Orpheus Descending is a play by Tennessee Williams. It was first presented on Broadway in 1957 where it enjoyed a brief run (68 performances) with only modest success. It was revived on Broadway in 1989, directed by Peter Hall and starring Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson. This production ran for 13 previews and 97 performances.
The play is basically a rewrite of an earlier play by Williams called Battle of Angels, which was written in 1940, but had been closed on its opening night in Boston due to a stage fire. Battle of Angels remained un-produced in New York for 34 years, until the Circle Repertory Company opened their sixth season with it in 1974.
When Orpheus Descending appeared in 1957, Williams wrote, "[o]n the surface it was and still is the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop. But beneath that now familiar surface it is a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them...and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all."
The play is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek Orpheus legend and deals, in the most elemental fashion, with the power of passion, art, and imagination to redeem and revitalize life, giving it new meaning. The story is set in a dry goods store in a small southern town marked, in the play, by conformity, sexual frustration, narrowness, and racism. Into this scene steps Val, a young man with a guitar, a snakeskin jacket, a questionable past, and undeniable animal-erotic energy and appeal. He gets a job in the dry goods store run by a middle-aged woman named Lady, whose elderly husband is dying. Lady has a past and passions of her own. She finds herself attracted to Val and to the possibility of new life he seems to offer. It is a tempting antidote to her loveless marriage and boring, small-town life. The play describes the awakening of passion, love, and life – as well as its tragic consequences for Val and Lady.
The play deals with passion, its repression and its attempted recovery. On another level, it is also about trying to live bravely and honestly in a fallen world. The play is replete with lush, poetic dialogue and imagery. On the stage, the opening sections seem somewhat lacking in dramatic movement, but the play picks up power as the characters are developed and it moves to its climax. Val, representing Orpheus, represents the forces of energy and eros, which, buried as they are in compromise and everyday mundanity, have the tragic power to create life anew.
In 1959, a screen adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani appeared under the title The Fugitive Kind; it was directed by Sidney Lumet. Orpheus Descending, a more faithful version – a film adaptation of the Peter Hall stage production – was released in 1990, starring Vanessa Redgrave. The play was also adapted as a two-act opera by Bruce Saylor and J. D. McClatchy in 1994.
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