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Veiled Power: Examining the role of women in Tennessee Williams’ plays

At this year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, the art of feminine illusion in the playwright’s famous—and little known—plays takes center stage.

The intriguing female characters in Tennessee Williams’ plays take center stage in this year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Developing the theme “Tennessee Williams and Women: 50% Illusion,” David Kaplan, curator of the festival, has selected several plays, from very early ones to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to illustrate the playwright’s view of women and how they use illusion to make their way in the world.

Veiled Power

Kaplan is particularly interested in showcasing the early plays, which the playwright wrote in his 20s under the moniker of Tom Williams, before he adopted the name “Tennessee.” Billed as The Chorus Girl Plays, the lineup includes Curtains for the Gentleman, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!, and At Liberty. Framed in a burlesque revue of chorus-line dancers, the plays will be presented by Danszloop Chicago with choreography by Paula Frasz.

Veiled Power

Kaplan notes that he is fascinated by these somewhat obscure works, surmising that the plays are “the building blocks of Williams’ later work.”  The curator says that with The Chorus Girl Plays, “We see how Williams develops as a writer.”

“A recurring role in these plays is the chorus girl,” Kaplan goes on to explain. “We see the character as a gun moll in Curtains and as a girl picking up sailors in Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!. In At Liberty, the chorus girl becomes ill and goes home to Mississippi.” Unlike Williams’ later plays that often featured relationships with women from his own life, The Chorus Girl Plays were based on “a received idea from films,” says Kaplan. The curator cites Hollywood actresses, Mae West and Joan Blondell, who played the roles of women “and had to use their intelligence as a survival tactic.”

Veiled Power

With such a woman, he notes, “her sexuality is applied in that way. She is not someone who can be preyed upon. She is someone aware of [her sexuality] and how to use it to her own advantage.”

Kaplan feels that women in Williams’ plays were not victims, as some reviewers and commentators have contended. Williams’ women frequently used illusion, whether it be as part of their sexuality, or their personal style to make their way in a society dominated by men.

The overall theme for this year’s 8th annual festival is “Tennessee Williams and Women: 50% Illusion.” The name of the event is taken from a line in one of Williams’ best-known dramas, A Streetcar Named Desire. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Blanche DuBois is trapped in a fantasy world reflective of women’s position in Southern belle culture. In a famous scene from the drama, Blanche says, “A woman’s charm is 50 percent illusion,” as she struggles to withstand the brutal reality of modern society.

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