that my opinions--and my work--had no place in the American theatre any longer. I simply acquiesced, and Lois assumed the role.

Prejudice is, of course, always based on ignorance, which finds a friendly second cousin in fear. I was entirely wrong about Lois Nettleton, who turned out to be one of the greatest actresses with whom I have ever worked. I regret that you can't see her Blanche, and I regret that we will never see her work in the plays of Edward Albee or Congreve or the Greek tragedies. I think her Medea would send us all rushing to the rivers in fear. She will never be allowed the opportunity to play these roles because she has been relegated to the lower extremities of acting by virtue of her association with television, and this is insanity.

No prejudice exists in the hearts and minds of those who saw her Blanche. Utterly real, terrified, her mind always aglow with the next fantasy, the next story, the next attempt at charm. I came to believe that she was actually losing weight throughout the play, but this was her own magic: She shrank herself, mentally and physically, with no aid from wardrobe, by virtue of walls closing in on her mind. She seemed always to be running from a blazing fire only she could see, but, by the end of the play, all of us could see it, feel it, note that we had been damaged by it.

I believed that she could seduce men; I believed that she could also nurture young boys and girls into the beauty of poetry; I believed that she represented the amenities and the ardor of an earlier, slower time, and now the world was automated, engine-driven, and  there was no time for her necessary, if faded, charms.

I'm sorry I can't show you her work, and I'm sorry I can't write new plays for her. I wish I had the strength. I do, however, have the desire. I have the memory of her Blanche.

Sadly, I never met nor spoke to Lois Nettleton. I was, however, lucky enough to meet Louise Sorel, a lovely and gifted actress, who had worked with Nettleton and had become a friend. Louise invited me to watch a video of the memorial service conducted for Nettleton after her death in 2008. The service was shattering to me--moving me to silence, which is what happens when I'm devastated--and it offered testimonials from, among others, Sorel and Nancy Dussault, who sang a song that evoked everything Tennessee says in this testimonial.

© 2016  James Grissom


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