“Ev’ry man living is walking around in a cage. He carries it with him wherever he goes and don’t let it go till he’s dead. Then the walls come to pieces and he stops being so lonesome cause he’s part of something bigger than him” –Jim (Act I, Episode 4)
Not about Nightingales is one of Williams’ earliest plays, years before the successful Glass Menagerie or Streetcar Named Desire. He wrote it in 1938 after reading newspaper accounts about torture and riots in a Philadelphia County prison. The script was actually left undiscovered and unproduced until the 1990s. This three act play looks at life inside of a corrupt prison, where inmates are given spoiled food and threatened constantly with being sent to the unbearably hot torture cell known as Klondike for ‘bad’ behavior. As the play continues, inmates from Hall C are fed up with their condition and decide to go on a hunger strike, led by the boisterous Butch. When a beloved inmate kills himself after being subjected to the Hole, the entire prison joins the hunger strike. Tension continues to rise as the Warden heats Klondike to ungodly temperatures and sends the entire Hall C to suffer. Eventually the play boils over as those who survived Klondike break out and a full prison riot ensues. There is also a romance that develops throughout the play between an intelligent inmate named Jim and the Warden’s new secretary Eva but even they are part of the rising tension and the action that encapsulates the last act.
This is my all-time favorite Tennessee Williams play. Though less known then his Pulitzer winning plays of the 1940s, Not about Nightingales has a tangible atmosphere that jumps off the page. From the moment you meet the inmates, you feel the increasing tension of their situation and the drive to take a stand. Like a bullet train, this play continues forward with great speed and I have to finish it in one sitting every time. His words seem to create the sense of suffocating heat. Despite having read it many times, I can’t help but get angry at the torture these prisoners go through, horrified by the deaths of these poor human beings, and cheer the prisoners’ cry for change. Also, I find the ring of human truth in these prisoners’ desires. In the cell scenes, you hear the prisoners’ longings, no different than any man: decent food, clean lodgings, love, and freedom from a cage (both physical and mental). Williams dedicates this play to Clarence Darrow, one of American history’s well known lawyers and it’s clear that Williams holds strong ideals of justice for these prisoners. Not about Nightingales has many aspects that reflect my ideas of ‘good’ theatre: relatable characters, a tangible atmosphere, and powerful words that ring true. I would recommend reading this if you want a Williams’ play that is sadly overlooked but deserving of praise.