By Tennessee Williams Adapted by Moisés Kaufman Directed by Josh Seymour Presented by Alex Turner at the Southwark Playhouse on 27 June 2015
I been all over this country and gotten to know many people. I’ve forgotten most of ‘em but they’ve remembered me.
Exterior. New Orleans. Night. Close up: A beautiful young hustler solicits trade on the streets. He is Ollie Olsen, former light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet.
After a devastating accident ends his boxing career Ollie believes his once-invincible body to be irreparably broken. When his eyes are opened to the market value of his tragic beauty, Ollie turns to selling his final asset in order to survive. Through his encounters with the lonely souls of 1940s America, Ollie discovers an unexpected chance for redemption.
In 1942 Tennessee Williams wrote One Arm, a short story with a striking central character who haunted his imagination for the rest of his life. Williams revisited Ollie’s story 25 years later in a screenplay of the same title — a script too provocative for the studios of 60s Hollywood. Moisés Kaufman, creator of The Laramie Project, fuses these texts into a powerful theatrical work inspired by the movie that was never made, now receiving its UK première here at Southwark Playhouse.
A great cast of five take on 22 parts. Tom Varey leads the way as Ollie Olsen, whose “mutilation” (he loses his right arm in car wreck) gives the play its title. The other four actors have their work cut out switching between the remaining 21 characters, whose designations (e.g. Sailor, The Stripper, The Girl in the French Quarter, The Middle-Aged Man) are shortcuts to their dramatic significance. (Despite these broad brush strokes, there’s still more in the way of character than in, say, The 39 Steps.)
Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen. Photography by Alex Brenner.
Ollie wears a white T shirt pretty much throughout, his right arm bandaged and hanging loose. He’s still athletic, if not quite as powerful as when he was a boxing champion, just before the accident. He’s lost the “lightning right arm” that could win matches, and he seems to have gained an explosive anger, which comes in useful as he drops into an underworld that can be unforgiving. Williams relishes the “salty idioms” of the bars and hotel bedrooms where Ollie plies his trade, successfully, it would seem, given that he receives nearly a thousand letters while in his jail cell, awaiting execution. Ollie is not a typical gay man, which is one reason why he attracts plenty of attention, and why he compels our attention.
An early pointer to the religious and existential themes occurs when one character recalls a priest telling a potential suicide:
Don’t jump! Christ loves you.
Another voice suggests an alternative interpretation:
Christ don’t know you. Jump!
Ollie begins his initiation into the world of male prostitution by learning some of the signals, such as jingling the keys in his pocket. He’s on a steep learning curve, as he slumps on a park bench, joined by an older man who recognizes that he doesn’t “know the score” and tells him:
Honey, four johns are watching you…
Ollie is initiated into the “mysteries of the park” and is wised up to his “commodity value” (very high — at the end of the play he has the “nobility of a broken Apollo”). He baptizes Ollie with some liquor, and sprinkles it over him as a priest would with holy water — a sacrilegious gesture. As for the Hotel Dieu:
I didn’t know he was in the hotel business.
In New York, he has a job with an academic type who wears a hairpiece. On a terrace overlooking Central Park, they’re 37 floors up, and 37 floors down. The client asks:
Do you have impulses of self-destruction?
Despite his capacity for destruction, Ollie is not a risk taker — he was the one who didn’t want his drunk friend driving the car, and only when he failed to get a cab did he make that fateful journey.
On a wealthy film-maker’s yacht, all he has to do, for $200, is “sit still, twist and moan a little.” Georgia Kerr plays the woman who has to perform the unsavoury act. She is sympathetic at first, then a little impatient. She needs the money:
I’m the one that does it to you.
Georgia Kerr and Tom Varey. Photography by Alex Brenner.
This contradicts the usual complaint about porn, which is that women are passive creatures to whom sex is done, as if they were mere objects. Here, Williams has created a scene in which it’s the male who has to sit still. She reassures him that she’s not disgusted, and to encourage him she says:
Let’s get it over with.
GBs. Kerr combines compassion and determination, vulnerability and strength, with a remarkable economy of gesture and expression.
This production and Kaufman’s adaptation have restructured the original screenplay into a memory play, so we see Ollie reading letters from men who’ve recognized his face in the papers and remember their encounter with him, and then we see some of these encounters played out before us. As the director reminds us, this was a time when legal and social barriers to the expression of homosexuality were still high, and so these contacts would have been emotional high points in many of their lives. It is poignant that only near the moment of his death does Ollie realize what he has meant to so many people.
Instead of writing a character who appreciates this, who brings some comfort in these final hours, Williams supplies The Warden, who tosses the letters around in disgust and contempt, and The Divinity Student, who is there to try out his own spiritual strength on a conversion job (like the vicars at the end of Alan Bennett’s Bed Among the Lentils). The seminary student saw in the face of Ollie a tender beauty, like that of a juvenile saint (presumably Sebastian), but is told when he turns up at the jail that the “condemned youth refuses the consolation of faith.”
The student is nervous, but still manages to pop the big question:
Are you prepared for eternity?
He explains how this world is a stepping stone, a transitory realm. Ollie’s succinct response is:
The student persists:
I wish you would believe me.
He doesn’t advance his theological argument very much by suggesting that Ollie’s “mutilation” could have been the result of him being “in error” (a phrase that is common in Christian Science, and perhaps other sects too).
One reason this play was not produced until after Williams’s death was the several kinds of shock value, including treating “young hustlers and their lonely clients with such dignified compassion” (as Kaufman puts it) — instead of moralizing against their wicked lives. Today, it’s those who are shocked by homosexuality who are the freaks, and we should also not be surprised that amputees have sex lives.
The subsidence of these issues has allowed another theme of the play to rise to the surface: irreligiosity. Ollie does not kneel before The Divinity Student and he openly rejects the message of salvation. Bizarrely, in the year that same-sex marriage has been upheld by the Supreme Court, most Americans in 2015 still regard non-belief as socially unacceptable (although this is changing with the rise of the “nones”). An otherwise admirable President Obama, for example, while reading out the names of those killed in the Charleston church shooting, feels no embarrassment declaring that each had “found grace” — in the theological sense (his singing of Amazing Grace was — setting the meaning aside — was still moving). That such tripe still passes for wisdom all over the world is the most shocking thing of all.
Cast: Peter Hannah, Joe Jameson, Georgia Kerr, James Tucker, Tom Varey