A House Not Meant to Stand by Tennessee Williams

  A comedy? There are many, many perfectly funny lines in this play, a few sight-gags, a couple of potential pratfalls, some vulgar language, and plenty of sex. But what this play contains in greatest abundance is characters whose lives are filled with grief, pettiness, fear, jealousy, regret and loss. And should you find them funny, well, then, perhaps a nerve has been touched.

  Thomas Keith

  January 2008




  “Things fall apart: the center cannot hold.”


  A House Not Meant to Stand was developed from a one-act play entitled Some Problems for the Moose Lodge which was presented on a triple bill with the one-acts A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot and The Frosted Glass Coffin under the collective title Tennessee Laughs, and ran at the Goodman Theatre Studio, Chicago, Illinois, from November 8 to 23, 1980. The evening was directed by Gary Tucker; Artistic Director, Gregory Mosher; Managing Director, Roche Schulfer. The first full-length version of A House Not Meant to Stand premiered on April 2, 1981 at the Goodman Theatre Studio, also directed by Gary Tucker.

  The final version of A House Not Meant to Stand, which is published here, ran from April 16 to May 23, 1982 on the Main Stage at the Goodman Theatre of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was directed by André Ernotte; the set design was by Karen Schulz; the lighting design was by Rachel Budin; costumes were designed by Christa Scholz; sound design was by Michael Schweppe; the stage manager was Joseph Drummond; the assistant stage manager was Marsha Gitkind. The cast in order of appearance, was as follows:



  JESSIE SYKES: Scotty Bloch


  EMERSON SYKES: Les Podewell

  STACEY: Cynthia Baker

  TWO MEN FROM FOLEY’S: Brooks Gardner, Ed Henzel



  DR. CRANE: Nathan Davis



  YOUNG CHARLIE: Jeremy Sisto

  YOUNG JOANIE: Meadow Sisto

  YOUNG CHIPS: Jamie Wild


  Midnight, late December of 1982, Pascagoula, Mississippi. The set must establish the genre of the play, which is my kind of Southern Gothic spook sonata. The dilapidation of this house is a metaphor for the state of society. The interior scene should produce a shock of disbelief in the audience. It is as if the panicky disarray and imminent collapse of society were translated into this stage setting which is that of what was once a reasonably, passably, fairly representative middle-class American living room. In brief, it is that which is no more. And we, that participate in it and that are an audience to it, are rightly appalled by this extravagance of ‘see-through.’

  There is a small entrance hall, a living room with rain-streaked and peeling wallpaper, and a dining room masked by a transparency. The living room contains an overstuffed chair, an armchair, a sofa with end tables, and an old television in a corner. The dining room is visible only at times when significant action takes place in it. Upstage of the dining room a small section of kitchen is visible. There is a staircase that ascends to a landing on which there is a withered palm in a cracked jardinière. The stairs proceed up from the first landing, but are masked above that second flight.

  It is a remarkably inclement winter night for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Throughout the play, deluges of rain come and go, and there are intermittent rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning. Sounds of water dripping within the house can occasionally be heard. From time to time, due to a defective power-plant, the lights will flicker: at the end of Act One there will be a total blackout due to the climax of the storm knocking out the power plant for a more extended time.

  At the rise of the curtain a large mantel clock ticks rather loudly for about half a minute before there is the sound of persons about to enter the house—the sounds are not vocal but mechanical. The door opens on an old couple who lets themselves into this architectural metaphor from the torrential rain: Cornelius and Bella McCorkle are middle-class, in their late-sixties or early-seventies. The upper frame of Cornelius is slight in comparison to his distended abdomen. Physical descriptions may be flexible—that is, adapted to performance. Bella’s way of moving suggests more weight than the actress needs to carry.

  Cornelius sets down the luggage with an exhausted grunt and an indignant glance at Bella whose cardiac asthma has incapacitated her for carrying anything much beside her weight. She looks dazed as she will often look during the play. She is holding a large envelope that she wants to conceal from her husband.

  CORNELIUS [to the audience]: I tell you, entering this house from a cloudburst ain’t exactly like coming in outa the rain.

