As a writer, I focus my work on the Southern gothic. Depicting human nature’s darker side, I set my characters in conflict in settings such as the Magdalene Ladies’ Lunatic Asylum, housed in a plantation mansion, surrounded by live oaks hung with Spanish moss. Still, I acknowledge that the North has its gothic atmosphere, too, in settings such as an isolated farm or rambling old house, where reserved inhabitants conceal brooding inner lives. I am drawn to haunted souls and recently encountered two of them on trips north and south, meeting Lizzie Borden in Providence, Rhode Island, and Tennessee Williams in New Orleans, Louisiana.
In both cities, I thrilled to the mesmerizing performances, first of Jill Dalton in Lizzie Borden Live and then of Doug Tompos in Bent to the Flame: A Night with Tennessee Williams. Dalton and Tompos each wrote their solo plays and portrayed their title characters in small venues, speaking directly to their audiences. Each recreated a single day in the life of the person each became on stage: Jill Dalton offered Lizzie Borden’s reflections on life after the hatchet murders that made Borden infamous, while Doug Tompos offered Tennessee Williams’s musings on creativity and insecurity following the opening of The Glass Menagerie, the play that made Williams famous. In the most intimate of theatrical forms, both writer/performers exposed tormented lives with poignancy and power.
Jill Dalton performed Lizzie Borden Live at the Columbus Theatre in Providence, not so very far from the Borden home and murder scene in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her Northern gothic play is set in 1905 at Maplecroft, where Lizzie welcomes the audience into her garden and her parlor. There, Lizzie Borden reveals glimpses of her feelings—and lack of feeling—for her father and stepmother, of the seemingly ordinary details on the extraordinary day of the murders, and of her trial and acquittal. How could a well-bred lady have done such a thing? Impossible. She hints at her later affair with Nance O’Neill, an actress noted for a sensational portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Indeed, Lizzie Borden tells her listeners that she has lived out her days in the shadow of scandal, hearing her name chanted in a jump-rope rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
In fact, as Dalton’s Lizzie explains to the audience, her stepmother received eighteen blows and her father eleven, though she stops short of saying exactly who wielded the hatchet.
Doug Tompos as Tennessee Williams invites the audience to share an evening with him in New York on April 26, 1945. He charms his guests with witty observations and with insights about his creative affinity for poet Hart Crane. Then, even as Williams revels in the success of The Glass Menagerie, he begins to agonize over love and loss and whether or not he will ever again write anything good. In the Southern gothic traditon, Tompos’s play becomes a dark night of the soul, one in which Williams confides his idea for a scene he calls “Blanche in a chair in the moonlight.” How fitting that Tompos performed Bent to the Flame at Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans, the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire, and where Williams’s work continues to be honored and celebrated each year at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.
Through their brilliant scripts and performances, Dalton as Lizzie Borden and Tompos as Tennessee Williams illuminate corners in the dark chamber of the secret self. And, after the lights went down in a pair of theatres, North and South, I continue to be haunted by what one woman refused to confess and by what one man struggled to conceal.
For more information about the plays and performers:
Lizzie Borden Live
Written and Performed by Jill Dalton
Bent to the Flame: A Night with Tennessee Williams
Written and Performed by Doug Tompos