Saturday, November 30, 2019

Baby Doll

Baby Doll, adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the 1956 film by Tennesee Williams and Elia Kazan.  Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli, Sydney, October 18 – November 16, 2019.

Commentary/Review by Frank McKone

Director – Shaun Rennie; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Set & Costume Designer – Anna Tregloan; Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson

Baby Doll – Kate Cheel        Aunt Rose Comfort – Maggie Dence
Silva Vacarro – Socratis Otto        Archie Lee Meighan – Jamie Oxenbold

Photos by Prudence Upton

Kate Cheel and Jamie Oxenbold
as Baby Doll and Archie Lee
Set design for Baby Doll
Kate Cheel as Baby Doll

Tennessee Williams called the original stage play of the story of Baby Doll (Flora) being raped by the manager of a syndicate cotton gin (Silva Vicarro) because Flora’s husband  (Jake) had set fire to it and destroyed the competition to Jake’s own gin – a comedy.  This was 27 Wagons Full of Cotton

Scene: The front porch of [Jake’s and Flora’s] cottage near Blue Mountain, Mississippi. 
The porch is narrow and rises into a single narrow gable.
There are spindling white pillars on either side supporting the porch roof and a door of Gothic design and two Gothic windows on either side of it. 
The peaked door has an oval of richly stained glass, azure, crimson, emerald and gold. 
At the windows are fluffy white curtains gathered coquettishly in the middle by baby-blue satin bows. The effect is not unlike a doll’s house.

Jake is a “fat man of sixty”.  Flora is not described, except that she has a “huge bosom”.  Here’s a little excerpt of dialogue:
Jake: Everything you said [about them both being at home when the fire exploded] is awright. But don't you get ideas.
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas. Made to be hugged an' squeezed!
Flora ( babyishly ): Mmmm. . . .

Satirical comedy?  But there is no doubt about the rape:

Flora: Don't follow. Please don't follow! ( She sways uncertainly.
He presses his hand against her. She moves inside. He follows. 
The door is shut quietly. The gin pumps slowly and steadily across the road.
From inside the house there is a wild and despairing cry. A door is slammed . 
The cry is repeated more faintly.)

In the next scene: After a moment the screen door is pushed slowly open and Flora
emerges gradually. Her appearance is ravaged. Her eyes have a vacant limpidity in the moonlight, her lips are slightly apart.  She moves with her hands stretched gropingly before her till she has reached a pillar of the porch . There she stops and stands moaning a little. Her hair hangs loose and disordered. The upper part of her body is unclothed except for, a torn pink band about her breasts. Dark streaks are visible on the bare shoulders and arms and there is a large discoloration along one cheek. A dark trickle, now congealed, descends from one corner of her mouth. These more apparent tokens she covers with one hand when Jake comes up on the porch. He is now near approaching, singing to himself.

It seems to me La Commedia e Finita.

In the 1956 movie, the emphasis is on Carroll Baker being made a star by Elia Kazan, (as he had done for Marlon Brando in Street Car Named Desire).  Two elements of the movie were different from the original play, which I think ultimately altered the effect of this further adaptation back to the stage.

First is a minor point.  The story of Aunt Rose in the movie was no more than a bit of human interest on the sidelines of the central story of industrial arson and rape as revenge.  In an earlier play than 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, called The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper, Archie Lee (aka Jake) reminds his wife, Baby Doll, that Aunt Rose has overstayed her welcome in their home.  Under pressure to go, when a tornado rages, Aunt Rose will not go inside, and is carried away in a mighty gust of wind. 

In this stage adaptation, the role becomes more a distraction than a light relief.  The director, Shaun Rennie, may have seen Aunt Rose in a Greek chorus role as commentator or reflector on the action, I guess, but her entrances and exits are intrusive rather than illuminating.  That’s no reflection on Maggie Dence’s performance, of course, but a weakness in the scriptwriting.

The second development in the movie, though, is much more significant.  The characterisation of Baby Doll – I think for the titillation of blockbuster movie audiences – became a conflicting mix of childish naivety with knowing seductiveness.  If she had sex with Silva Cavarro in the child’s crib (all that’s available for him to sleep in), under his manipulative pressure, though it might still have been rape, it was nothing like the violence of the original story.  In fact, on stage, with the crib entirely off-stage (while in the movie we see the scene where she settles Cavarro in to sleep), we are even less certain that a rape actually took place.

Yet, as in the movie, we did see on stage a Baby Doll, in Kate Cheel’s excellent characterisation, who takes on her husband against his attitude in:
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas.

The tension arising from the other new element in the movie – the agreement with Baby Doll’s father that Archie Lee would have to wait until she turned 20 to consummate the marriage – certainly raised the emotional state on film (especially with the extended reference to tomorrow being the day) and made its point on stage.

In the end, though, I suspect that to have played the original 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, because of its apparent comedy turning into tragic violence, would have made the main point of Tennessee Williams’ work more telling than either the film or its re-adaptation to stage.  Not only did it reveal bluntly the men’s attitudes to women as victims of sexual predation; it also more simply and clearly exposed the worst aspects of capitalist competition.

To this extent, the stage adaptation was better than the film:  Because on stage the setting and acting cannot appear to be ordinary naturalism, a degree of distance is established for the theme to take its place: that the expos√© of red-neck Mississippi shows, as Karl Marx explained, how the economics of competition has consquences in human social behaviour. 

Tennessee Williams understood this, as we see in his other work on stage, especially in The Glass Menagerie (1944) where he used written signs above the stage for each scene to gain a similar effect to the alienation-effect (Verfremdungseffekt) used by Bertolt Brecht.

In conclusion, I saw the Ensemble Theatre production of Baby Doll as an interesting exercise, performed and designed very well; and I quote in the spirit of conversation the Director’s Note by Shaun Rennie.  “It feels like a dangerous conversation to be having in 2019 and I have questioned my own privilege as a white, male storyteller in this process.  I have faced the conundrum of not wanting to speak on behalf of anyone yet at the same time wish to engage in the conversation.  I hope that this production inspires further interrogation of a system that Williams and Kazan were clearly lampooning back in 1956, but which is still unfortunately pervasive today.”

Kate Cheels and Socratis Otto
as Baby Doll and Silva Vacarro
Socratis Otto and Maggie Dence
as Silva Vacarro and Aunt Rose Comfort
in Ensemble Theatre's production
of Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan
adapted from the film by
Pierre Laville and Emily Mann