Pictured Moisés Kaufman and the image used to promote One Arm.
A military boxer loses a limb in a car accident, and out of desperation, turns to a life of hustling in Tennessee Williams' unproduced screenplay, One Arm. Military. Boxer. Hustling. Strung together, these words tend to illicit a Pavlovian response from your typical, Falcon-watching, Colt-calendar-collecting gay male, a fact that would almost certainly amuse Williams, a man known to occasionally enjoy the pleasures offered by male hustlers.
'This is one of Williams' (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer) most personal and revealing plays,' offers Moises Kaufman, the acclaimed director of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning I Am My Own Wife. Kaufman directs his own stage adaptation of One Arm, which has its world premiere this month at Steppenwolf Theater.
'One Arm is about Williams' experiences in the gay underworld,' continues Kaufman, during a break from rehearsals. 'It's about his encounters with male prostitutes, about how a hustler finds his johns. But it also calls into question the nature of masculinity and how we define masculinity—especially as the hustler in this story starts to question his own sexuality.'
But how do you translate Williams' gay underworld to the stage?
You start with pornography, of course.
'When we started rehearsal, we had all of the actors—gay and straight—look at man-on-man pornography from that period,' explains Kaufman, who is openly gay ('I was outed by The New York Times, so everyone knows I'm gay by now!'). 'We also studied images of what a queen looked like in the '40s, what a drag queen looked like, what the definition of a 'straight acting gay man' was during that time. In many ways we are actually staging some of those photographs!'
Kaufman's adaptation was inspired by pornography, but Williams was inspired by another visual testament to male beauty—the statue of Apollo.
'Williams was inspired by the statue of Apollo, which is missing its arm. Ollie, the boxer, loses his arm in a car accident in the play. The statue of Apollo is beautiful and manly and stoic, yet incomplete and flawed. I think Williams was fascinated with the subject of mutilation, and how we are all, in one way or another, mutilated or incomplete, not just gay men, but everyone in the world.'
Originally written in 1945, One Arm was later published in a collection of short stories that also included Portrait of a Girl in Glass, which is the short story that The Glass Menagerie was based on. According to Kaufman, the story of One Arm continued to haunt Williams and in 1967 he converted the short story into a screenplay, but that script was never filmed.
'Williams is known for creating complex, gay characters—look at Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer—but those characters were not openly gay, their sexuality was hidden and disguised—Sebastian was eaten alive by cannibals at the end of Suddenly Last Summer. With One Arm, we have the story of a military boxer whose career is ruined by the loss of his arm and so he becomes a male prostitute. The reason it wasn't made into a film was that it was quite simply too daring for its time. Very daring, perhaps more so because it was such a personal portrait of its writer, Tennessee Williams.'
Eager to reignite the passion and energy that resulted from his collaboration with Eric Rosen (artistic director of About Face Theatre) on I Am My Own Wife, Kaufman presented Rosen the idea of bringing One Arm to the stage in Chicago.
'I love giving birth to projects in Chicago. You get to see them and live with them for a while and the audiences here are so smart and so incredibly savvy,' says Kaufman, who together with his Tectonic Theater Project (based in New York City) co-produced One Arm with About Face Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Kaufman hints that One Arm may very well move to New York after its Chicago run, in much the same way that I Am My Own Wife did last year.
But whatever the future brings for Kaufman's stage adaption of One Arm, he says the work has never been more relevant, especially considering today's political and social environment.
'The characters in One Arm are very much in the closet during this period in history. One Arm acts as a cautionary tale of the kind of environment a conservative government would foster. I told the actors during rehearsal that because the news had been so bad—that Bush had won the election—it's even more important that we are doing this play.'
Tennessee Williams' One Arm; Adapted & directed by: Moisés Kaufman; Location: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; Previews: Dec. 2-4, Opening: Dec. 5, 2004, at 6 p.m. Run: Dec. 7-19. Call 鵸) 335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org .