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The Outsider Art of Tennessee

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Jo Healy/Erin Clermont
Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, 1948

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: John Lahr’s subtitle for his biography of Tennessee Williams nimbly fuses madness, spiritual quest, and sexuality in one inextricable formulation. The tone of the phrase alone—it comes from a 1937 diary entry—with its hint of what may now seem self-consciously overripe eloquence, its elusive mix of ironic gaudiness and open-hearted romanticism, already suggests a voice from a past more remote than could ever, to those of us who lived through Tennessee Williams’s era, have seemed possible.

That voice dominates Lahr’s exuberantly detailed and constantly engaging account: a voice of unabashed truth-telling, frequently hilarious interjections, and a sense of musicality that did not fail him. Its traces are scattered profusely in diaries, letters, memoirs, prefaces, newspaper articles, and interviews, and in the plays, poems, stories, and screenplays in which Williams never stopped exploring new frames within which to give shape and meaning to his life even as it appeared to be dissolving. Whatever his circumstances he never stopped turning himself inside out, fashioning voices to articulate what he found there. The dialogue continued to the nearly exhausted outer limit where it became an echoing chamber theater of isolation.

It was an isolation played out in public, however, and so Lahr’s book has more the quality of picaresque epic than of solitary portrait. It is an irresistible chronicle of midcentury American theater and of the media universe in which that theater still played an important role. Its pages teem with a multitude of other voices filling out or contradicting Tennessee’s testimony—among them Gore Vidal, Elia Kazan, Anna Magnani, the doomed Diana Barrymore, and the somewhat fantastical Maria St. Just, whose high-handed mismanagement of his literary estate makes a bizarre coda to the story—a hyperarticulate and often hyperbolic crew.

Williams was an unavoidable presence in the center of American culture through the years from the early triumphs of The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) to the signal failure of two successive Broadway productions of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore in 1963 and 1964. It was a culture Williams helped shape just by showing up in the midst of it. Unavoidable as he was, many would have been only too happy to dismiss him if they could have plausibly denied the power of his work. To go back over the first reviews of his successes of the 1950s is to find over and over again the signs of grudging acceptance and qualified approval if not straight-out vilification, and sampling the critical reactions when his Broadway career did eventually fall apart it is not hard to detect a certain glee in the pouring on of derision. (A critic for Life, for instance, wrote: “Other playwrights have progressed; Williams has suffered an infantile regression.”)

Unacknowledged homophobia (the word had not been coined yet) was a large but not exclusive component of this squeamishness. Williams had the aura from the start of bearing uncomfortable tidings about America’s most carefully guarded intimacies. He spoke as an outsider, a spy who knew everyone’s secrets. His first major theatrical opportunity, the 1940 production of Battle of Angels with Miriam Hopkins, closed after its Boston run in the face of such reactions as this from the Globe: “The play gives the audience the sensation of having been dunked in mire.”

Even when his plays were triumphs, they could not have been more at odds with the triumphalist aspirations of the postwar nation. If they spoke for anyone it was for outcasts, failures, self-destroyers, delusional recluses, secretive addicts, designated scapegoats, the wounded and the mad and the abjectly needy—“the little, helpless, unspoken-for crowd of sheep-like creatures I seem to find in the world,” as he put it early in his career. It might be comforting to attribute the plays’ subversions to the playwright’s neuroses, to think of Williams as a flawed genius expressing essentially his own isolation. But the very popularity of his plays argued the opposite; clearly some irresistible communication was going on.

Growing up as I did in a family much involved in theater, I heard Williams’s name invoked often and from an early age. The triple emergence of Williams, Kazan, and Marlon Brando in Streetcar continued to resound as a formative, even revolutionary event for everyone lucky enough to witness it. The play apparently had provided crucial terms for the sentimental education of postwar America. Stanley and Blanche and Stella were not just characters but archetypes, starting points for coded conversations about sex. Only from the reactions it provoked—even from a distance, even to a child—Williams’s work radiated an awareness of sex and danger and their close connection. There were many forms of danger in his plays, which for the young gave a preliminary acquaintance with lynching and lobotomy and castration and cannibalism, but at their heart was the sense of an immense and impersonal sexual force, like a signal from a distant star, that had nothing whatever to do with the teasing love scenes and sentimental fade-outs of Hollywood movies.

