The play is set in Taormina on the west coast of Sicily. Mt Etna is set to erupt and possibly destroy the whole island. There is no way off the island and the characters wait for the end. The natives prepare a procession to placate the Virgin Mary and the American and British visitors drink, flirt with waiters and retreat to their rooms at the San Domenico. The characters include a handsome young scholar from Oxford, a raffish old American painter, an American playwright called August Weston (a stand-in for Williams), a couple of aristocratic Italian women, scientists newly arrived to study the volcano, and a large family of blond Sicilian rentboy/waiters.
It is evident that William put a great deal of energy into this script at the very end of life. The typescript includes many scenes in at least two versions. Coffee and ink stains testify to Williams's long hours at the typewriter with this final effort.
In several scenes, Williams includes thoughts on his process that he evidently intended to edit out in a later draft. For example, in the introductory paragraph for Scene 5, he writes, "Int[erior]of STEVEN's BEDROOM at the SAN DOMENICO, about four A. M. — before 'the lingering hour'. Sleepless, HE'S been reading. Perhaps the book is a collection of 'Romantic Poets', in which case HE is most likely reading KEATS. HE is wearing a golden-colored Sulka silk robe: it's too warm. HE throws it off and is becomingly exposed in form-fitting silk briefs. Since this is a first draft, I shall take risks of this sort which may expose me to charges of being somewhat 'homo-erotic" (Perhaps I shall be quite honest and never profess to be otherwise in the privacy of my Key West studio.)."
Later in the same scene, the characters argue over a handsome but disheveled boy whom one of the characters picks up on a beach. The boy turns out to be Israeli. In the midst of the argument, August Weston, the playwright, moves downstage and addresses the audience: "The subject of racism is one that must be treated with delicacy. And yet no important subject should be ignored out of fear of misunderstanding. Artists know its inflammable nature. I'm speaking of gentile artists in America, especially those who, like myself, work in the theatre which is primarily Broadway. Gradually, you begin to suspect that there exists an anti-gentile prejudice. I shall tell you a true story of a rather shocking incident which occurred at a New York restaurant on top of one of those towering twin buildings called the Trade Mart, I think it is called The Windows. They were celebrating somewhat prematurely, the centennial of the birth of Eugene O'Neill. My friend the director Quintero had brought me there. At an adjoining table a very dynamic and gifted producer, Joe Papp, stood up with a glass of wine and shouted, 'Here's to Eugene O'Neill, not only the greatest American playwright but the only American playwright.' Later on the way home, Quintero said, 'August, I think you should know that there is a strong bias against you among the powerful Jews of the New York theatre, especially those that control The New York Times.' Look, I am not a hypocrite and I am not a lair. I resented the well-documented fact, yes, resented it strongly, since I knew that no American playwright living or dead, has so nearly burned himself alive in the service of drama. Now? I think it's time for me to exorcise from myself all racist feeling. The blacks know that I am a black and I am often taken for a Jew. Well, that's all right with me. An artist has no race and recognizes no race but the human race. For an artist there is no race but the human race. I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose by this statement, except the satisfaction I find in speaking out honestly, now that I have entered, I think, the final year of my life."
This draft of 'The Lingering Hour' is a surprising document filled with a dying playwright's candid confessions.
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