Tennessee Williams: The Holy Trinity of Acting

Marlon Brando

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

We can talk and talk about talent: There is plenty of talent. I have seen many wonderful performances; brilliant performances. But genius in acting? Very rare. What I am talking about is the artist who approaches the art and the craft of acting and entirely transforms and subverts it, turns it upside down, takes it and forces it to twist and meld and gel within his or her own lineaments: Someone who forces an art, a force, greater than all of us to do as they wish. Very rare.

There was a clever, sweet, and insane man who once avowed that there should be a Nobel Prize for Acting--or at least for the performing arts. Now, I don't believe that every writer who has received that generous purse of dynamite deserved it, or even transformed the art of literature, but it is really impossible to imagine being able to pull the name of someone who has redefined the performing art in which they work, particularly acting.

I'm not here to criticize actors, and the reason so few can truly expand and alter the art has to do with the many maddening aspects of the theatre that keep the talent from reaching a hungry audience. So much of fate and beauty and quirky appointments made at the last minute determine who gets to dance or act or sing or shine.

You keep asking, so I'll tell you: In my lifetime, and both within my own plays and those of others, I have seen only three actors who have entirely redefined the art in which they work. Actors who force you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about plays and people and time and life.

Marlon Brando.

Kim Stanley.

Geraldine Page.

Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), supported by Richard Attenborough.

These are three diabolically gifted and mercurial human beings who have the capacity to infuse their souls and their skins with the characters they have subsumed and to convey--to an almost embarrassing degree--the reality of another, imaginary person, while also revealing to you, stunned in your seat, your own biography. They are seers and magicians, and all a bit satanic, cruel even, in their pursuit of another person's reality, hormones, means and ends.

I don't know how they do it.

They have done it with my own work, and with work that was far beneath them, and work that was even, for a moment, beyond their grasp. But they worked toward it, and they conquered. All of them walked a tightrope of nerves across an open space that was, I think, the human heart.

I don't know how else to put it. I don't know what else to say.

Yes, there are many wonderful actors, and there are actors who have moments of this sort of genius--Jessica Tandy, Alan Webb, Julie Harris, Elizabeth Ashley, Irene Worth, George C. Scott, Alec Guinness, Zoe Caldwell, Gerry Jedd--but never on a consistent basis, and never in an exhilarating triumph over mediocre material.

These three artists were always working at a dangerously high altitude.

There's your trinity.

Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).


Popular Posts