Saturday, March 26, 2011


Centennial Tributes: Tennessee Williams

By Sheila O'Malley
An interviewer once asked Tennessee Williams, “What is the definition of happiness?” Williams thought a bit and then replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”

The great female characters of the Williams canon — Laura and Amanda Wingfield (Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (Streetcar Named Desire), Alma Winemiller (Summer and Smoke), Maggie the Cat (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Catherine Holly (Suddenly, Last Summer), to name just a few — are the “sensitives” of the world, predisposed to unhappy lives because of their sensitivity, but in Williams’ view, the sensitives are the strongest of all of us. This psychological standpoint is still his most radical contribution. The more obviously hearty people will not understand, and would wish Blanche to “buck up” a little bit, or Alma to stop mooning around about John Buchanan…but to wish that is to wish away Williams’ drama, of course, and to wish away the best part of ourselves, which is our vulnerability. Williams spoke to that vulnerability and gave it a voice in a way no other 20th century playwright did. His only rival was Eugene O’Neill. In a 1948 essay in The New York Times, Williams wrote about the questions that people would ask him about his plays and his characters:
On this particular occasion the question that floored me was, “Why do you always write about frustrated women?”
To say that floored me is to put it mildly, because I would say that frustrated is almost exactly what the women I write about are not. What was frustrated about Amanda Wingfield? Circumstances, yes! But spirit? See Helen Hayes in London’s Glass Menagerie if you still think Amanda was a frustrated spirit! No, there is nothing interesting about frustration, per se. I could not write a line about it for the simple reason that I can’t write a line about anything that bores me. Was Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast of the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? What is frustrated about loving with such white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of the Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss., to parents Cornelius and Edwina Williams. He had a brother, Dakin, and a sister, Rose. He was very close to his maternal grandfather, Walter Dakin, an Episcopal priest who, later in life, traveled extensively with his grandson, and set up house with him in Key West on occasion. Cornelius Williams was often absent due to his job as a traveling salesman (Tennessee would utilize this experience in his first hit play, Glass Menagerie, where Mr. Wingfield, never seen in the play, was described as “a telephone man — who fell in love with long-distance!”), and so the three children were raised primarily by Edwina. His father thought “Tom” was effeminate and gave him a hard time about it.

The family moved to St. Louis, where Tennessee attended high school and began writing in earnest. He tried his hand at poetry, short stories, essays. His interest in drama would come a bit later.

In 1937, he was accepted into the University of Iowa (after dabbling in journalism at the University of Missouri). He transferred eventually to Washington University in St. Louis where we start to see the playwright Tennessee Williams being born. He worked on the campus literary journal, whose members are pictured here (Williams is second from the left). He became involved with a local theater group called the Mummers of St. Louis, who produced one of his earliest known plays. He looked back very fondly on that company and even as an old man said that the productions of the Mummers represented to him the best that theater had to offer: the sheer joy in the process, the collaboration, and the sense of a supportive cohesive community. This was the 1930s and Clifford Odets was the biggest star in American playwriting, his socially conscious and politically left-leaning plays taking Broadway by storm in the productions of the short-lived Group Theatre. Williams loved Odets, and his earliest plays (some of which will be published for the first time this April in a collection called The Magic Tower show that influence, an influence he would quickly shed. (The new book can be found on Amazon here.) While his successful plays are some of the most socially conscious plays ever written, in terms of their constant reminders to us that we need to be KIND to one another, he was not explicitly political, and the left-wing bandwagon was not for him. Odets’ mantle fit awkwardly on Williams’ shoulders. It was around this time in Williams’ life that his beloved sister Rose began her long descent into madness.

Tom’s sister Rose was always thought to be neurotic, too “nervous,” and once she hit her teenage years and became boy-crazy (like most teenage girls), the cracks in her psyche began to open. A failed “debut” seems to have been particularly traumatic, and Rose had a series of breakdowns (one psychiatrist told her that her problem was that she needed to get married), was hospitalized, given insulin treatments, shock treatments, and finally, in 1943, a prefrontal lobotomy. By that point, Williams had left town and was living in New York, struggling to get by on writing grants and odd jobs. On March 24, 1943, he wrote in his journal, after receiving a letter from his mother about Rose’s “operation”:

A cord breaking.
1000 miles away.
Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking

This was the defining event in his life, even more so than being a gay man in the 1930s and '40s, even more so than being a writer from the South. Rose’s inability to either heal the cracks within her, or live with those cracks, haunted Tennessee Williams to his dying day, and play after play deals with madness, fear of madness, and also, in one case specifically (Suddenly, Last Summer) lobotomies. There is a danger in assigning too much autobiographical meaning to Williams’ works, as though there should be a literal A to B correlation. To read the plays as glorified journal entries is a huge disservice to the universality of his work (the recent failed production of Glass Menagerie at The Long Wharf, reviewed here by John Lahr, is evidence of that.) Williams turned what had happened to his sister Rose into art. As Tom Wingfield says, in his final monologue in The Glass Menagerie:
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger — anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura — and so goodbye...

In 1939, Williams moved to New Orleans, and it was there that he began to emerge as an individual voice. It also was when he formally changed his name to “Tennessee,” the state where his father was born. In his journals and letters, it is apparent that during this fertile time in his life he already was percolating the ideas that would become Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire: There are early one-acts that are rehearsals for those later plays. His first major full-length play was Battle of Angels (1940), about a virile young drifter named Val who strolls into a dressmaker’s shop in a small town after his car breaks down, looking for help. The dressmaker’s shop is run by a woman named Myra who is trapped in a loveless marriage. Battle of Angels would eventually be rewritten by Williams in 1957 as Orpheus Descending. Battle of Angels was produced in Boston and was a resounding flop. It would be his first (but not his last) experience of controversy and calls for censorship, due to the explicit sexual subtexts in his plays. Although Battle of Angels was not a success, it brought him into contact with powerful people, producers and agents (Margo Jones, Audrey Wood and others), who would become lifelong supporters of Williams and his work. Around this time, he wrote in his journal:
My next play will be simple, direct and terrible — a picture of my own heart — there will be no artifice in it — I will speak truth as I see it — distort as I see distortion — be wild as I am wild — tender as I am tender — mad as I am mad — passionate as I am passionate — It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation. I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do — then go ahead and do it with ease. Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan — till the first draft is finished. Then Calvary — but not till then. Doubt — and be lost — until the first draft is finished.

It was out of this attitude that The Glass Menagerie was born. Williams had written a short story called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (1943) and began to turn it into a play (he often worked this way, backing into the play format). Margo Jones, one of the pioneers of the American regional theater movement, had hitched herself to Tennessee Williams early on, and was tireless in promoting him. She and Eddie Dowling produced The Glass Menagerie (Dowling also directed and played Tom Wingfield) and a production was planned to open in Chicago in 1944. Casting was a challenge and getting the once-great and now-washed-up Laurette Taylor (who had been a star of vaudeville) to play Amanda Wingfield was a big coup. Taylor had been famous as a young actress, but now was known mainly for her drinking problem. Rehearsals for Glass Menagerie were difficult sometimes. Lyle Leverich wrote in Tom, his magnificent biography of Tennessee Williams:
Tennessee remembered that Laurette appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in “a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic.” He was even more disconcerted when she said she was modeling her accent after his! Tom wrote to Donald Windham, complaining that Laurette was ad-libbing many of her speeches and that the play was beginning to sound more like the Aunt Jemima Pancake hour.
To him, Laurette’s “bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy, and so did the rapturous manner of dear Julie.” He was witnessing a characteristic of many of the theater’s great actors who were quick studies but painfully deliberate in their approach to a role. As Laurette’s daughter explained, “She seemed blandly unconscious of the discomfort of the others…Amanda [the role] fascinated her. She could see whole facets of the woman’s life before the action of the play and after it was over.” This is what her husband had taught her was the test of a good part. “The outer aspect of this inner search concerned her not at all.”

Paul Bowles, a friend of Williams who composed the music that played throughout the play, came to Chicago for the dress rehearsal, and described the atmosphere:
“I flew out to Chicago [and] arrived in a terrible blizzard, I remember. It was horrible. A traumatic experience. And the auditorium was cold. Laurette Taylor was on the bottle, unfortunately. Back on it, really. She had got off it with the first part of the rehearsals but suddenly the dress rehearsal coming up was too much. [Laurette was discovered] unconscious, down behind the furnace in the basement. And there was gloom, I can tell you, all over the theater because no one thought she would be able to go on the next night.”

But she did go on, and by all accounts it was one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actress in the history of our theatrical tradition. The praise runs far and wide, and while Williams’ play, with its delicate heartbreak, and keening sense of loss and memory, was definitely something “new” (nobody was writing like he was at the time), it was Laurette Taylor’s magnificent performance that helped launch Williams into the stratosphere. His life would never be the same again. Leverich wrote:

Laurette Taylor never lost an opportunity to divert the praise that was being heaped upon her to that “nice little guy,” Tennessee Williams. She was always quick to remind her admirers that it was he, not she, who had written the lines that gave The Glass Menagerie its special power and beauty. And she told Tennessee, “It’s a beautiful — a wonderful — a great play!”
For his part, Tennessee Williams always said that, as much as he regarded Laurette Taylor a personal friend, he never ceased to be in awe of her. “She had such a creative mind,” he once remarked. “Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural.”

The Glass Menagerie moved to Broadway in 1945, and was a smash hit, Laurette Taylor becoming the toast of the town once again (she would die in 1946), and Williams becoming a star. In 1947, Williams wrote a letter to his friend (poet and publisher Jay Laughlin):
I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays. One of them, laid in New Orleans, A STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE, turned out quite well. It is a strong play, closer to Battle of Angels than any of my other work, but is not what critics call “pleasant.” In fact it is pretty unpleasant.

