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ON JANE BOWLES' PLAY IN THE SUMMER HOUSE

by Paul Bowles

 

 

For some years, Oliver Smith had been telling Jane that with her gift for dialogue she would write a play and he would produce it.  She did and he did.  

          In the Summer House was conceived and written in Vermont and in Paris.  Jane took a copy of the first act to New York where it was published in Harper’s Bazaar.  When it was finished, it was given to the director Jasper Deeter and presented at the Hedgerow Theater in Moylan, Pennsylvania.  After that, it had a further production in Ann Arbor with Miriam Hopkins playing Gertrude Eastman Cuevas.  

          I was in Morocco during that period, but it was decided that the Broadway production should have a musical score and that I should provide it.  Accordingly, I went to New York, wrote the score, rehearsed it and stayed with the show on the road until after opening night in New York.   

          Casting caused Jane some anxiety.  She knew that she wanted Judith Anderson and Mildred Dunnock for Mrs. Eastman Cuevas and Mrs. Constable, but she found it difficult to reject those applying for minor roles.  One of these was a young actor named James Dean who hoped to play the part of Lionel.  At a reading, Jane thought he was too normal, not sufficiently anguished.   

          Her insistence upon Gertrude Eastman Cuevas showing symptoms of frustration and neurosis upset Judith Anderson considerably.  It was hard for her to accept that a pathetic character could at the same time be ridiculous and laughable.  At rehearsals the actress occasionally stopped everything, saying piteously: “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?”  During the early rehearsals, there was a director who was unable to tell Judith who she was, or indeed what the play was about, and the presence of a psychoanalyst onstage did not help.  We were already in Boston, the last stop before New York, when José Quintero was called in to take charge.   

          I think Judith’s difficulties were partly due to her being unused at the time to playing comic roles; here, she was no Medea but a foolish, slightly hysterical mother, without the slightest knowledge of how to manage an introspective, rebellious adolescent daughter.   

          Mr. Quintero succeeded in putting the actors’ minds at rest.  At this point Jane began furiously to write new scenes, and even an entirely new ending, which pleased everyone save Tennessee Williams.  He preferred the original.  Eventually, there were three separate final scenes.  I have never been able to choose among them.   

          The night before we were to open in Boston, Jane was up until dawn, inventing a completely new sequence for the part of Mrs. Constable. The character, who has come to love Molly, urges the girl to break the tie with her mother and go away.   

          When Jane had finished it she brought it to my room for me to read.  I was indignant at hearing that she had stayed up all night writing, but I could see that she was pleased with what she had done, and wanted an immediate reaction.  These pages had been written specifically for Mildred Dunnock to perform.  As I read them, I realized to what an extent personal contact between playwright and actors can be useful.   

          From the beginning of the rehearsals, Jane had been listening to the inflections and cadences of Mildred Dunnock’s speech.  By being perfect for the actress, the lines strengthened the character of the role and this became part of the script.  Said Jane, “In my head I could hear Mildred’s voice, and I put down the words I knew would sound right and when she said them.”  

          To me, this is the most poignant and poetic scene in the play.

 

Copyright © 1993 by Paul Bowles  

 

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