“As the curtain rises, on an almost lightless stage, there is a loud singing of wind, accompanied by distant, measured reverberations like pounding surf or distant shellfire.” (1)
El Camino Real refers to a series of highways dating to the Spanish colonies in North America, most typically associated with the California Mission Trail. Today much of this trail has been incorporated into U.S. Route 101. An ambiguously identified seaport town along this titular road serves as the destination for Tennessee William’s play Camino Real. Premiering in 1953, it was not a mainstream success, while being tucked amidst some of Williams’s greatest contributions to American drama. Williams is hardly known for a warm-hearted, touchy-feely approach to drama, with his most well-known plays dealing with abandonment, insanity, depression, substance abuse—a veritable concoction of human misery given a uniquely American twist. In Camino Real, Williams ponders mortality and irrelevance through a nearly incoherent string of vignettes described as “blocks,” creating a world of quasi-realism populated by a host of literary and historical figures, including Don Quixote and Lord Byron. (2) Williams simply describes it, however bleakly, as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in.” (3)
Peter Wexler’s scenic design created the environment for the 1970 Broadway production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, starring Al Pacino as the lead character of Kilroy. As a playwright, Williams is infamous amongst set designers for his dictation of strict and detailed sets, making pointed use of location and space; but after nearly two pages of poetic description in Camino Real’s text, Wexler presents a largely abstract design. Noted theater critic of the Saturday Review Henry Hewes commented that the design was “boldly abstract” but that the narrative “needed a more specific set.” (4) Director Milton Katselas, however, embraced the abstract quality and, aided by the thrust stage (audience on three sides) of Lincoln Center, “gave the performance a carnivalesque quality, with action over and around the stage, up and down the aisles, and had one character make his entrance by being lowered from the ceiling over the audience.” This abstraction of space and imaginative play within it heighten the phantasmagoric qualities of Williams’s script, calling into question the realism of the play’s location.
The quote above starts the stage direction and the play, suggesting an emptiness on the vacant stage. Dominating the mise en scène are stairs stacked like the vertebrae of a disembodied spine, limply connecting the desolate plaza to the outside world. The rugged, rocky aesthetic and jagged texture gives the space a nearly prehistoric feel, distancing itself from any reality that might exist in the play’s eponymous location and instead reinforcing the themes of alienation and mortality. Williams aimed to stress the sense of isolation created by the stairs by naming the location to which they lead “Terra Incognita,” a Latin cartographical term for unmapped space. Wexler exacerbated this desolation by depicting space described on stage left by Williams as “the luxury side of the street” with yet another pile of rock-like forms—elevated above the plaza, but lifeless no less. Through his design, Wexler synthesizes and emblazons Williams’s themes in a world that seems at once real and inhabitable, but also imaginative and barren.
1.Tennessee Williams, Camino Real (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1953), 5.
2. Downing Cless, “Alienation and Contradiction in “Camino Real”: A Convergence of Williams and Brecht,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1, Aporia: Revision, Representation and Intertextual Theatre (March 1983), p. 44-50.
3. Ben Brantley, “Theater Review: Lost Souls, Not So Different From Their Creator,” nytimes.com, June 28, 1999, accessed January 5, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/06/28/theater/theater-review-lost-souls-not-so-different-from-their-creator.html?pagewanted=all.
4. Matthew C. Roudané, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 84.
5.Variety, “Camino Real,” January 14, 1970, 84.
Matthew J. Kennedy is one of a precocious few who, at eight years old, could claim his favorite department at the Art Institute of Chicago to be European Decorative Arts. He recently completed the Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt graduate program, pursuing research focused on the intersection of design, popular culture, and his recreational passion of theater. He currently handles image rights and licensing for the Cooper-Hewitt’s publishing projects.