He had come, it might seem, to show America what went on when half the population was contentedly sleeping. He descended into barrooms and hotel bedrooms and homes whose shutters had been drawn for years, lonely interiors of one kind or another no matter how many characters occupied them, and there sketched scenes of humiliation and desperate grabs at emotional survival. He transcribed fragile sodden arias and casually annihilating put-downs, and registered as well the jokes and jive and salty comebacks that could come into their own to make a comic chorus after midnight. His most vulnerable characters flagged themselves with the texture of their language, a lyric strain at once defiant and unworldly. His restless sleepless souls dared, or were merely compelled, to go on in their vein of poetry even if it meant denying the bluntest circumstantial facts. (Later I would realize that it was in looking at the epigraphs of Williams plays on my parents’ bookshelves that I first encountered the names Hart Crane and Rilke, and first lingered over Cummings’s “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”)

“He writes wonderful parts for women,” my mother used to tell me, as if that were a rare accomplishment indeed. She had enjoyed the chance to play some of those parts in regional and off-Broadway productions, and her passionate advocacy made Williams something special in my eyes long before I was of an age to read him with much comprehension. (My earliest deeply involved reading of Williams came about only because Suddenly Last Summer, with its ominous tropical plants, threats of vengeful brain surgery, and final nightmare of being eaten alive, seemed so much like a further extension of Edgar Allan Poe.) I had the sense that in acting Williams she had felt understood by him, as if the roles had been waiting there in order to reveal some unknown corners of herself to herself: “something unspoken,” to use the title of one of his plays. It might well be the title for the place where his work begins, in an inward confrontation with what could not be said.

Speaking was something Williams struggled with. “In high school, I couldn’t verbally answer questions,” he said in a 1981 Paris Review interview. “I could only give written answers. I couldn’t produce my voice.” His characters talk for dear life, create through their talk an alternate place to inhabit, at least until they are silenced by force. The quintessential Williams moment is the interruption of Blanche Du Bois’s nervous monologue in Streetcar—“Well, life is too full of evasions and ambiguities, I think. I like an artist who paints in strong, bold colors, primary colors. I don’t like pinks and creams and I never cared for wishy-washy people”—by Stanley Kowalski’s unforgettable: “Now let’s cut the re-bop!” A writer singularly gifted to cast a spell with language alone used that gift to expose the defeat of language, a defeat enacted again and again on his stage.

Lahr begins at the turning point of Williams’s life, the opening of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in March 1945. The word was already out on the play after a successful Chicago try-out in which Laurette Taylor (the legendary actress who had been, in the director Eddie Dowling’s words, “hibernating with a gin bottle for twelve years”) elicited the kind of rapture that made the play an event before it opened. (“Her talent,” Williams later acknowledged, “was luminous in a way that exceeded the natural.”) The play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Williams found himself caught up in what he would come to call—after it was magnified immeasurably by Streetcar two years later—“the catastrophe of success.” He complained to his agent Audrey Wood of this sudden celebrity: “Being successful and famous makes such demands! I wanted it and still want it, with one part of me, but that isn’t the part of me that is important or creative.” Addressing himself, he insisted that the only reliable value resided in “the solitary and unseen you,” but he made that insistence in the pages of The New York Times.

When The Glass Menagerie opened he had just turned thirty-four, and had been writing stories, poems, and plays since he was thirteen. He had enjoyed dribs of encouragement but little measurable success, and as far as this particular play went he was full of self-doubt. While working on Menagerie he had described it to himself as “a nauseous thing,” “an act of compulsion not love,” “the ruins of a play”; by the time he got to the end, the most he dared claim for it was the quality of “a light but tender poem.” It was also something approaching autobiography. He had put on stage transmuted versions of himself, his sister, and above all his mother, who, in the form of Amanda Wingfield, dominated the play as she had managed to dominate her children’s lives. The “light but tender” surfaces of the play’s language—with its “pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow”—could alleviate but not mask the unforgiving sense of a family trapped within its own compulsions and illusions. It was like a letter of farewell to something from which it was impossible to depart.

