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

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:04


Book Title:
Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life


John Bak

Palgrave Macmillan

Guideline Price:

If American lives usually have no second acts, Tennessee Williams’s had dismal first and third acts and a splendid second act. He never stopped writing poems, stories and, most significantly, plays throughout his long life, and even after crushing reviews he pulled himself together and sat down to write: “Act I . . .” His battle cry was “En Avant!” He never seemed to run out of ideas, though he frequently recycled them in instances of autoplagiarism not unlike those of 17th-century composers, or American seamstresses who make quilts out of a whole lifetime of dresses.

Thomas Lanier Williams grew up in steamy St Louis with a self-dramatising mother, crazy sister and stern, disapproving father. Like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, his mother had pretensions. (Her father was an Episcopalian minister in Mississippi.) Even as a nine-year-old the future writer was already sounding themes in a letter to his sister that would obsess him all his life. He said he was writing about the “Wido” Rose L Williams who was going to “paint up so much” that she would attract a “million” suitors. We can already hear Amanda bragging about her “gentlemen callers”.

One of the great tragedies of Williams’s life was that his sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1937 and lobotomised in 1943. Williams was always afraid that he would teeter over into insanity; he also felt guilty, somewhat needlessly, for not protecting his sister. I met her with him in Key West in the 1970s – beautiful, with intense eyes, but incapable of communicating. (She liked to ransack people’s bathrooms for little soaps, which she collected.)

When still a teen Williams travelled to Europe with his grandfather and his parishioners and wrote it all up for the high-school paper. His college career was a lot spottier: he would get poor grades, partly because he was obsessively writing. In 1936 he attended a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which so impressed him that he decided to become a playwright. In his early days Williams was a socialist, and his first plays reflect that social consciousness (as well as a love of gangster films); a decade ago his prison drama, Not About Nightingales (1938), was discovered in his archives and staged.

I used to say that Williams was one of the few great writers I’ve known who didn’t read – but I now know that turns out, thanks to this excellent biography, to be completely untrue. He was smitten with DH Lawrence, disliked Joyce, revered Hart Crane, was inspired by Eugene O’Neill. He wrote about Lawrence in a 1941 play, I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix.

I remember, as a 12-year-old in the 1950s, seeing on television Williams’s 1941 play The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. It had such a bewitching effect on me that I looked at the credits to see who’d written it – I wanted to see more by this writer! (Larkspur was a cure for crab lice.)

The play takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In it, a middle-aged woman, a part-time prostitute, is denounced by the landlady and defended by the alcoholic Writer. Williams was moving away from a socialist sympathy for the masses to a defence of the weak, the vulnerable, of misfits and oddballs. Perhaps a growing awareness of his own homosexuality in an era of nearly universal scorn and oppression made him a defender of what he called “the dreamers” of this world.

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