Theatre interview: Transcending mutilation in One Arm, – 2022 revival of Abrahamse & Meyer Productions’ critically acclaimed production- based on the short-story by Tennessee Williams- at Artscape, Cape Town and Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival

One Arm – Abrahamse & Meyer’s acclaimed stage adaption of a short-story by Tennessee Williams

When: February 9–19, 2022
Where: Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Starring: Marcel Meyer and Matthew Baldwin
Direction: Fred Abrahamse

Booking link:

One Arm [February 9–19, 2022] is playing in repertory at Artscape, with Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire [February 2–12, 2022] as part of The Abrahamse & Meyer Production Summer Season of World Theatre. Both plays will be presented in repertory, in September, at the 2022 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival.

For info, contact the producers:  

In 2014, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions presented One Arm, adapted from a short-story, by Tennessee Williams; in the Artscape Arena, Cape Town. The critically acclaimed production is being revived at Artscape and will play in repertory with Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire [in the Artscape Theatre] as part of the company’s Summer Season of World Theatre. Both plays will be staged, in repertory in September, at the 2022 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. The 2014 staging of One Arm, starred Marcel Meyer and Nicholas Dallas. The 2022 production stars Meyer and Mathew Baldwin. One Arm has not been staged in the USA and the 2022 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. The organisers of the festival have been trying to get the production to the US, since 2014 and it is finally happening – at the festival. Read on as Marcel Meyer provides insights into the revival production of One Arm and how the production has become imbued with added nuances and a new conceptual approach, since it was first staged in 2014:

New concept for 2022 One Arm- it is a surprise

Are there significant changes to the staging of One Arm in 2022? Marcel Meyer: “Yes, we have a new cast member in Matthew Baldwin, who has brought invaluable insights into his roles for this revival. Also, both Fred and I have grown as humans and artists since 2014 allowing both of us to deepen and enrich and build on the work we had originally done. We were also able to make some minor dramaturgical changes to the text which has brought a more intense focus to the piece, and we have implemented a concept we originally had but didn’t do in 2014 for this production. For spoiler-alert reasons I’m not going to divulge what this addition is.”

Designing One Arm – asides from the conceptual approach – which we can’t reveal

Has the concept in terms of design (set, costumes, lighting) shifted in 2022, as opposed to 2014? Marcel Meyer: “The design elements are similar, but the concept has been refined and deepened for the 2022 revival. We wanted to intensify the film noir inspiration of the piece, the stark push and pull between light and dark, so the tonal palette for the design has shifted to black on black with Oliver’s costume, the minister’s dog-collar, and the calligraphy on the set being the only white elements in this all-black environment. We are also making use of green as a spot colour in very selected moments: the minister’s pale green pill box, Oliver’s pale green enamel mug, green dollar bills, a green beer bottle and straw in the strip club scene, and a hint a green Chinese brocade in one of the client’s costumes. The lighting design has also been refined in that the interactions between Oliver and the Minister in the prison cell will be lit in warm light, simulating the tungsten glow of the electric light bulb having over Oliver all the time, and then all the memory sequences lit in cold light to create the silver glow of black and white film noir cinematography.”

The coupling of One Arm in repertory, with A Streetcar Named Desire

Why gave Streetcar and One Arm been presented for this celebratory season of your company? A Streetcar Named Desire is arguably Tennessee Williams’ most famous and most popular play – critically and commercially. One Arm is part of Williams’ archive of marginalized works. Streetcar is sexy and epic. Why have you coupled these two plays, together? Marcel Meyer: “There is a two-fold answer to the pairing of Streetcar and One Arm. Both pieces were written and developed by Williams simultaneously. Streetcar premiered on Broadway in 1947 and One Arm was first published in 1948, so the pairing of these two works aims to celebrate the breadth and scope of Williams’ artistic vision while highlighting common themes and images found in both Streetcar and One Arm. On a practical level, David Kaplan, curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival has been wanting to present our adaptation of One Arm at the Provincetown Festival since 2014. Finally, the rights to present our adaptation in the USA have become available. David also indicated to us that. A Streetcar Named Desire was very much on his wish-list for the 2022 festival and when we pitched our concept of Streetcar to him, the notion of doing a repertory of both plays was born. So, in February 2022, audiences in the mother city can see what audiences in USA will be seeing in September 2022.”

