Texas Tech University

Looking back on the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

Jay Culmone

October 27, 2021

Shops painted the pastels of sidewalk chalk. Lazy waves lapping at the shoreline. Buskers playing pianos and trumpets and xylophones, angling for a buck. Boats docked in the harbor like rows and rows of white ritzy dress shoes. Seagulls arcing lazy paths overhead, squalling. A sky so vividly blue that I swear to you it looked salty. Sandpipers with twiggy legs rummaging their beaks in the shallows. The tastiest (and priciest) seafood I'll ever have in my life. Vacationers and locals and company actors and even, yes, a handful of graduate theatre students bopping around Provincetown, Massachusetts.    

And among all this, the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.

There were eight of us in attendance—students whose participation in the graduate course doubled as our glossy all-access lanyard to go see a grab bag of practiced, professional theatre. Our days, numbered at seven, were long and our schedule chock-full and measured to the minute. But we were sitting pretty: our locale a cheery New England burg plucked from a sun-raked postcard, our digs a charming shiplap hotel mere feet from the ocean.

We attended seven plays and fifteen roundtable discussions, for a grand total (for those of you at home keeping score) of twenty-one gatherings. The typical day began with these discussions and spanned the morning until around noontime. (Well, for me, the day began with a bleary slog out of bed, a lubberly shuffle down two flights of stairs, and at least as many cups of hotel coffee, but I'll be the first to tell you I'm not, nor do I have plans ever to be, a morning person.) Each afternoon we had an hour-or-so break, before heading over for whatever happened to be that evening's selection of plays. All told, we were up-and-at-‘em—on our feet or in our seats—for about twelve hours a day.

This year, the festival's theme was Censorship. You know: book burnings, injunctions against publishers and presses, hangings; Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lolita; Puritan settlers cutting the ears off heretics; “live by the pen, die by the sword”—that old chestnut. Less grisly than its seedier history, Censorship for the Festival manifested in diverse ways, but its chief incarnation was more sociopolitical and had thankfully fewer lacerated ears. The theme had as its centripetal pull the life and work of Tennessee Williams, but our discussions were more varied of content and the plays more unique of presentation than you might expect. The discussions handled a wealth of topics: everything from how Williams' brouhaha with Catholic sensibilities in the 20th century mirrored Molière's with the Jesuits in the 17th to Stanislavski's gag-order under Stalin's rule; from Theodore Brown's 1937 adaptation of Lysistrata, which aimed to celebrate black bodies, and the play's forcible closure following pressure from the Works Progress Administration, to a biographical investigation of whether Tennessee Williams even had a political stance at all. 

The plays were no less motley. Take Williams' The Municipal Abattoir, for example, about a political revolutionary and an old man ordered to a human slaughterhouse, was staged outside, on a steep, broad gradient of sand, a light blue silo smothering the horizon, and as cars and people happened to pass by, they became a rousing, if incidental part of the play's world. Take his Battle of Angels, where the actors' speech was pre-recorded, and a character's willingness or refusal to mouth a line along with the recording floated fresh questions of identity and control of one's body. Or Mae West's Sex, about a lady of the night who tries to rise through the social ranks, performed not just in the pool area of our hotel but, in certain scenes, in the actual pool, the characters lazing on pool floaties and drinking martinis. 

However varied these discussions and plays were, though, each one was defiant and urgent and thrumming with life and above all tasked with shaking loose the zombified passivity that censorship tends to foist on us like a sedative, with calling long overdue attention to the needless fussiness, the nauseous prudery, and the rampant hypocrisy that is always inherent to, if concealed beneath, censorship.

Fussy, prudish, and hypocritical is it ever. Because once you follow your nose to where any instance of censorship first begins, what you'll find is not evenhanded decrees sent from on high but some snobby lout with grouch lines on his forehead and a too-tight belt, making his flawed judgement calls and chowing down on his own tail like that fabled snake. If I came away from the festival having been convinced of anything, it was this. Censorship touts itself as the last line of defense between delicate, impressionable You and the indecent, the undignified, the otherwise immoral—that's its worn-to-a-nub motto. But to suppress the access people have to its community's stash of writing—in this case, of plays and critiques—is to offer a skewed, disingenuously orchestrated picture of how things really are, to fudge the numbers. The ready-made word for this is propaganda. So, let's slap that sticker on censorship's lapel: Hello My Name Is Propaganda. And propaganda, no matter where in the history books it lies, is always a reprehensible act. It is—oh, just spit-balling here—let's say indecent, undignified, and otherwise immoral. Q.E.D. Eat your heart out, Gödel.

Every play, every discussion over the seven days had, so far as I could tell, its finger on the pulse of this irony. Each one thumbed its nose at censorship and aimed for a higher catharsis, had an honest rebellion rapping a knuckle at the threshold, wanting you to wake up and get the door. And this refusal to conform, to give in to the status quo, was not so much delinquent as refreshing. It took its cue from what Tennessee Williams called benevolent anarchy: not bedlam for bedlam's sake, but bedlam in the name of betterment. Stewardship with a lit firecracker in its hand. An illicit lesson you could take home with you on the hush-hush.  

You won't hear me tell you it wasn't an unqualified blast. The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival was enriching, scenic, and buckets of fun, and yes, it was demanding and nonstop, too, at times downright wearying, but what more could you ask or much less expect from such a distinguished and coordinated event? 

Nothing, says I. Not one single thing.