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Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival returns to celebrate works that made the censors sweat

Tennessee Williams at his typewriter in New York in 1940, the year his first produced play, "Battle of Angels," was heavily censored in Boston.
Tennessee Williams at his typewriter in New York in 1940, the year his first produced play, "Battle of Angels," was heavily censored in Boston.Dan Grossi/Associated Press

From staging Shakespeare’s “Pericles” on a fishing schooner inside the Provincetown Library to the first-ever production of “Talisman Roses,” a 1937 short play that foreshadowed “The Glass Menagerie,” the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival is known for discovery and innovation. The 16th edition of the festival, running Sept. 23-26 at various locations in Provincetown, returns live this year with a program that seems tailored to the moment.

David Kaplan curated this year’s festival long before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Yet many of the productions and workshops on the theme of “Tennessee Williams and Censorship” seem prescient.

“I think Tennessee Williams accidentally wrote a love letter to the year 2020,” says director Brenna Geffers of Williams’s “The Demolition Downtown,” the short play she’s staging outdoors at the Bas Relief in the town’s center. Geffers, founder of the Philadelphia-based Die-Cast ensemble, has directed four festival productions over the years, including “Pericles” in 2017.

“The Demolition Downtown” is about “a fascist takeover and the way many might sort of comfortably slide into that,” Geffers says. “David [Kaplan] chose the play before the pandemic. But it’s about a couple afraid to leave their house and talking about what food they have left in the freezer, so it became spooky and, after Jan. 6, it seemed even more relevant.”

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The rarely staged play was published in Esquire magazine in June 1971 as the escalating war in Vietnam divided the nation. As a companion piece, Kaplan directs an outdoor staging of Williams’s dark satire “The Municipal Abattoir,” a short play that Williams worked on through the 1960s. It centers on a government clerk and a state-run slaughterhouse where good citizens, when summoned, go willingly to be killed.

“In both plays, the audience has a voyeuristic experience,” says Geffers. “They are both funny pieces [about] a world that is absurd yet so familiar that we can do nothing else but laugh at it. It’s too terrifying to do anything else.”

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Williams’s plays and their popular screen adaptations were often censored, including his first produced play, “Battle of Angels.” In its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston in 1940, the Boston City Council took umbrage at the story of a charismatic drifter, Val Xavier, whose arrival upends a Mississippi Delta small town and exposes its racism and religious intolerance. According to the festival program, when Margaret Webster, the play’s original director, returned to Boston to watch a performance of the censored version, she wrote that she “found a castrated and largely incomprehensible edition of the play dying an inevitable death at the Wilbur Theatre.”

Not just that, but a conflagration at the end of the play went so awry on opening night “they almost burned down the entire theater. The first two rows of the audience had to flee,” says Jessica Burr, founder and artistic director of the New York City ensemble Blessed Unrest, which will stage the “Battle of Angels,” sans pyrotechnics, at Provincetown’s Town Hall.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “Battle of Angels” never made it to Broadway, although 17 years later a different version with a new title, “Orpheus Descending,” did open in New York. A third retelling was the 1960 film “The Fugitive Kind,” starring Williams mainstays Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.

Burr sees contemporary parallels in the 1939-set “Battle of Angels.”

“We generally think of community as a good thing but in this case there’s a dangerous groupthink that can destroy the individual. It’s also an impossible love story between people who refuse to compromise. They are surrounded by these terrified, frightened people who have to destroy it to keep the status quo.”

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Unlike the original production, Burr’s “Battle of Angels” has a multiracial cast led by Michael Gene Jacobs, a Black actor. Burr says her research indicates that Williams likely wanted Val to be played by a Black man. But in 1940 Williams “was 23 years old and a nobody. He could not tell the producers what to do.”

Williams “was obsessed with the ‘Othello’ story,” says Burr. “He studied Shakespeare really closely and he studied his Greeks. [’Battle of Angels’] is a collision between these very Christian ideals of right and wrong and the Greeks’ sensibility.” Before completing the play, Williams “wrote a short story called ‘Why Did Desdemona Love the Moor?’ It’s a strange piece but it led directly into ‘Battle of Angels,’” she says.

Audiences can see the connection for themselves as the festival will also present a staged reading of ”Why Did Desdemona Love the Moor?” at Fishermen Hall. Adapted by Thomas Owen Mitchell, it is about a Black screenwriter who has a secret affair with a white movie goddess. Williams abandoned the project after writing 75 manuscript pages, likely because he realized that, in 1940, the subject matter would prevent it from being produced as either a play or a film.

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PROVINCETOWN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS FESTIVAL

At various locations in Provincetown, Sept. 23-26. Schedule and ticket information at www.twptown.org