There can be no doubt that Tennessee Williams was the preeminent American playwright of his time—at least for a period which, sadly, covered only eighteen years of his life, beginning with his first great Broadway success, “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944 and ending with his last great Broadway success, “The Night of the Iguana,” in 1962. Between those years Williams wrote a series of profound, deeply-affecting works, in which a heady atmosphere originating from his deep southern origins proved irresistable to New York critics and audiences, not to mention certain Hollywood producers and enough people in-between to bring him wealth and celebrity. After “Night of the Iguana,” it all ended as swiftly as it began. His later productions irritated critics and audiences with their lush language and melodrama, if it made much of an impression on them at all.
The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish.
Our first Edinburgh Festival and our first visit to Usher Hall opened with a delightful surprise. We didn’t have to get very far into Mozart’s Idomeneo for me to realize that the acoustics of the hall are surpassingly beautiful. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing period instruments, and the singers floated in a warm acoustic atmosphere, but the sound was also direct and present, so that the attacks of strings and brass and the fleeting nuances of the human voice were as clear as you could want them to be. Our seats were also several rows in the Grand Circle and well covered by the level above. In most halls the sound becomes rather muffled in that kind of situation, but, when I noticed that I was surrounded by fellow critics, I assumed that the Festival media representatives knew what they were doing. More importantly I loved what I heard.
Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival.