Newhouse Theater

BIG BILL is a quick-paced work that captures tennis player William Tilden's turbulent life in a series of scenes that shift back and forth in time. Performed on a set that resembles a tennis arena, the play illuminates the sportsman's distinguished career, extravagant style, personal travails, and, ultimately, his calamitous downfall.

William Tatem Tilden, II (1893- 1953), recognized as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, dominated the sport in the 1920s by winning seven U.S. championships (the equivalent to today's U.S. Open). Nicknamed "Big Bill," Tilden was known for his style, grace, imposing manner on the court, and for his devastating cannonball serve. In 1920, he was the first American tennis player to compete at Wimbledon and the first American to win the singles title there in 1920, 1921, and again in 1930. In the years in which he played tennis as an amateur (1912-30), Tilden won 138 of 192 tournaments; his match record was a remarkable 907-62.

In addition to his accomplishments as an athlete, Tilden was the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, including three well-regarded instructional books: How to Play Better Tennis, The Art of Lawn Tennis and Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. Tilden also had a great interest in theater; he wrote and produced plays and acted professionally (to mostly unflattering reviews!). His fame led to many glamorous acquaintances, particularly movie stars. When Tilden moved to Hollywood he became good friends with Charlie Chaplin, played tennis at his parties, and coached Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, and Douglas Fairbanks, among others.

While Tilden had an extraordinary career, his personal life was marked by loneliness and tragedy. He was born in Philadelphia, the son of wealthy parents, but by the age of 22 he was the sole survivor of his family. Tilden was a bachelor throughout his life and a closeted homosexual. Attracted to younger men, he had the misfortune of being caught in a liaison with a minor and was arrested, charged with pederasty, and convicted. In 1947, a California judge sentenced Tilden to a year in prison. Two years later, as a result of a sexual misdeed, he was jailed again for parole violation. Tilden's notoriety cost him dearly. He was barred from entering tennis clubs and was not allowed to play on the professional circuit. By the end of his life, "Big Bill" Tilden had lost most of his friends and all of his money, yet in 1949 he was awarded "Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year" by the National Sports Writers Association, with ten times the number of votes as the nearest runner-up.

BIG BILL is a fascinating look at the glory of sport, the power of fame and the anguish of being an outcast.