The Day on Which a Man Dies is visually spectacular. The scene is set in Japan. A large, well built though fleshy man, a painter intended to suggest Jackson Pollock, virtually naked except for body paint, crashes around half a stage worth of space — his studio — drinking, smashing bottles, stepping on the glass, bleeding, painting with the blood, falling into the walls, rolling on the abstract expressionist painting in progress on the floor, his body picking up more paint mixed with his own blood and miscellaneous trash as he goes. He’s been highly successful as an artist but now his dealers are rejecting his new work because it’s totally non-objective (definitely nothing to do with Jackson Pollock on these last two counts). Where have the figures gone? he asks, downcast on the floor like a child who’s lost … well, let’s say his marbles.
In Ed Harris’ great film, Pollock, it’s the violence of breakthrough originality, here of breaking down.
In contrast to The Man’s furious, slobbering and drunken-maudlin abandon, the denizen of the bedroom on the other side of the stage is his pert mistress who wears a Jackie Kennedy suit and an Elizabeth Taylor wig, well put together — read in control. The play is their mutually enraging psychological and sex play. They rail: The Woman (her character name in the play), I’m only your whore, I have no legal standing. The Man: You’re an emasculating, parasitic blood sucker. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, he reads notes from her casual lovers, and kills himself by downing Lysol at the very moment that she, sitting in a cafe on The Ginza, realizes she loves him and, flooded with a yearning to fill her womb and leap from barrenness to joy by bearing his child, rushes home to make love … too late.
A serene Japanese counterpoint is provided by the Oriental man and woman Stagehand. Dressed in black, they tactfully move props and bring drinks, the male going beyond Oriental theater tradition by commenting on the action like the Stage Manager in Our Town. Mainly he (for Yukio Mishima see below) contrasts the Japanese way of suicide with the Western one we’re clearly about to witness — the Japanese way seems better for a reason that eluded me.
A great delineator of character, Tennessee Williams has written a play in which the characters are stereotypes, and gives us no reasons to help understand their personalities or relationships. Why, for instance, did The Man ever fall for The Woman who sarcastically mocks art? She went for him for the money, that makes sense, but why, as she discovers after twelve years, does she love this slob while berating him for using spray paint? Why does she order — significantly emphasized — very strong tea as if craving a fast fix and then ignore it when it comes? The play depends for effect on excesses instead of insights. Still, the excesses in themselves are somehow refreshing.
The producers of The Day on Which a Man Dies note, “In 1960 Williams wrote a fierce fantasia on the great painter’s [Jackson Pollock’s] death — and kept the text for himself. Williams’ ‘secret script’ is dedicated to the Japanese visionary writer Yukio Mishima.” Perhaps he kept the script secret because he knew it wasn’t among his good plays.
A talented, dedicated crew has created as fine a production of The Day on Which a Man Dies as the author could have wished (if he wished for a production!). The visual conception is stunning and heightens the emotional content — canvases splashed in red and waiting in white, sheets torn, fabric ripped. Jeff Christian goes all-out as the frantic painter and Jennie Moreau is amusing and ironic as the The Woman — it’s amazing how putting on an Elizabeth Taylor wig makes her look like Elizabeth Taylor and taking it off makes her look like … Jennie Moreau.
There’s much to learn from productions of lesser plays by major playwrights — among which, not everything a fine author writes is great. It rounds out our view. We can observe Williams’ interest in Japanese literature and experimentation with oriental theater devices. It helps us follow his themes of male-female antagonisms, fertility and barrenness, mental deterioration, his hatred of the puritanical, all of which run through this play. A full production may bring to light overlooked excellences — though I didn’t find them here. Of course one can read an unproduced play, and theatrical producer Ken Davenport in his blog of August 5 reminds us of the new perspectives that can come through reading scripts. But then the production with full theatrical arsenal helps the theater going public come closer to a play’s reality, and calls attention to the little known. Thanks to all who had a hand in this! I wish I could attend the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival this September to see the good — and maybe the not-so-good.
The Day on Which a Man Dies, first produced by Chicago’s National Pastime Theater, plays at the Ross School in East Hampton, NY August 7 – 9 and during the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival September 24 – 27, 2009. The paintings are by Megan Tracy.
Other recent reviews of plays by Tennessee Williams: