The brutality of the prison system retold

September 15, 2020
Tennessee Williams' play 'Not About Nightingales' premieres in Australia.

Not About Nightingales
Adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Sarah Christener
Life on Hold Productions
Until September 26.

First written in 1938 by aspiring playwright Tennessee Williams, Not About Nightingales was inspired by a 1938 Newsweek story of how four hunger-striking prisoners were roasted to death while locked in a steam-heated cell.

The event caused a huge scandal. Despite this, Not About Nightingales was never produced during Williams' lifetime and it wasn’t until actress Vanessa Redgrave tracked it down in 1998 that the play was staged in London’s West End, moving to Broadway, New York, a year later.

Sarah Christener, who directed adaptations of A Clockwork Orange and Animal Farm, is directing and producing Life on Hold Productions’ adaptation of the play at the Last Drop Brewery in Perth. This will be the play’s Australian premiere.

One of the main characters, Eva Crane, is forced to beg for a job as secretary for corrupt prison warden, Whelan, during the Great Depression. Whelan initially rejects her pleas, saying “A business executive is not interested in your personal misfortunes," but reconsiders and gives her the job.

Very soon, Eva becomes aware of the terrible conditions that the prisoners are forced to endure, especially after she meets Jim, an inmate working for Whelan. Jim has been in prison for 10 years and is hoping for parole. He is forced by his circumstances to inform on other prisoners, who despise him and call him “Canary Jim”.

Conditions reach breaking point for the prisoners, whose complaints focus on the poor state of the food, which is leading to inmates getting food poisoning. Butch, who is considered the prisoners’ leader, convinces the other inmates to go on hunger strike.

While the situation is developing, Eva and Jim fall in love, and find themselves in a dilemma over what to do about the worsening conditions in the prison. Jim tries to convince the other prisoners not to strike, because he wants to gain his parole. He promises them he will expose their terrible conditions.

Eva, like many people horrified by the systems they have to work within, desires to change things. According to actor Nicole Miller, who plays Eva: “She has a dilemma whether she speaks out about the atrocities that are going on in the prison … or does she keep quiet, to maintain her job.”

As the hunger strike enters its seventh day, Whelan orders the guards to place the hunger-striking prisoners into the notorious “Klondike”, a steam-heated cell. As the men refuse to surrender, Whelan insists that the temperature be raised, to the point where four of the men die.

Eventually, the remaining prisoners escape from the Klondike and turn the tables on Whelan and the guards. Amid the chaos, Jim attempts to escape from the prison, telling Eva to look for him in the personal columns. The play ends with Eva and the audience left uncertain whether Jim was able to make his escape.

In Not About Nightingales, Williams makes an urgent cry for prison reform and depicts gay and Black characters in a sympathetic light, extraordinary for 1930s America. These were among the many factors that prevented the play being staged at the time.

The issues raised are still relevant today. This production is set in a room where the stage is very close to the audience, meaning everyone can witness the abuses experienced by the prisoners.

Mark Roseman wrote in Medium last year: “Williams’ play illuminated an incident of cruelty by men against men in the dark, murky goings-on behind prison walls. The incident foreshadowed the macabre sociopathy of the Nazis in their cruelty enacted upon Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Poles and people with physical or mental disabilities — the list was long. This history of man’s cruelty upon men, women, and children predates written history.”

Furthermore, wrote Roseman, until the media gained access to prisons, most people believed that “the inmates broke society’s rules, so why should those same rules protect them?” It is only when major scandals are exposed by the media and civil rights lawyers get involved that the abuse of prisoners is accurately documented.

However, if the rights of prisoners are not protected, who can tell what state-sanctioned abuses of power would be perpetuated by the Warden Whelan’s of this world on the rest of society, if they could away with it.

At the end of the day, Swifty, one of the prisoners, says it best: “A con is a human being, and he has got to be treated right.”

Not About Nightingales is a grim portrayal of the inhumanity of the prison system, making it a must-see play.

[For tickets, visit]

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