In his story "The Library of Babel", the Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges postulates the idea that there exists in the universe a library that holds all the books that ever have or ever will be written. I believe that in this library there's an entire wing, or sadder yet, several enormous wings, dedicated to all the dramatic works that have not been produced.
On the bookshelf there, we would find One Arm, a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. (Although there are rumours that a version of this script was read at the infamous Cinco café in New York, the fact remains that for Williams this piece was unproduced before his death: the film was never made).
One Arm began as a short story that Williams published in 1948 (along with "Portrait of a Girl in Glass", which would later become the play The Glass Menagerie). The short story depicts the New Orleans underworld of the late Thirties and early Forties: prostitutes, homosexuals, the beleaguered and the destroyed. He writes about these characters with frankness and authenticity – he's not yet famous, he can speak freely. His depiction of the homosexual world in particular is fascinating – daring and raw and true. He depicts the world as he sees it. And he shows a kind of youthful bravura that lends the narrative its power. The story represents a kind of "uncensored" Williams, in which the grittier aspects of sexuality generally, and homosexuality in particular, are exposed to the light of day.
A quick look at the homosexual characters in Williams's plays tell a very different story. Homosexuality – although often alluded to – is hardly ever mentioned. And, invariably, all his homosexual characters end up, if not dead or in trouble, then certainly unhappy. Streetcar's Blanche speaks of her first boyfriend who was gay and killed himself; In Suddenly, Last Summer, Sebastian is eaten by cannibals in Cabeza de Lobo; and, of course, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick is a homosexual who ends up married to Elizabeth Taylor (although some would say that's not so bad).
In sharp contrast to those characters and those narratives, the story of One Arm is radically frank. The homosexuals in the short story, and even more so in the screenplay, come in all different shapes and sizes. Williams explores their lives openly. Even if the picture that emerges is of a conflicted group of characters in mortal battle with their environment, at least they are there, and they are fully articulated.
The story revolves around Ollie Olsen, a champion boxer in the American Navy who loses an arm in an accident and becomes a prostitute. Ollie works the streets of New Orleans, New York, and other cities, numbed to his profession and unaware of his powerful effect on others, until events take a turn for the tragic. In Ollie, played in the UK premiere by Tom Varey, we see Williams writing a character with masculine and feminine attributes, violent and sensitive, bouncing through life until he is forced to face his ultimate fears and reveal – even to himself – his raw, complex humanity.
While Williams was able to tackle these themes in the form of a short story without arousing controversy, his attempt to adapt Ollie's tale into a screenplay from the 1960s was more fraught with complications. He wrote, in a 1970 letter, that he was heading to Hollywood to "peddle my film-script of my story One-Arm", and it is thought that at one point Marlon Brando seriously considered producing a movie version of Williams's screenplay. Obviously the Hollywood system of the era, and its audience, was not ready for a film that treated young hustlers and their lonely clients with such dignified compassion.
Whatever the reason, Ollie lay dormant, known only to aficionados of Williams' short stories and students of his unpublished works, until this version of One Arm, which I adapted for the stage. In writing this adaptation I've used material from both the short story and the film. And it's been wonderfully eye-opening to hear Williams speak so freely of this world he knew so well.
Having directed my own productions of One Arm in Chicago and New York a few years ago, I'm thrilled that British audiences now have the opportunity to see the piece, directed by Josh Seymour. I was delighted to find in Josh an erudite man with a boldly theatrical sensibility, and through our conversation I was prompted to relive the experience of adapting One Arm.
After first discovering Williams's text more than a decade ago, I sought out the numerous drafts of his screenplay in libraries and private collections at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the theatre division of the New York Public Library. These have revisions and notes scrawled in Williams's hand, and they were key in the development of my understanding of the themes Williams was exploring through this story – and I know that Josh felt the same sense of intimacy with the creative process of one of our greatest playwrights when he, too, examined these versions. The story that Williams completed in 1945, the year that The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway and shot him to worldwide fame, clearly stayed with him for the rest of his life. µ
'One Arm' opens at Southwark Playhouse on Friday (www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk; 020-7407 0234)Reuse content