Like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Williams had in fact made good, after some early setbacks (such as his salesman father’s taking him out of college and forcing him into a clerical job, “designed for insanity,” at the International Shoe Company) in his efforts to evade the family. He had returned to school, studying playwriting at Washington University and the University of Iowa; and then, on arriving in New Orleans at the end of 1938, had initiated the extended period of wandering that was also a period of long-delayed sexual blossoming. Williams later called his younger self a “little puritan,” and asserted that he didn’t masturbate until he was twenty-six: “I didn’t know what such a thing was.”

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Bettmann/Corbis
Laurette Taylor as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, 1945

After a single heterosexual affair in Iowa, his lovers were men, but his process of coming out was by his own account slow and awkward until he reached New Orleans and began energetically to make up for lost time. By the summer of 1940, in Provincetown, he had settled into a bohemian idyll, “taking free conga lessons, working on a long, narrative poem, swimming every day, drinking every day, and fucking every night.”

Beaten by sailors he’d picked up, he asked himself: “Why do they strike us? What is our offence?” A 1941 diary entry records his shock when a close friend said, “We ought to be exterminated for the good of society.” “How many of us feel that way, I wonder?” he wrote.

Bear this intolerable burden of guilt? To feel some humiliation and a great deal of sorrow at times is inevitable. But feeling guilty is foolish. I am a deeper and warmer and kinder man for my deviation. More conscious of need in others, and what power I have to express the human heart must be in large part due to this circumstance.

At the same time he was sketching out artistic goals, envisioning “a new form, non-realistic,” of “sculptural drama…something resembling a restrained type of dance with motions honed down to the essential and the significant…. Apocalypse without delirium.”

Yet though in many ways he had gotten as far as he could from home, it would prove impossible for him ever to extricate himself, in life or in art, from the family of whom he wrote to a friend in 1943: “What a dark and bewildering thing it is, this family group.” Lahr’s book almost demands to be read with Williams’s collected plays close at hand, to appreciate the degree to which his life spills over into his art at every turn. (Kazan described his work as “a massive autobiography…as naked as the best confessions.”)

The extremes of his plays, and of his own behavior, do no more than reflect the dynamics of the domestic theater into which he was born. His father—whom he once called “the saddest man I ever knew”—was a turbulent drinker who, according to Williams, entered the house “as though…with the intention of tearing it down from the inside”; he had part of his ear bitten off during a poker game, and often threatened to kill his wife when he was drunk. A traveling salesman, he became an absentee parent, and Williams and his older sister Rose (joined later by their younger brother Dakin) lived with their mother for long stretches at the home of her father, an Episcopal minister—“not the most masculine of men”—whom Williams adored. (Eventually the Reverend Dakin handed over a large part of his wife’s savings in an evident blackmail payment.)

Williams’s mother, invariably referred to by him as “Miss Edwina,” was in his words “a moderately controlled hysteric” and in his brother Dakin’s description “president of the anti-sex league…. She didn’t believe in sex, she avoided it completely.” (A friend of the family commented: “To Edwina, there was no fun in life at all.”) What she did believe in were words. “She was always talking,” Dakin observed. “There was never any silence. You would step in the room, and she immediately started.” “Miss Edwina,” Tennessee commented, “will still be talking for at least an hour after she’s laid to rest.” Late in life she became possessed by the delusion that a horse was living in her room and that her maid was plotting to poison her.

Reading of his family it is impossible not to perceive them as characters in a Tennessee Williams play, complete with the hints of faded Belle Reve–ish grandeur in the memories of distinguished earlier generations of Williamses and Dakins, among them the Tennessee statesman after whom the Mississippi-born Tennessee was christened Thomas Lanier Williams III. As Lahr notes, he “grew up saturated in the rich linguistic brew of biblical imperative, Puritan platitude, classical allusion, patrician punctilio, and Negro homily.” His grandfather wrote thunderous sermons on the raging storm of sin; his mother and his brother both published books.

One might almost imagine a species of collective authorship, so thoroughly do the tone and devices of the plays’ characters channel the voices and psychic strategies nurtured—if that is the right word—within the family. It’s as if Williams existed to observe them, not so much to participate in the life of the family as to provoke them into further self-revealing outbursts. (His lover Pancho Rodriguez would later accuse Williams of goading him toward emotionally violent situations to use him as a model for his work.)