Dovetailing of the mainstream with the obscure

This rep season represents in terms of the sheer scope of Abrahamse and Meyer’s work – the uniting of the mainstream with the obscure and treating them with dynamism– with verve and creativity- small ensemble casts, puppetry, sound, music? The plays are like two arms of your company? Marcel Meyer: “Yes, the company has always set out to present major classics along-side lesser-known works by great authors. Artistic choices that initially grew out of necessity -small casts, inventive design, and the use of puppetry and mask work- are now hallmarks of the company’s aesthetic.”

Tennessee Williams on redefining and the representation of the male image

Thoughts about staging One Arm in 2022 – visually – very different to 2014 – and circling back to Tennessee Williams’ time – well – we cannot imagine how forbidden the male image was. Even in 2022, the difference is huge – in terms of the proliferation of social media – IG, Twitter, TikTok? Marcel Meyer: “Williams was instrumental in redefining how the male body could be presented and portrayed in mainstream media. So, all the handsome Insta boys, TikTokkers and Tweeters owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Williams for facilitating this acceptance of the male body as something desirable and gaze worthy.”

Aching elegy for the marginalized

Emotional resonances of the play –One Arm – now – in the pandemic – after civil unrest in SA and USA, Me Too, Black Lives Matter? Marcel Meyer: “One Arm is an aching elegy for the marginalized by one of the world’s greatest poet/playwrights. Now, more than ever artists and audiences are seeking out work that celebrates and honours previously maligned persons and narratives. One Arm is Williams’ prayer for compassion and understanding. Williams explores how seemingly transient interactions can make for profound and lasting connections. The need for compassion, understanding and meaningful connections with our fellow humans has never been more urgent and topical than right now.”

The year 2022 –on the Abrahamse and Meyer Productions diary –a lot 

Plans for the company for 2022? Marcel Meyer: “We are in discussions with Canal Walk regarding a Children’s Theatre offer for this year and 2022 will also see the company return to international touring again. Our new production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – which was in rehearsal when Covid hit in 2020- is off to the International Shakespeare Festival in Romania in May, and our production of Hamlet will play in Denmark at the HamletScenen Shakespeare Festival, in the Kronborg Castle, Elsinore in August. Then in September, the Williams double feature of Streetcar and One Arm, form part of the 2022 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.”

 Production credits- One Arm -2022

Cast: Marcel Meyer and Matthew Baldwin
Director:  Fred Abrahamse
Design: (set and costumes): Marcel Meyer
Lighting design: Faheem Bardien
Sound design: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Producer: Abrahamse and Meyer Productions
One Arm: Marcel Meyer plays a young boxer who loses his arm in a car accident and then becomes a rent boy. The stage production is an adaption by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, from a short-story by Tennessee Williams. Supplied.
About One Arm- the stage play – adapted by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions from a short-story by Tennessee Williams

Marcel Meyer spoke to TheCapeRobyn in 2014, about the genesis of One Arm as a play an how Tennessee Williams distilled aspects of a real life story, into a short-story and into a film script. The interview was published on TheCapeRobyn blog. Extracts here, from that interview:

One Arm is “about a young boxer who loses his arm in a car accident and then becomes a rent boy.” On death-row, “he receives letters from former clients explaining how deeply he touched their lives”?  

Marcel Meyer: “Oliver is a farm boy from Arkansas. To break off an affair he is having with an older married woman, Oliver joins the navy. Here he starts boxing and wins the title Light-heavyweight Champion of the Pacific Fleet. He, then loses his arm in a car accident and turns to prostitution to earn a living. One night he murders one of his clients and is sentenced to death for the crime. One death-row he receives hundreds of letters from former clients explaining how deeply he touched their lives. Oliver describes these letters as ‘bills from people I owe. Not money, but feelings.’ Towards the end of the play Oliver says: ‘If I knew then, I mean when I was outside, that such true feelings cold even be found in strangers, I guess I might have felt there was more to live for.’ This is one of those poignant, iconic recurring themes in Tennessee Williams’ work: “The kindness of strangers” as he so famously described it in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).”

One Arm is set on death row?  

Marcel Meyer: “Yes, the play is set in Oliver’s cell on death row, the evening before his execution. As Oliver relates his life-story to the young Minister we flash-back to various scenes from his past.”

He loses his arm and loses his dreams and in process let’s go of his feelings – almost numbs himself and lets men use him for pleasure?

Marcel Meyer: “Correct. Early on in the play Oliver says: ‘I knew I had lost my right arm, but didn’t consciously know that with it had gone the centre of my being. I seemed to go through a change which I cannot account for except I was very disgusted with all of the world. I guess I stopped caring about what happened to me. That is to say I lost my self-respect’.”