  [Bella wanders into the dining room as Cornelius throws off his coat, dropping it on the floor, and hobbles after her with his cane.]

  CORNELIUS [to the audience]: Not tenable this house, not for a man with arthritis. [To Bella.] You like it this way? Apparently you do. Since you could easily put on a new roof, afford to easily with a certain cash reserve that’s secretly in your possession. Now we’re gonna have another talk ’bout that t’night, this time a show-down, Bella. Otherwise—stay alone here. [To the audience.] I’ll take me a single water-proof room at—somewhere.

  [Bella collides with a chair then leans against the rain-wet table.]

  BELLA: Annh.

  [There are sounds of sexual activity from a bedroom above.]

  STACEY [from upstairs]: Nooo, that huuuuuuurts!

  CORNELIUS: Wha’s that, Bella?

  BELLA: Huh?

  CORNELIUS: Thought you said somethin’.

  BELLA: No, I—said nothing, Cornelius.

  CORNELIUS: Somebody in this house?

  [The sounds subside.]

  CORNELIUS: Git your coat off, Bella.

  BELLA [trying to believe her words]: Good to be home, Cornelius. [She returns to hang up her coat in the hall.]

  CORNELIUS: —No. —Depressing. [To the audience.] So much living gone on in the place none of it come to much more than— [To Bella.] thickening of the cartilage in the joints . . . [To the audience.] —I hear a leak, several. Never mind. [To Bella.] What you took outa the mailbox, Bella? —Advertisement? —Throw it away.

  [Bella shyly, awkwardly stuffs the envelope into her bag.]

  CORNELIUS [to the audience]: Encourage—consumerism of unnecessary goods, thrown on the market for no reason but—avarice—insatiable—avarice.

  [Cornelius switches on living room light. A string of colored light bulbs, thrown over the banisters, lights up. Bella utters a sharp cry, covering her face.]

  CORNELIUS: What’s that about?

  BELLA: Not the Christmas lights!

  [He gives her an exasperated look, then kicks a plug out of double socket: the colored lights go off. He sits in a chair, intermittently groaning and staring out accusingly at the audience. After a pause he addresses Bella.]

  CORNELIUS: Now will you tell me why you hollered like that, Bella?

  BELLA [slowly, with difficulty, as if recalling the details of a vague but terrible dream]: —Jessie Sykes was here.

  CORNELIUS: That bitch comes over here too damn often, drives me upstairs when I can hardly make it . . .

  BELLA: You know I can’t climb a ladder.

  CORNELIUS: Don’t get the connection between that fact and—

  BELLA: Jessie can.

  CORNELIUS: Emerson Sykes is no prize package but I don’t see how he can tolerate a bitch that would inherit a small fortune and spend it all on—what? —Rejuvenation? —By cosmetic surgery? Ain’t that how she spent it? —Sheee-it, no!

/>   BELLA: Jessie was in the kitchen on the five step ladder getting down that string of colored lights to put on a tree if we got one this Christmas.

  CORNELIUS [half-rising and freezing in position.]: TYLENOL THREE, TYLENOL THREE!

  [Automatically Bella crosses to him and removes the medication from his jacket pocket.]

  CORNELIUS: Beer to wash it down with.

  BELLA: Beer . . .

  [She shuffles ponderously off by the dining room, into the kitchen. Upstairs, unheard by Cornelius but heard by the audience, is the sound of orgasmic rutting. Bella returns with the beer. Cornelius washes the tablet down standing.]

  CORNELIUS: —Jessie Sykes and the ladder—what happened?

  BELLA: Took down the lights for—

  CORNELIUS: Yeh, yeh, you tole me, Bella.

  BELLA [breathlessly]: The telephone rung in here. Jessie answered. —It was the call from Memphis. —I thought it was Chips callin’ to wish us Merry Christmas maybe even to say he’d be home. —I was comin’ out of the kitchen with the lights—Jessie said, “Bella, I think you better talk to this man on the phone.” — “Chips? Is it Chips?” —She said she didn’t think it was Chips but somebody that knew him and she helped me to the phone. I was dizzy with excitement, could hardly breathe—one of my little attacks . . . I took up the phone. Said “Chips? Is that you, precious?” —Then come on this strange, this hard, cold voice. “Are you Mrs. McCorkle?” —I was scared by the voice—had to set down by the phone. — “Yes, what?” —Man said “I’m afraid I got some bad news for you, Mrs. McCorkle. I’m your son’s roommate. —Just come from the hospital. —He’s in a deep coma and the doctor admitted it wasn’t likely that he’d get through the— [She cannot continue.]

