The Books: “Two-Character Play” (Tennessee Williams)

Next in my Daily Book Excerpt:

Next on the script shelf:

Two-CharacterPlay.jpgNext Tennessee Williams play on the shelf is The Two-Character Play.

I’m nervous to even start discussing this play. It’s too personal.

Let me just say this: this play has my ‘dream role’ in it. I have a couple of “dream roles” – and Miss Alma is one, from Williams’ Summer and Smoke. but Clare is another – from Two-Character Play.

I feel like no one likes this play or GETS it. The only people who GET IT are me and my dear friend Ted. I’m sure there are more of us out there but that’s how it feels to us. We have dreamed of doing a production of this play for YEARS. Nobody cares about this play. It’s like we’re members of a small two-person cult.

I will say this: I WILL do a production of this play someday. I WILL. Even if it’s just a damn reading in my apartment and only 3 people see it. I don’t care.

This play is so important to me.

I wonder if only actors would really ‘get’ it. It’s about life in the theater. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Opening Night – by John Cassavetes. If you weren’t “in the theatre” you might see that movie and think: Jesus, lady, what is the big deal? That movie, and this play, describes one of the deepest parts of me … a part of me that I hesitate even going into here on the blog. Because it’s private. It’s the artist part of me. The part of me that thinks that art is, hands down, the most important thing on earth. It is the most important endeavor that humans can participate in. It’s the cave drawings that let us know what ancient cultures cared about, who they were. It’s the crumbling statues of civilizations long gone. How much we learn from those crumbling statues. It is the artists who pass along information … about the culture from which they sprung … it is the artists who let us know what concerned the people of their age … This is what art means to me. This is what Tennessee Williams attempts to delve into in this play.

It is the story of a brother and sister, Felice and Clare. They are the only two characters in the play (duh. look at the title). They are aging actors. Felice is the playwright, he is also an actor. Clare is the actress. Felice writes plays for the two of them.

But they are both so insane, so out of it, that they cannot keep an acting company going. Everyone keeps quitting on them. Nobody wants to be around them. For a while, they were able to keep afloat but now, at the opening of this play, everyone has abandoned them. It is just the two of them now. That’s it. They are alone.

Felice and Clare grew up in the Sout. Their father was an astrology expert and a wacko. He ended up shooting his wife (their mother) – and then shooting himself – in front of the two of them.

So now it is 40 years later and they have not moved past it at all. It is like it just happened yesterday, and every moment of their lives they have to re-enact the moment before, the moment before the murder-suicide. Felice is working on his great masterpiece, a play called “The Two-Character Play” – where they act out what it was like for them in the aftermath of this thing that happened with their parents.

And yet there’s a problem. Neither of them ever want to END the play. They act out the play … avoiding the ending … they know it’s coming … they know the gun is a prop and it’s there … ready for their father to pick up … but both of them resist it like there’s no tomorrow. So basically the essential problem of the play, the “two-charactre play” – is that they are unable to act it. They are unable to give over to the circumstances – they cannot let go – they can no longer “act”.

The play begins with the two of them in a huge cavernous theatre – with remnants of another set there. It’s not the set for THEIR play, but another set. The effect should be like Ozymandias … a world gone away … the two of them wandering through this destroyed world … The play opens and Felice sits on this empty stage, working on ‘the ending’ of his great masterpiece. The play he can’t finish. Because if he finishes it … it means he actually has to accept that his father killed his mother and then killed himself … He can’t accept that alone. He needs Clare to accept it too. But Clare is a LOSER. She is a drug addict and an alcoholic, she staggers around wearing a tiara, acting like a grande dame of the theatre … she is NO help to Felice, in terms of being in touch with reality.

I could go on and on and maybe someday I should.

This is the most important play in the world to me. And nobody’s ever even heard of it. It’s one of my wee goals to do this play and do it right.

The play is psychedelic, and nuts, and stream-of-consciousness … and the two of them are completely delusional, so I’m just going to start at the beginning. I’ll post a couple pages of their first scene.