This “unpleasant” play would bring him into contact for the first time with one of his most important collaborators, Elia Kazan. It may seem like an odd combination: the lyrical openly gay Southern writer paired up with the virile manipulative ambitious Greek immigrant, but it turned out to be a perfect fit. Kazan’s genius with theatrical language, with turning “psychology into behavior” (his definition of good acting), his strong basis in production values and practical matters (there was a reason why his nickname was “Gadg” — short for “Gadget”, a fix-it man) helped ground Williams’ work in a living-and-breathing reality. If a “lyrical” director had taken Williams’ plays on, it could have been disastrous, but Kazan’s gritty sense of truth often saved Williams from himself. Williams recognized this, recognized what Kazan provided. It was an intense, combative (at times) and very fruitful working relationship, and Kazan would go on to direct some of Williams’ biggest successes. A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois and a young relatively unknown Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, opened on Broadway in 1947. Glass Menagerie had launched him, A Streetcar Named Desire solidified his position. It also made Marlon Brando a star. Brando described, years later, his experience of that time:
You can’t always be a failure. Not and survive. Van Gogh! There’s an example of what can happen when a person never receives any recognition. You stop relating: it puts you outside. But I guess success does that, too. You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was — a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in Streetcar, and it had been running a couple of months, one night — dimly, dimly — I began to hear this roar.

On opening night, Williams sent Brando a telegram:

Streetcar won the Pulitzer Prize. Williams, now financially successful and famous, traveled, moved about (New Orleans, to Key West, to Provincetown, to Italy, and back), worked on the screenplay adaptations for Menagerie and Streetcar, and kept writing plays. Over the next decade, Broadway saw the following Tennessee Williams productions: Summer and Smoke. (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) (which earned him a second Pulitzer Prize for drama), Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), an extraordinary run no matter which way you slice it. Not all of these plays were successful (and Camino Real was a huge flop, although I believe that time will vindicate that play someday — it’s brilliant, and decades ahead of its time), and Williams had that problem that only very successful people have: How do you keep topping yourself? How do you continue to work when you sense that everyone and their mother just wants you to write Streetcar again? Williams attempted something different with Camino Real, and critics and audiences alike let him know in no uncertain terms that this is not what we want from you. It broke his heart, but he never gave up. His work ethic was extraordinary. The film versions of Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof upped his profile even more, making him one of the most important voices of the 1950s.

The 1960s were rough on Williams. His audience disappeared. His new plays were not successful, although Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and all the others were now staples in repertory companies across the nation. And yet he kept on. Some of those “lesser” plays from later on, in the '60s and '70s, glow with a kind of eerie fire, and I still wait for some of them to be revived properly. It is a mind-boggling body of work when looked at it as a whole, and it continues to grow in stature, making the more commercial playwrights of the same era look trite.

And the later plays? The ones that were flop after flop after flop? At the time, they suffered by comparison to Williams’ earlier successes and most people gave up on him. He no longer found a home on Broadway and the experimental downtown scene that was burgeoning in New York was also not available to him. His plays were orphans, but now, with perspective and distance, they don't suffer at all in comparison to Menagerie or Streetcar. They stand on their own as excellent plays, difficult, challenging, moving, and recognizably Williams. Plays such as The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Kingdom of Earth, Small Craft Warnings are worthy of serious reconsideration. I wouldn't call these "major" plays, but saying that feels ungenerous to a great and enduring talent. If a playwright could write just ONE play as great as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams considered it his best), then that should be enough for one lifetime, but Williams was in it for the long haul, as heartbreaking as that was for him. He had guts.

He wrote in his published memoirs:
Work!! — the loveliest of all four-letter words, surpassing even the importance of love, most times.

In 1981, the influential Jean Cocteau Repertory Company (they are still around) in New York did a production of what would be Williams’ last full-length play, Something Cloudy Something Clear. Williams was present at rehearsals, showing up with rewrites, coming up onstage to “act out” how a moment should be played. Something Cloudy Something Clear is his most blatantly autobiographical play: An elderly playwright looks back on an important love affair he had in 1940 during a summer in Provincetown. The boundary between the past and the present is porous and people from the playwright’s earlier years stroll through the action, unbidden memories rising up from out of the unconscious. It’s a beautiful play. Of course, it was not a success. Williams was interviewed at the time, and he said:
I’m very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don’t permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got. And O’Neill — he had to die to make Moon successful. And to me it has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity — my sister Rose did not manage this. So I keep writing. I am sometimes pleased with what I do — for me, that’s enough.

It’s enough for me, too. For all of us.

Tennessee Williams died in 1983.


Sheila O'Malley writes about actors and film for Capital New York and Fandor, as well as contributing occasional pieces to The House Next Door and Noir of the Week. Her personal blog is The Sheila Variations where she gets to be as obsessive as she wants about everything.

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Great stuff, Sheila.
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