  CORNELIUS: Night. I know and he didn’t.

  [Bella steadies herself against the table.]

  BELLA: Such a hard, cold voice—no emotion in it, no—feeling at all—Chip’s roommate? Givin’ his mother infalmation like that?

  CORNELIUS [rising, moving slowly toward Bella]: Yes, that’s how they all are, concerned only with self and their dissipations, disgusting practices, aw for Chrissake, thought you knew that by this time. You encouraged it, Bella. Encouraged him to design girls’ dresses. He put a yellow wig on and modeled ’em himself. Something—drag they call it. Misunderstood correctly—by the neighbors.

  BELLA: He could of grown outa that.

  CORNELIUS [rising, moving slowly toward Bella]: Naw, naw, was in his blood. There was nothin’ McCorkle about him, he was pure Dancie and I didn’t send him to Memphis, I told him to go stay with your folks, the Dancies, in Pass Christian where sex confusion and outrageous public behavior was not just accepted but cultivated among ’em. Considered essential!

  BELLA: —Don’t!

  CORNELIUS [touching her shoulder]: Sorry, it’s done, it’s past. —This goddamn bone thing’s always worse in wet weather. That Memphis specialist says it’s osteo-arthritis.

  BELLA [emerging from her trance state]: —What? [She moves unsteadily to the sofa and sits down, breathing loudly.]

  CORNELIUS [sitting in his chair]: Osteo-arthritis is what he calls it. I asked him how that differed from ordinary arthritis and he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. [Pause.]

  BELLA [vaguely]: Maybe age—is the only explanation. [Pause. The clock ticks loudly.] Peppy? —Peppy! She’s still out in the yard.

  CORNELIUS: Let her stay in the yard. I been tellin’ you for years that dawg is a yard-dawg. Bella, full of ticks and fleas that get into whatever you sit on so you— [He scratches his ass.]

  BELLA: Peppy’s been with us so long I don’t remember and she is family to me.

  CORNELIUS: Awright, claim relation with a flea-bitten old mongrel bitch, you do that, but I’ll be damned if I’ll acknowledge her as an in-law.

  [Jessie Sykes throws open the unlatched front door.]

  JESSIE: Welcome home, neighbors! Knocked at your door, no response, but I heard your voices, the door was open a crack, so I just considered my self admitted.

  CORNELIUS: Is this—Jessie Sykes?

  JESSIE: Why, Cornelius McCorkle, that is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. I know what you mean. I am practically unrecognizably transfawmed by that cosmetic surgery I went through at Ochsner’s, you didn’t know who I was!

  CORNELIUS [grudgingly]: I wasn’t sure who you was, havin’ just took off my glasses.

  JESSIE: Bella?

  BELLA: Jessie?

  [Jessie embraces her. There is a long pause of embarrassment.]

  JESSIE: I know you must be tired from that sad trip to Memphis.

  [Pause. Bella nods in a dazed fashion and retreats through the arch into the dining room.]

  JESSIE: —I know, I know. —There’s nothing to say about it, not tonight, the weather forecast on TV is that it will let up tomorrow, but, Cornelius when are you going to get a new roof on this house?

  CORNELIUS: Put that question to Bella.

  BELLA: Excuse me, Jessie, can’t come in right now

  JESSIE: I understand, honey. Oh. Cornelius? Emerson will be dropping over soon. Imagine pretending to me that he was going out possum hunting on a night like this which I know is stag-movie night at the Moose Lodge. You know, he asked Horace Dean to invest in that motel he thinks he’s going to put up in Gulfport. And he’ll ask you. For heaven’s sake, refuse to. Know what he plans to call it? Nite-A-Glory Motel!

