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Labors of Love: Director Moisés Kaufman Talks Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

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Labors of Love: Director Moisés Kaufman Talks Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

The great Tennessee Williams, unsurpassed poet of the theater and incisive chronicler of the human soul, was born 100 years ago this March. No surprise then that we are likely to see a slew of his work produced on our stages in his centenary year. In New York, we’ve already had productions of his lesser known Vieux Carré and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Now we have a particularly unusual offering in the New Group and Tectonic Theater Project’s production of One Arm, based on an unproduced Williams screenplay. The production, currently playing at Theater Row, is adapted and directed by Moisés Kaufman, who’s best known for the plays Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project, and the Tony-nominated 33 Variations. Kaufman also recently directed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, currently playing on Broadway. The Venezuelan born director/playwright talked to The House recently about his labor of love, bringing this little known Williams work to the stage.

How did you get interested in One Arm?

I found it in a collection of screenplays about 10 years ago and I remember being immediately struck by its frankness. When Williams is depicting gay life in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, for obvious reasons, his gay characters always end up very badly: Blanche DuBois’s boyfriend commits suicide off-stage [A Streetcar Named Desire], Paul Newman ends up married to Elizabeth Taylor [the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof], and in Suddenly Last Summer, Sebastian ends up being eaten by cannibals. This screenplay is really about the kind of homosexual underground in which Tennessee Williams lived. The story is based, supposedly, on a hustler, who had one arm, who he knew in New Orleans, who was incredibly beautiful and who resembled the statue of Apollo. Obviously it was autobiographical because he met this hustler, but it was also personal because toward the end of his life most of his sexual encounters were with hustlers. It was the frankest portrayal of that world that I had seen from Williams. I was very moved and very excited by that.

Didn’t he write it originally as a short story?

Yes, it is one of his earliest writing. He wrote it 1942 and it was published in 1948. The first draft of the screenplay that we have is from 1967. That means that this story must have stayed with him for 25 years. He writes in a letter [from the ’60s] that he thinks that the one-armed youth from New Orleans will make for a great movie. You see from so many different correspondences that he wants to have it done. When Williams died they found a photograph of a beautiful one-armed boy in his belongings and they thought it was a photograph of the prostitute. Well, it wasn’t. What happened was from 1967 on, for something like 15 years, he tried to get this movie made and he couldn’t. But he was talking to enough people about it that somebody had sent him a headshot of a one-armed actor.

What do you think was his fascination with this story?

I think that he was always excited by people who were very beautiful and were very damaged, or who had great talent and great damage. He wrote that this movie was about “the prevalence of mutilations among us all, and their possible transcendence.” Somebody says to this one-armed hustler who looked like the statue of Apollo, “it makes you more beautiful.” I think it’s a stand-in for the artist. Williams thought of himself like that. He makes such beautiful things but he is so broken.

How did you set about adapting One Arm for the stage?

I did the first production of it at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2004. At that time I just took the screenplay and put it on stage. But what I realized is that this screenplay meanders quite a bit. I realized I would have to concentrate it to make it more of a theatrical event. The short story, which is just 14 pages, is perfect. I understood that story better. In the screenplay only about the last 25 percent of the film takes place in the prison. I set the whole play in the prison [with flashbacks to scenes from the past]. That was the greatest liberty I took. It allowed me to focus on the core event, which is about the transformation this guy undergoes while he is jail. Also, I edited down quite a bit. My version is 80 minutes long while the screenplay is about two-and-a-half hours. I tried to really understand how Williams thought about the characters and the dramatic event of the piece, and how that manifested itself in the way he kept changing the screenplay. We found drafts of it in many places—at Harvard, Columbia, the Lincoln Center library—and pages in different places in the country. It was really an intensive labor. In one of the drafts, a character is titled the Intellectual, but Williams had taken a pencil and cut out the word “Intellectual” and named the character Lester. So you can witness the baptism of a Tennessee Williams character in that paper.

Tell us about the theatrical style you chose for your adaptation.

I never wanted to make a play out of this. I wanted to try to imagine the film that was never made. The interesting thing is that Williams called the screenplay an experimental film-play. And he has a voiceover narration, which you hear in the play. In the screenplay Williams says, “You are seeing this actor, he has two arms, we need you to imagine that he has one.” So it really was an experiment in filmmaking that Williams was trying to do. [In the production] I try to create this theatrical machine that speaks in a theatrical vocabulary that serves the play. The actors use big lights not just to illuminate other actors, but to create the narrative. It’s the same thing with the set; we use a bed as a car. Can we use the audience imagination to help us construct the event? I’m fascinated by theatrical form—how does theater speak? And the paradox of using a screenplay to explore theatrical vocabulary is really thrilling to me.

What are the forms of theater that interest you?

Growing up in Venezuela I was very fortunate because we had the Caracas International Theater Festival, one of the most important in the world. So I grew up seeing the work of Peter Brook, Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, or Pina Bausch. When I saw my first realistic play I thought, “This is so avant garde: Look they are pretending that it’s a living room—that is so radical!” I was having the experience that I think Muscovites were having when Stanislavski did The Seagull—oh, look there’s a person with their back to us. So I have always been obsessed with theatrical thinking that encourages us to profoundly reimagine what happens on the stage.

A lot of theater in this country is bogged down by realism and naturalism. The model by which we make theater is we take the written word and go into a room for four weeks and then we stage it, and basically what we end up with is an illustration of a text. I’m not saying that is not a valid way of making theater. I say that it can’t be the only way of making theater, because theatricality has a very sophisticated discourse. The more we learn how to speak in theatrical terms, the more we can really honor the poetry of the stage. I had a terrible teacher who said to me, “The job of the director is to create a world in which the words can be believed.” I responded, “That sounds like saying to an architect that his job it is to create a building that won’t fall down.” Yes, hopefully the words will be believed, but what about really exploring the way in which theater speaks—not only words? That is the core of my work.