THIS IS a ghost play," Tennessee Williams writes in his forward to "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," which is about the comeuppances of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. "It's thin ice very thin ice," he says "for the metaphysical element isn't popular among the more literal-minded -- who may be a few among you." So he asks the audience "to indulge us with the licenses we take. . . ."
If only there were more licenses to indulge! Williams' play (at the Kennedy Center through Feb. 23) could scarecely have a more fanciful setting: the gates of an insane asylum on a windy North Carolina hilltop, guarded by members of a German religious order in flowing black capes. Ghosts cross paths here who never did in life. Time starts, stops, rewinds and fast-forwards with abandon. But once we have adjusted to these liberties -- and it would be a crusty theatergoer indeed who would balk at doing so -- we meet up with a play that is exceedinly literal-minded, particularaly considering the idenity of its author.
Strangely, a playwright we think of as more realistic, William Gibson, has played much faster and looser with the historical subject matter of his latest work ("Goodly Creatures," at Silver Spring's Round House Theater through Feb. 17). Gibson, in contrast to Williams, has long experience in the business of writing about historical figures -- from helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker" to Golda Meir in "Golda." So he may simply feel more at ease. He also has chosen a remote subject, about which the world is rife with exploitably ignorance. But the overriding advantage Gibson seems to have had working for him is simply an obsessive and conspicuous fascination with his material.
When a playwright decides to write about actual people, there has to be some conflict between his sense of theatricality and the facts. When he has as large a sense of the theatrical as Tennessee Williams, we expect facts to be added, deleted, manipulated or ignored -- whatever it takes. The surprise of "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is the degree to which the detail of two familiar lives, and the duty of explaining them, seem to have stifled Williams' invention -- which has always seemed unstifleable. The finished product asks an unpleasant question: Did Williams really care that deeply about these people -- deeply enough to write a play about them?
"Her writing -- I have to admit it -- was really quite impressive," Williams has Scott say to Zelda's lone novel, written as she was going mad. "I sent it to Perkins at Scribners, my publishers, you know: I praised it too highly. Now I'm not sure how I feel about her writing. Made her promise not to publish 'Save Me the Waltz' till 'Tender Is the Night' came out, since so much of my material was her life and she put it into her own novel."
This is intriguingly arrogant. Still, on expects rather flightier language and a grander perspective from a ghost. And from Tennessee Williams. He could never write coldly, but seems to have had a devil of a time heating up the character of Scott Fitzgerald to the normal temperature range of a Williams play.
Occasionally, in lyrical passages and quietly affecting exchanges, the author's mind and material seem to fuse: Zelda, reminiscing with the ghost of the French flier she once loved, points out the grand similarity of their deaths -- hers in a hospital fire, his in a spectacular plane crash. "I must disappoint you," he says. "Nothing like that happened to me at all." And he goes on to explain that he merely "grew old . . . weighted down with honors."
At Zelda's and Scott's final parting, she tells him, with calculated girlishness: "How nice of you to drop by. And such a pleasant surprise to be remembered by an old beau. . . ."
There are also, for those who choose to make them, curious associations between Scott Fitzgerald's and Williams' lives. Both are writers who have supported women in hospitals or asylums -- Zelda for most of her last two decades and Williams' sister Rose (the model for Laura in "The Glass Menagerie") through almost her whole adult life. Both, also are writers who have suffered breakdowns and come back to write about them. So when Fitzgerald asks Ernest Hemingway if his acts of daredevilry "are truly more valiant than enduring a crack-up and going on after," we assume Williams would like a piece of that question himself.
But whenever the play returns to the question of why one of the Twenties' brightest couples became one of the Thiries' saddest, the language and the psychology run in familiar tracks. "What was important to you was to absorb and devour!" Zelda shouts. "And what was important to me, in your opinion? To exist in your shadow, alway? With no escape but into madness and fire? . . . Never in all those years of co-existence in time did you make the discovery that I have the eyes of a hawk, which is a bird of nature as predatory as a husband who appropriates your life as material for his writing."
Another question is unasked: Why was Zelda Sayre, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Sayre of Montgomery, Ala., so ripe to be carried away and used as Fitzgerald used her? Why was he so eager to turn them both into carousers, high-livers, epochal spectacles?
"Goodly Creatures" is about the rise and fall of Anne Hutchinson, the lay preacher, nurse and midwife who was tried and excommunicated as a heretic in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 1630s.
Gibson has portrayed Hutchinson's story through the eyes of John Winthrop, who founded the colony and orchestrated her banishment. In the play, Winthrop is passionately devoted to the colony's preservation as a bastion of freedom. He admires Hutchinson at first -- "That's a woman!" he exclaims after her arrival from England -- but later, with the deepest reluctance, decides she is a troublemaker who must be "isolated."
As for Hutchinson, she seems sincere in her advocacy of grace (an intuitional, direct relationship to Gold) rather than works (church-imposed rules of conduct), but also shows an irrational dislike for order and a streak of opportunism that leads her to mobilize a band of merchants whose chief religious conviction seems to be a desire to turn a larger profit than the church allows.
In real life, according to Marcy Moran Heidish, the author of an upcoming novel on the subject, Winthrop was a "Nixonian" figure. He hid the cololony's charter for four years so he couls ignore its provisions for representative government, pushed for oppressive laws, pursued a senseless, expansionist Indian war, and throughly disliked Hutchinson from the start. This was a colony where only a fifth of the population was allowed to belong to the church but all were required to attend, where any public questioning of religious or secular authority might land the questioner's tongue on a forked stick, and where church sermons were full of ghastly predictions of damnation.
A certain amount of legitmate uncertainly will surround a 350-year-old story, but it seems probably that Gibson has deliberately -- and boldly -- bent the facts toward his purpose, which is to delve into the tension between works and grace, ethics and spirit community and individual. And, of course, to compose a stirring play. (He may have had another motivation in leaving out some of the autocratic rules of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: feat that a 20th-century audience would be unable to put them in context.)
History has, in one sense, intimidated Gibson too. Rather than let the story and characters reveal themselves unself-consciously, he has imposed a narrator who describes, explains and anticipates the course of the play. Since the narrator is Winthrop, this may be Gibson's way of acknowledging the partiality of "Goodly Creatures'" perspective. But the narration camouflages a few shallow characters and imposes a tone that is occasionally more didactic than dramtic. "This moment," Winthrop announces in mid-Act Two, "is where our road forks. Liberty, authority. . . . Ah, if I could stop our story here."
Otherwise, "Goodly Creatures" is a strong play, true to the complexity of its theme if not to every curve of history. Gibson has put a harrowing birth scene onstage -- the birth of a deformed child, attended by Hutchinson. From here we are yanked into her trial, where she defends herself so adroitly that Winthrop must introduce the birth as evidence of a devine judgment against her.
In fact, such a birth occurred but did not come to light until after Hutchinson's exile. It was not brought up at either of her trials -- one civil and one ecclesiastically -- which have been comprressed into a single enthralling scene by Gibson. Her death in an Indian massacre was not until years later, although it seems to follow closely on her banishment in the play.
This is dramatic license, exercised dramatically. It does not ask for, but earns, our indulgence.