And let me reiterate:


EXCERPT FROM The Two-Character Play, by Tennessee Williams

[At curtain rise, Felice, the male star of an acting company on a tour which has been far more extensive than was expected, comes out of a shadowy area, hesitantly, as if fearful of the light. He has a quality of youth without being young. He is a playwright, as well as player, but you would be likely to take him for apoet with sensibilities perhaps a little deranged. His hair is almost shoulder length, he wears a great coat that hangs nearly to his ankles; it has a somewhat mangy fur collar. It is thrown over his shoulders. We see that he wears a bizarre shirt — figured with astrological signs — “period” trousers of soft-woven fabric in slightly varying shades of grey: the total effect is theatrical and a bit narcissan.

He draws a piano stool into the light, sits down to make notes for a monologue on a scratch pad]

FELICE. [slowly, reflectively, writing] To play with fear is to play with fire. [He looks up as if he were silently asking some question of enormous consequence] — No, worse, much worse, than playing with fire. Fire has limits. It comes to a river or sea and there it stops, it comes to stone or bare earth that it can’t leap across and there is stopped, having nothing more to consume. But fear —

[There is the sound of heavy door slamming off stage]

Fox? Is that you, Fox?

[The door slams again]

Impossible! [He runs his hands through his long hair] Fear! The fierce little man with the drum inside the rib cage. Yes, compared to fear grown to panic which has no — what? — limits, at least none short of consciousness blowing out and not reviving again, compared to that, no other emotion a living, feeling creature is capable of having, not even love or hate, is comparable in — what? — force? — magnitude?

CLARE. [from off stage] Felice!

FELICE. — There is the love and the — substitutions, the surrogate attachments, doomed to brief duration, no matter how — necessary … — You can’t, you must never catch hold of and cry out to a person, loved or needed as deeply as if loved — “Take care of me, I’m frightened, don’t know the next step!” The one so loved and needed would hold you in contempt. In the heart of this person — him-her — is a little automatic sound apparatus, and it whispers, “Demand! Blackmail! Despicable! Reject it!”

CLARE. [in the wings] Felice!

FELICE. Clare! … What I have to do now is keep her from getting too panicky to give a good performance … but she’s not easy to fool in spite of her — condition.

[Clare appears in the Gothic door to the backstage area. There is a ghostly spill of light in the doorway and she has an apparitional look about her. She has, like her brother, a quality of youth without being young, and also like Felice an elegance, perhaps even arrogance, of bearing that seems related to a past theatre of actor-managers and imperious stars. But her condition when she appears is ‘stoned’ and her grand theatre manner will alternate with something startlingly coarse, the change occurring as abruptly as if fanother personality seized hold of her at these moments. Both of these aspects, the grand and the vulgar, disappear entirely from the part of Clare in “The Performance,” when she will have a childlike simplicity, the pure and sad precociousness of a little girl.

A tiara, several stones missing, dangles from her fingers. She gives a slight startling laugh when she notices it, shrugs, and sets it crookedly on her somewhat dishelved and streaked blonde head. She stars to move forward, then gasps and loudly draws back]

Now what?

CLARE. [with an uncertain laugh] I thought I was —

FELICE. Apparitions this evening?

CLARE. No, it was just my — shadow, it scared me but it was just my shadow, that’s all. [She advances unsteadily from the doorway] — A doctor once told me that you and I were the bravest people he knew. I said, “Why, that’s absurd, my brother and I are terrified of our shadows.” And he said, “Yes, I know that, and that’s why I admire your courage so much …”

[Felice starts a taped recording of a guitar, then faces downstage]

FELICE. Fear is a monster vast as night —

CLARE. And shadow casting as the sun.

FELICE. It is quicksilver, quick as light —

CLARE. It slides beneath the down-pressed thumb.

FELICE. Last night we locked it from the house.

CLARE. But caught a glimpse of it today.

FELICE. IN a corner, like a mouse.

CLARE. Gnawing all four walls away.

[Felice stops the tape]

CLARE. [straightening her tiara] Well, where are they, the ladies and gentlemen of the press, I’m ready for them if they are ready for me.

FELICE. Fortunately we —

CLARE. Hmmm?

FELICE. — don’t have to face the press before this evening’s performance.

CLARE. No press reception? Artists’ Managemtn guaranteed, Magnus personally promised, no opening without maximum press coverage on this fucking junket into the boondocks — Jesus, you know I’m wonderful with the press … [She laughs hoarsely]

FELICE. You really think so, do you, on all occasions?

CLARE. Know so.

FELICE. Even when you rage against fascism to a honking gaggle of — crypto-fascists? … With all sheets to the wind?

CLARE. Yes, sir, especially then. — You’re terrible with the press, you go on and on about “total theatre” and, oh, do they turn off you and onto me … Cockroach! Huge! [She stamps her foot] Go! — I read or heard somewhere that cockroaches are immune to radiation and so are destined to be the last organic survivors of the great “Amen” — after some centuries there’s going to be cockroach actors and actresses and cockroach playwrights and — Artists’ Management and — audiences … [She gestures toward the audience]

FELICE. Have you got an “upper”?

CLARE. One for emergency, but —

FELICE. I think you’d better drop it.

CLARE. I never drop and upper before the interval. What I need now is just coffee. [She is struggling against her confusion] — Tell Franz to get me a carton of steaming hot black coffee. I’m very annoyed with Franz. He didn’t call me … [She laughs a little] — Had you forbidden him to?

[There is no response]

So I’m left to while the long night away in an unheated dressing room in a state theatre of a state unknown — I have to be told when a performance is canceled! — or won’t perform! [Her tiara slips off. She crouches unsteadily to retrieve it]

FELICE. The performance has not been canceled and I called you, Clare.

CLARE. After I’d called you.

FELICE. I have some new business to give you, so come here.

CLARE. I’ll not move another step without some — Oh, light, finally something almost related to daylight! But it’s not coming through a window, it’s coming through a —

FELICE. [overlapping] — There’s a small hole in the backstage wall. [He crosses to look out at the audience] They’re coming in.

CLARE. Do they seem to be human?

FELICE. No — Yes! It’s nearly curtain time, Clare.

CLARE. Felice! Where is everybody? — I said, “Where is everybody?”

FELICE. Everybody is somewhere, Clare.

CLARE. Get off your high horse, I’ve had it! — Will you answer my question?

FELICE. No cancelation!

CLARE. No show!

FELICE. What then? — In your contrary opinion?

CLARE. Restoration of — order!

FELICE. What order?

CLARE. Rational, rational! [Her tiara falls off again]

FELICE. Stop wearing out your voice before the —

CLARE. Felice, I hear gunfire!

FELICE. I don’t!

CLARE. [sadly] … We never hear the same thing at the same time any more, caro … [She notices a throne-chair, canopied wiht gilded wooden lions on its arms: on the canopy, heraldic devices in gold thread] Why, my God, old Aquitaine Eleanor’s throne! I’m going to usurp it a moment — [She mounts the two steps to the chair and sits down in a stately fashion, as if to hold court]

FELICE. [holding his head] I swear I wouldn’t know my head was on me if it wasn’t aching like hell.

CLARE. What are you mumbling?

FELICE. An attack of migraine?

CLARE. You’d better take your codeine.

FELICE. I’ve never found that narcotics improve a performance, if you’ll forgive me for that heresy, Clare.

CLARE. — Is this tour nearly over?

FELICE. It could end tonight if we don’t give a brilliant performance, in spite of —

CLARE. Then it’s over, caro, all over … How long were we on the way here? All I remember is that it would be light and then it would be dark and then it would be light and then dark again, and mountains turned to prairies and back to mountains, and I tell you honestly I don’t have any idea or suspicion of where we are now.

FELICE. After the performance, Clare, I’ll answer any questions you can think of, but I’m not going to hold up thte curtain to answer a single one now!

CLARE. [rising] — Exhaustion has — symptoms …

FELICE. So do alcohol and other depressants less discreetly mentioned.

CLARE. I’ve only had half a grain of —

FELICE. Washed down with liquor, the effect’s synergistic. Dr. Forrester told you that you coul dhave heart arrest — on stage!

CLARE. Not because of anything in a bottle or box but —

FELICE. [overlapping] What I know is I play with a freaked out, staggering —

CLARE. [overlapping] Well, play with yourself, you long-haired son of a mother!

FELICE. [overlapping] Your voice is thick, slurred, you’ve picked up — vulgarisms of — gutters!

CLARE. [overlapping] What you pick up is stopped at the desk of any decent hotel.

FELICE. [overlapping] Stop it! I can’t take any more of your —

CLARE. [overlapping] Truth!

FELICE. [overlapping] Sick, sick — aberrtations!

[There is a pause.]

CLARE. [like a child] When are we going home?

FELICE. — Clare, our home is a theatre anywhere that there is one.

