Comes a Playwright

From the Pit

If Speed Lamkin '48 does not prove to be the only Broadway playwright ever to come out of Monroe, Louisiana, he will almost certainly be the youngest. His Comes a Day will open in New York on November 6, four days after its author's thirty-first birthday. He could still pass for an undergraduate, showing up for a drink in a herringbone tweed jacket, button-down shirt, and dark slacks: a slightly-built undergraduate with an impressively thick Southern accent. Surprisingly, the barman neglects to ask for his draft card.

Lamkin is a boy wonder from 'way back': he entered Harvard at the age of sixteen. "My family wanted me to go to Groton or somewhere. I didn't want to go there ... For one thing, we had a wonderful country place, and I had a horse. And I hate compulsory athletics. I don't like to do anything I'm not good at ... I said lemme take the College Entrance Boards and see how I do. So I took it and I got in."

At Harvard he "belonged to the Pudding but never went there"; studied with Kenneth Kempton and Albert Guerard; and anticipated a couple of currently-fashionable trends by taking a leave of absence and then coming back to live outside his House.

"I went to Europe in my junior and senior year. I went over in the summer and concocted a cock-and-bull story about wanting to be in the diplomatic service .... I wasn't in the diplomatic corps. The ambassador let me be in the embassy. Just t' see if I liked it."

He didn't: "The last department I was in, the chief entertained himself reading a Sears-Roebuck catalogue. I decided that wasn't for me.

"When I came back from Europe I got shoved into Claverly, and then I went to summer school, and I got out of that dump, got out of Claverly, and moved to Miss Mooney's boarding house, where I wrote my novel." He was twenty when Houghton Mifflin decided to publish it.

"My third short story was Comes a Day. That's the first I sold. I was twenty-one." As for the play Comes a Day, "I just wanted to write a play, and I sat down and wrote one. Actually this is the second play I wrote. The first one was Out by the Country Club. Joshua Logan bought that." Country Club was preceded by a novel of the same name.

At thirty, then, Lamkin has a substantial body of work published and produced. Time enough to find out his place on the literary map, the writers with whom he is connected, "his school," as people say who believe that writers swim together like fish. Among favorite playwrights, Lamkin names "Miller, Williams, Bill Inge, Nothing unusual in who I admire. Oh, yeah, and Born Yesterday."

"Don't you want to ask me about the South?" he said suddenly at one point in our conversation.

"Are you a Southern writer?" I obliged.

"No."

Later he added, "The nothing Southern about me except my accent."

If Lamkin will not stay put in a pigeonhole, he is pretty well confined these days to the various hotel rooms where Comes a Day is being rewritten. "God, it's like final exams that never end, that go on for two months, that's what rewriting is like."

One character, the sick suitor played by George C. Scott, is in the process of being clarified. "One of the problems of it is that if he's that cukey, you've got to let the audience know. I wrote in a flunkey for him. (Y'know, all rich men have a flunkey.) ...So that he could reveal his neurosis to the audience, you know, and not to the family."

The rewriting job is no easier because Comes a Day is related to Lamkin's short story of the same title. In fact he rejects the distinction between original play and adaptation. "No play is an original play... All of Tennessee's plays came from either his one-acts or his stories. They're developments. You think about it. Certainly you can't say my play is an adaptation of my short story. It's quite different .... I'd never adapt anybody else's play. I've too much ego for that."

And what will he do on November 7, when the ordeal is over? "Take sleeping pills, I guess, and go in for a long sleep, and then start writing on the next play."