Did Williams base his story on someone he knew? A real person?  

Marcel Meyer: “In 1936 Tennessee Williams felt a deep compassion for Bruno Hauptman, who was sent to the electric chair for allegedly kidnapping and murdering the infant son of Charles Lindbergh. There are references to Hauptman in Williams’ notebooks from 1936. Williams also wrote a poem, Ask the Man Who Died in the Electric Chair and a prose elegy titled, The Darkling Plain, about the Hauptman execution.”  

Williams wrote that he conceived One Arm “as a dark poem whose theme is the prevalence of mutilations among us all, and their possible transcendence”?  

Marcel Meyer: “In Williams’ work, a mutilated body is often a symbol for a damaged soul and many of his leading characters often have damaged bodies or are wracked with illness or mental instability. Laura in The Glass Menagerie is a cripple. Brick in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof has a broken leg and is dependent on a crutch. In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois’fading physical beauty is an external representation of her declining mental health. In 1966, Williams wrote a play called The Mutilated – where one of the principal characters considers herself a ‘mutilated’ woman because she has lost one of her breasts because of a mastectomy. In most of his plays Williams attempts to reconcile our carnal physical bodies with an elusive soul that strives to free itself from the corruptions of the flesh – but time and time again – Williams’ characters discover that only through sex can they find salvation.”  

Oliver is focussed in terms of his beauty and the fact that people lust after him?  

Marcel Meyer: “The male body is a major motif in the play – but as is always the case in Williams the physical body becomes an embodiment of the characters spiritual state of being. So we’ve tried to take a sculptural or painterly approach to the representation of Oliver’s body in the play.”  

One Arm was published as a short story by Williams in 1944 and then Williams wrote several drafts for a screenplay in 1967. The film wasn’t made.  

Marcel Meyer: “Williams started working on One Arm in New York in May 1942. He then revised it in 1943 in Santa Monica and completed it in Dallas in 1945, and had it published in a collection of short stories under the title One Arm, in 1948. He then adapted it into a screenplay in 1967, working on several drafts and his 1972 draft of the screenplay has been published by New Directions.In 2004, director Moises Kaufman created a stage adaptation of One Arm for Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Kaufman’s adaptation was an attempt to create a stage version of the various drafts of the screenplay, using some elements of the short story. As part of the Tennessee Williams centenary in 2011, Kaufman’s production of One Arm was staged in New York.”

The Kaufman stage adaption was set in the 60s. Williams’ story was set in the 40s. When is your production set?  

Marcel Meyer: “When Williams wrote the 1967 screenplay for One Arm, he updated the plot to the 1960s. Kaufman’s staging was a very much a staging of the film script so his version was set in the 1960s. Our adaptation is based on the original short story – so we’ve retained the original 1940s period and American setting. The play is set in a death cell in an American prison in the 1940s with flashback scenes set in New Orleans and Miami.”

Let’s talk about the reception of the short story in 1944. Must have caused a ruckus?

Marcel Meyer: “Because of the provocative subject matter of One Arm and the other short stories in the collection, One Arm was originally published as a limited edition that was sold under the counter in selected and specialized bookshops. Legendary cult-film director John Waters (of films like Hairspray and Pink Flamingos) has spoken of the impact One Arm had on him, as a young boy growing up in Baltimore, in the late 1950s. The book was kept on a reserved shelf and wasn’t readily available to the public – so while the librarian was helping other children, Waters sneaked behind the counter and stole the book he writes: ‘Yes, Tennessee Williams was my childhood friend. I yearned for a bad influence and boy, was Tennessee one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny. The thing I did know after finishing this book was that I didn’t have to listen to the lies the teachers told us about society’s rules. I didn’t have to worry about fitting in with a crowd I didn’t want to hang out with in the first place. No, there was another world that Tennessee Williams knew about, a universe filled with special people who didn’t want to be a part of this dreary conformist life that I was told I had to join.’”    

You play the boxer and for the 2022 revival, Matthew Baldwin, plays the young Lutheran Minister?  

Marcel Meyer: “The young minister has read about Oliver’s case in the newspaper report and decides to visits Oliver on death row, the night before his execution. His intention is to bring Oliver some spiritual guidance, but by meeting Oliver, the young minister is forced to confront his own demons and inner feelings. Mathew also plays the various characters in Oliver’s life in the flash-back scenes.”  

This interview is from 2014- updated to reflect the cast for 2022

❇ Images supplied. Featured image: Marcel Meyer and Mathew Baldwin in One Arm – the 2022 production. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: