Tennesee Williams’s love letter to romantics


I pity the world, and I pity the god who made it.

– Kilroy, in “10 Blocks on the Camino Real”

All over the world, wherever the GI’s went in World War II, there Kilroy went too. He was a doodle, a few lines portraying a long-nosed comic-book face peering over a fence, a wall, a tank, a blasted sniper’s nest, or any other available surface. And under that face, three words only: “KILROY WAS HERE.”

Kilroy is also the central figure in two plays that are one play by Tennessee Williams.

The first of the two, written 1946-47, is the short, poetic one-act “10 Blocks on the Camino Real.” It has never had a professional production until now.

The second, a full-length but more bumpily poetic (and crazy) work that grew out of its predecessor during the five years, 1948-1953, that Williams and director Elia Kazan “developed” it at the Actors Studio, is “16 Blocks on the Camino Real” (a title usually shortened to just plain “Camino Real”). It opened on Broadway in the spring of 1953 and was promptly slaughtered by the reviewers. From time to time it has had revivals here and there including one at Lincoln Center.

It is “Camino Real” No. 1 that at long last – 60 years after its writing – is to be brought forth professionally in a Target Margin production under director David Herskovits starting previews January 14 at the Ohio Theater on Wooster Street.

“‘Camino Real’ is an imperfect play,” Kazan wrote in “A Life,” his unsparingly frank autobiography, “but it is beautiful, a love letter to the people Williams loved most, the romantics, those innocents who become victims in our business civilization. The central character, Kilroy, is a homeless mid-American boy [and onetime Golden Gloves champ, at least in his own mind] who, wandering without direction over the earth, has arrived at the final, mysterious place where Death waits.

“Here, also waiting for the end, are the high fliers Tennessee cherished, all now ‘over the hill’: Jacques Casanova, Don Quixote, Marguerite [Gautier], La Dame aux Camelias, the Baron [de] Charlus … ”

And here, too, are a crass hotel proprietor who throws Casanova out on the street with a consoling bottle of Lachrymae Christi (Christ’s tears); plus a tough-as-nails ancient doom-spouting Gypsy; plus another old crone peddling “Flores para los muiertos” (she will reappear in “Streetcar”); plus Esmerelda the Gypsy’s beautiful but vulgar daughter, whose virginity is restored as she dances on the roof whenever there’s a full moon.

“‘Camino Real’ is a play that a lot of people loved but found problematic,” says David Herskovits. “An interesting question is why was Kazan so drawn to this play. And did he serve it or do it disservice?”

In “A Life” Kazan – the directorial master both of realism and hyped-up realism – proffers a two-page apologia for his handling of “Camino Real,” ascribing its failure to his “artistically false” decision to cast it not only with Actors Studio actors but with actors who were his friends.

“In plain language, I wanted to be liked,” says the storm-tossed namer of names. But in a play that called for something other than realism, those Actors Studio products “were not up to their parts.” The only one he mentions, and praises, was Eli Wallach as Kilroy. (Mr. Wallach may also be the only one who is still around and kicking.)

It was at an event at The Kitchen a couple of years ago that Target Margin founder/artistic director Herskovits got chatting with Frances Kazan, wife of Elia Kazan. And one of the things they chatted about was “Camino Real,” versions 1 and 2,

She quoted her husband as once saying to her: “The closest I ever came to the avant-garde is ‘Camino Real.’ And I never got it right.”

Mrs. Kazan also provided Herskovits with a bunch of letters, notes, and other material bearing on the Williams/Kazan collaboration on “Camino Real.” It is with that as a starting point that Herskovitz is now at work on a play about the making of “Camino Real” No. 2.

Meanwhile there is No. 1.

“This one-act play we’re doing is very pure – pure reverie – before Kazan put anything into it,” says Herskovits. “Just clarity and all of the poetry of Tennessee Williams. None of the natural, none of the back story, no place in time.”

Williams took pains in “Camino Real” to throw in the names of Jean Harlow and Hedy LaMarr. He must also surely have seen Marguerite Gautier – she of the Camilias – as Greta Garbo.

Herskovits also sees Marguerite Gautier, Jacques Casanova, Don Quixote, and Baron de Charlus (Proust’s homoerotic gift to T. Williams) as “all a little bit like Blanche Dubois – and that’s how he identified himself.”

The actors at Wooster Street are Satya Bhabha as Kilroy, McKenna Kertigan as Marguerite, Raphael Nash Thompson as Casanova, Kurt Hostetler as Guzman the hotel manager, Purva Bedi as Esmerelda, Dara Seitzman as Player of the Blue Guitar.

“The violets in the mountains are breaking the rocks!” says Marguerite Gautier via Tennessee Williams. He did that all his life and is still doing it.

TEN BLOCKS ON THE CAMINO REAL.  By Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Herskovits. A Target Margin production entering previews January 14 toward a January 18-31 run at the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street, targetmargin.org.