CLARE. If this theatre is home, I’d burn it down over my head to be warm a few minutes … You know I’m so blind I can’t go on without crawling unless you —

FELICE. Wait a minute, a moment, I’m still checking props — bowl of soapwater but only one spool …

[Clare encounters the Gothic wood figure of a Madonna]

CLARE. — You know, after last season’s disaster, and the one before last, we should have taken a long, meditative rest on some Riviera instead of touring these primitive God-knows-where places.

FELICE. You couldn’t stop any more than I could, Clare.

CLARE. If you’d stopped with me, I could have.

FELICE. With no place to return to, we have to go on, you know.

CLARE. And on, till finally — here. I was so exhausted that I blacked out in a broken-back chair.

FELICE. I’m glad you got some rest.

CLARE. [hoarsely] The mirrors were blind with dust — my voice is going, my voice is practically gone!

FELICE. –Phone where? Piano top. No. Table. — Yes, you never come on stage before an opening night performance without giving me the comforting bit of news that your voice is gone and … [imitating her voice] “I’ll have to perform in pantomime tonight.”

CLARE. Strike a lucifer for me.

[He strikes a match and she comes unsteadily into the interior set: he gives her a despairing look]

FELICE. — Why the tiara?

CLARE. [vaguely] It was just in my hand, so I put it on my head.

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11 Responses to The Books: “Two-Character Play” (Tennessee Williams)

  1. Stevie says:

    It is my fervent hope that I will see you play Clare.

  2. Bob LaVelle says:

    I’ve been reading the play for a few weeks. The biggest shock so far, other than the central event, the pivotal historical event, is the presence of the The Press Scimitar in the text. The Press Scimitar is the newspaper we read in my house as a child growing up in Memphis, also home of the King of Rock and Roll. Sometimes, life is a tapestry.

  3. sheila says:

    Bob – Oh wow, that’s right! Life is a tapestry, indeed. God, I love this play – I am so excited to hear you are working on it.

  4. sheila says:

    I should tell you sometime the interaction I had with John Strasberg about this play. It happened in a workshop. One of the most important moments of my life – although it’s very hard to describe. I’ve tried to write about it before. And failed. It was a matter of suddenly being SEEN by him, as I talked about the play – SEEN in a way I had never been seen before. I always associate Two Character Play with him – I worked on scenes from it in the workshop I took with him. That play SLAYS ME. If you end up doing it anywhere, even in workshop, please please let me know, Bob.

  5. Jedd Owen-Ellis Clark says:

    Hi Shiela

    I’m a voice coach/singing teacher from the UK, working on accents with an actor’s class. I came across your thoughts as I was looking for something by the great Mr Williams, but a little more obscure than the usual ‘streetcar/menagerie’ texts. I found ‘The two-character play’…. I tried other pieces to take a monologue or study from, but something kept bringing me back to this strange play within a play, this deep, twisted bunch of thoughts played out in front of an audience.

    Well, I have to say I agree entirely with your post, I get it. I wish others would, too. I think if actors were given this sort of depth of work to create, recreate, they’d find out a lot more about acting, and themsleves in the process. Maybe if we forced the general public to watch it, the world wouldn’t be so superficial, and might take a look at itself, asking … what’s really going on behind the mask – or the line of sunflowers….

    Thanks for giving your point of view, for cheering for the weirdest play; for helping me folllow my instinct and making me look at this further – and add me to your list of people who ‘get it’. …


  6. Sebastian says:

    Hi and Hello,
    I just wanna aks You one question about Tennesse Williams`s play “The two charackter play” – is it possible to get the script of this play in electronic version? (.pdf .doc etc.) :)
    I`m asking You cause it`s impossible to get this play in English in normal (paper) version in Poland – i`m from here…
    Please, if You`ve got time and where would you be kind enough to write back to me via e-mail address:
    cybulski.sebastian @
    I will be grateful! :)

  7. Claudia says:

    Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer are about to do this play in New York. If anybody can do this play justice, they can.

  8. Jose Miguel Arbulu says:

    I just saw this play tonight in New York. Amazing! Have you seen it?

  9. Sara says:

    Hello !
    Do you know where I can find the script to download in Pdf format??
    I love Tennessee but I have not been able to find any version of ” the two-character play” anywhere online and not even in the Library of my Uni.
    would be extremely grateful if you could be of help since Im thinking about doing this for my Senior Project
    I’m a Theatre student btw

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