|Cara Duff-MacCormick, Michael York.|
One of a string of depressing failures that issued in his declining years from the pen of the great American dramatist Tennessee Williams. A revision of an earlier work played in London in 1967 and later in Chicago under the title The Two Character Play, it displayed a pair of actors, a sister named Clare (Cara Duff-MacCormick) and her brother, Felice (Michael York), stranded by their theatre company in a forbidding “unknown” state theatre somewhere in a chilly region. They have been abandoned because of their alleged insanity. (The “theatre” may be a madhouse and the “actors” inmates. They may also be two halves of a single personality. Michael York later wrote in his memoir that Williams confirmed the roles to be “alter egos, the masculine-feminine, positive-negative, active passive elements of one character.”)
Illusion mingles with reality as they proceed to perform their melodramatic, elusive “Two-Character Play,” about siblings living in the South, for the audience presumed to be entering the venue. It is left purposely vague whether this play about parental homicide and suicide, and the incestuous children left behind, is indeed a play or whether it represents their own confused, lonely existence in a hostile, hateful world. When the play-within-the-play concludes, the helpless Clare and Felice are seen to be in much the same estranged position vis-à-vis the world around them as the roles they have just enacted.
Out Cry’s humorless, abstruse, symbolic theme and “inchoate” treatment, as Douglas Watt termed it, made it improbable Broadway fare and it closed quickly. There were, however, some who thought it interesting, if in a limited way. Clive Barnes said it was “deliberately static but also moving,” and considered the acting “remarkable,” welcoming England’s Michael York in his New York debut. Others noted the personal tone of the play and suggested it was a revelation of the playwright’s own torment of recent years, and his painful experience when putting his work on view for critical attack by the public and press. Mel Gussow noted the drama’s “indisputable lyric beauty,” but decided that it never achieved the ostensibly interesting purpose that inspired it. “There are not enough contradictions, ambiguities and echoes. The playwright has not fully explored the challenging territory he has chosen for himself.”
In his memoir, Traveling Player, York describes being asked directly by the playwright to play Felice, his own fascination in the play despite not fully understanding it, and his belief that it was, indeed, based on Williams’s experience of “a time when, overwhelmed with personal torment, he had retreated from the world in a kind of panic and had actually been locked up in a St. Louis psychiatric hospital. He quite literally had not known where he was.”
He describes the production process in detail, the out-of-town tryouts in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where the critical response was encouraging, and the constant revisions made by the ever-present playwright. The production photos show York wearing a beard, but this was eventually shaved off, and his long, occasionally face-obscuring hair trimmed. He describes how, at the final run-through he “felt incandescent with a strange energy, . . . and almost collapsing on stage,” only to discover “it was a devilish attack of flu."
Although he soon recovered, he found the role extremely tiring, as did his costar of her part. Shortly before the New York opening a doctor diagnosed him as suffering from exhaustion. Then, the opening: “Houselights down. Curtain up. In the wake of the spotlights I felt supercharged from nerves and excitement. We began. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something flash from Cara’s eye: her contact lens! I felt a frisson of pure panic—perfectly in keeping with the performance, thank God—but she seemed composed, and, though half-blinded, managed beautifully.”
Later, after the closing, York found out that producer “David Merrick had only agreed to mount this strange eclectic piece at Tennessee’s insistence in order to obtain the performance rights to his more commercial Red Devil Battery Sign.” He notes that Williams thought Out Cry “his most important work. How long, I wondered, before that was publicly confirmed and acknowledged?” A 2013 revival with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif at New World Stages did little to convince me, at any rate, that such acknowledgment would ever come.