  [Cornelius grunts.]

  JESSIE [to audience]: You know, Emerson Sykes is fifteen years my senior and is gone into senile dementia of a sexual nature. [She moves onto the forestage and addresses the audience directly. Light in the living room is dimmed.] I tell you, it was hilarious as it was disgusting when he drove me over to the construction site. Only the office of it has been erected so far, but a young manager is already employed there. Very attractive, sensible young man. You should have heard the conversation that took place, that young man was bug-eyed with consternation at Emerson’s suggestions. It seems they’d already been interviewing applicants for housekeeper. Well. A position like that requires a mature woman, of course, as the young man pointed out—to no avail whatsoever. “No, no, no,” Emerson hollered at the fellow. “Get me Gloria Butterfield, you know, that looker, that sexy young looker!” —The poor young man protested that Miss Gloria Butterfield, seventeen years of age, had had no previous employment except as a car-hop at a drive-in! [She laughs.]

  BELLA [to audience]: I don’t understand what she is talking about . . .

  JESSIE [to Cornelius and Bella]: Tell me, do you all expect me to put with that sort of thing? NO, NO, not a bit of it. [To the audience.] — “We’re entering a period of youth,” Emerson hollered.

  [Bella moans.]

  JESSIE: I’m quoting him exactly. “And this motel,” he went on, “this prospective chain of motels is designed to keep in close touch with the young, there’s no room in it for crones. Now you get Miss Gloria Butterfield on the phone, if you value your job here, and inform her that the house-keeper position is hers!” —Well, I was so outraged that I snatched up a note-pad on the desk and wrote on this note-pad, “My husband is demented.” I slipped that note pad into the young manager’s hand. He winked at me and nodded. Then I stalked out of the glorious night motel and drove straight off to Mary Louis Dean’s who took me to her law firm. Because I tell you the time has definitely come for legal action. Oh, she’s got the same problem, a husband unable to adjust and resign himself to age. And both of us are aware of our legal positions and steps—steps—must be taken. [Away from the audience.] Cornelius? Have you heard about the sex fiend?

  CORNELIUS: The what?

  JESSIE: Lock and bolt all the doors. There’s a sex fiend at large on the Gulf Coast Highway. It’s rumored he’s been sighted in a stolen car between here and Cypress Grove. Now, Cornelius, when Emerson drops over, ignore all hints of investm
ent in the Nite-A-Glory Motel. [She lowers her voice to Cornelius.] I may phone you later—something is brewing—Bella? Bella? Mary Louise is expecting me at her place now.

  BELLA: Oh yes, Mary Louise. Can’t see her right now. Maybe later, not tonight, but tomorrow . . .

  JESSIE: Bella, you do seem tired. You better retire, get some rest. [To the audience.] I talked too much for Bella, she seems so exhausted now. [To Cornelius.] Goodbye. [She goes out the front door. Pause.]

  CORNELIUS: Shit. [Pause.] Bella would you get me a . . .

  BELLA: Cornelius?


  BELLA [with unexpected spirit]: Jessie Sykes told me that you’d told Em that you thought I was gone in the head and had to be removed. —Did you tell that to Em? Is that what you want to do to me? Dispose of my still living remains in a place for gone-in-the-headers? Maybe that’s your intention, but you won’t find it easy. No, sir. I will put up a fight to wait here for my children which you drove out the door. And this is one intention of mine that will not be defeated by you or anyone else!

  [Cornelius gets up slowly.]

  CORNELIUS: Maybe another beer would make this homecoming less depressin’, Bella.

  BELLA: I didn’t hear that, Cornelius.

  CORNELIUS: Too goddamn many afflictions come on at this time of life.

  [He has gone off through the dining room to the kitchen. Voices are heard from upstairs.]

  CHARLIE [from upstairs]: Sure, I heard ’em come back.

  STACEY [from upstairs]: I think we better git dressed. —Cain’t tell your clothes from mine all scattered together on the floor. Turn a light on, Charlie.

  CHARLIE [from upstairs]: No hurry.

  STACEY [from upstairs]: —What we done, it hurts me. —That’s for boys, not—

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