Tennessee Williams’s early play Not About Nightingales, which was written by the American playwright in 1938, was given a world premiere at the National’s Cottesloe theatre 60 years later on 5 March 1998.
That the piece was staged at all is thanks to a member of one of Theatreland’s great theatrical families, Vanessa Redgrave, who found a reference to its existence in a foreword Williams had written for Orpheus Descending. After laying hands on a copy of the play in 1993, Redgrave set out to see it performed, and approached the National Theatre.
Another member of the Redgrave clan, Vanessa’s brother Corin, starred in the Trevor Nunn-directed production as Boss Whalen, alongside Finbar Lynch, James Black and Sandra Dickinson.
Williams was inspired to write the piece by real events. The foulness of food at an American prison leads the inmates to rebel and start a hunger strike. By way of punishment the ring leaders are locked in an airless, steam-heated cell and roasted. Williams said that its violence and horror surpassed anything else he had written.
The production was a success for the National Theatre, and transferred to Broadway where it won the 1999 Tony Award for designer Richard Hoover, complementing his Evening Standard Award win in London.
The press were universal in their praising of the piece for its atmospheric feel and the performances of the cast. The Independent referred to it as “A remarkable piece of theatre history” and the Daily Mail said it was “An extraordinary premiere of an unpublished, unperformed early piece.”
Even with such praise for the production, the play is still less well known than many Williams classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.