Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life, by John Bak
An excellent biography of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant playwrights shows he was on the side of the dreamers of this world
Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life
He’d moved to New Orleans in 1937; a year later Thomas was calling himself Tennessee, a change in moniker that also marked an artistic transition. He was done with his Depression-era job at the Continental Shoemakers, where his father was a salesman. Now he was penniless but a writer. He shaved three years off his age and declared that he was 25 in order to qualify to enter a literary contest.
Soon he obtained an agent, Audrey Wood, who brought him professional attention and kept him alive through small handouts (amazing how far $25 would carry one in those days). In 1945 Williams’s first hit, The Glass Menagerie, opened as a triumphant success. It was based on an earlier short story, Portrait of a Girl in Glass, and a screenplay treatment, The Gentleman Caller.
Throughout his life Williams was constantly trying out themes, first in one text and then another, shuttling back and forth until he got it right. For example, his successful play Summer and Smoke was a reworking of the short stories Oriflamme and The Yellow Bird, which became the intermediary plays Blanche’s Chair in the Moon and A Chart of Anatomy.
Williams had a genius for titles, though many of them tipped over into what one could call Sara Teasdale romanticism. He was so worried that his mother would get wind of his homosexuality that he sold his One Arm stories not in bookstores but by subscription only. (The stories were full of hustlers and even cannibalistic gay masseurs as well as a gay man and a nymphomaniac driving through the south in search of men.)
Williams went on to have a string of hits – A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana – more than any other modern playwright. But then drugs, age and a repressed avant-garde urge caught up with him. Just as Gore Vidal fell apart after his lifelong companion Howard Austen died, so Williams descended into what he called “the stoned age” after his lover Frank Merlo, a handsome truck driver, died of lung cancer in 1963.
From then on it was all downhill. Tennessee dismissed his previous plays as “pseudo-poetical” and, in the flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, succumbed to the dangerous influence of kabuki, Talullah Bankhead and expressionism (as well as silly ideas about handsome young men as the angels of death).
He had already dedicated a Noh play to his gay suicidal friend Yukio Mishima. There followed many unsuccessful plays that, only since his ignominious death in 1983 (he choked on a bottle cap in a New York hotel room), have begun to be re-evaluated and admired as a new direction rather than a replica of his earlier brand of poetic realism.
Edmund White is a playwright and novelist. His most recent books are Sacred Monsters and Jack Holmes and His Friend