In 1937 Williams had written in his diary: “Tragedy. I write that word knowing the full meaning of it. We have had no deaths in our family but slowly by degrees something was happening much uglier and more terrible than death.” The tragedy when it arrived was centered on his sister Rose, whose erratic behavior in adolescence eventually bloomed into psychotic delusion—although it is disconcerting to learn that one of her reported delusions was that “all of the family were mentally deranged.” At twenty-eight she was being given shock treatments at a Missouri state mental hospital, and six years later, in 1943, she was subjected at her mother’s insistence to a prefrontal lobotomy.

“Miss Rose expressed herself with great eloquence,” Williams remarked long afterward by way of explaining his mother’s motives,

but she said things that shocked Mother…. Rose said, “Mother, you know we girls at All Saints College, we used to abuse ourselves with altar candles we stole from the Chapel.” And Mother screamed like a peacock! She rushed to the head doctor, and she said, “Do anything, anything to shut her up.”

But Williams himself had confided to his diary after a hospital visit: “Horrible, Horrible! Her talk was so obscene—she laughed and spoke continual obscenities.”

He would be plagued by a sense of guilt for having failed to protect Rose, and in one form or another the drama of her lobotomy, and the nature of their sibling relation, surfaced in play after play. Six months after the surgery she wrote to him: “I feel sure that you would love me if I murdered some one. You would know that I didn’t mean to.” The ghostly couples who haunt the late plays—the brother and sister of Out Cry, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Clothes for a Summer Hotel—seem condemned to reenact some version of Tennessee’s tortured bond with Rose. If language fails, it happens here most decisively in the violent sundering both of brother from sister and of sister from the other half of herself. In the country of the mad he would be both insider and outsider, himself committed to a mental ward for three months in 1969, yet also the rational observer of another’s madness, as in the poem “The Beanstalk Country” that begins:

You know how the mad come into a room,
too boldly,
their eyes exploding on the air like roses,
their entrances from space we never entered.
They’re always attended by someone small and friendly
who goes between their awful world and ours
as though explaining but really only smiling,
a snowy gull that dips above a wreck.

Williams once stated the theme of The Night of the Iguana—in 1961 the last of his Broadway successes—was “how to live beyond despair and still live.” (This was at a time when he was already perceived by a colleague as “that sodden relic who sits in the back row of the orchestra every night.”) He would have ample time to test that idea. In its last third Lahr’s biography becomes a fresco of the proverbial slow-motion train wreck, painful and unavoidably repetitive, as each minor recuperation from catastrophe is followed by a further, even more precipitous catastrophe. At a relatively early point in his account of these last decades, Lahr writes: “Williams could no longer pull himself together for ‘the life bit,’ as he called it. He had taken up desperate residence in his imagination.” But hadn’t he always done that?

Williams himself saw disaster coming early, before he even knew what success was. The roots of his eventual collapse are evident in the earliest pages of the book, and the psychological and material rewards of success and celebrity tended to exacerbate rather than alleviate his capacity for self-laceration and paranoia, providing him with an unlimited stage on which to play out his drama of personal destruction. It would be easy enough simply to take inventory of the quantities of alcohol and drugs that became indispensable to his creative work, a process described with patented eloquence in the plays themselves. In Summer and Smoke (1948) the previously withdrawn Alma remarks of the pills that have done her so much good: “The prescription number is 96814. I think of it as the telephone number of God!” The aging hustler Chance Wayne, in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), taking a pill and a swallow from the flask, comments to a shocked observer: “Yes, I took a wild dream and—washed it down with another wild dream…that’s my life now.”

According to Maureen Stapleton, “the craziness began with those awful crazy pills he was getting,” a reference to Williams’s enlistment in the 1960s as one of the many famous clients of the notorious Max (“Dr. Feelgood”) Jacobson, who freely administered “injections that could include amphetamines, pain-killers, vitamins, and human placenta.” Yet to picture a sober and contented end to Tennessee’s life it would be necessary to imagine an altogether different origin, a different being for him. To follow his trajectory in Lahr’s final chapters is like watching him die a hundred times before he succumbed in 1983, alone in a New York hotel room—between hospitalizations and relapses, a short-lived conversion to Catholicism and a flirtation with the radical left, tumultuous relationships with a series of paid companions.

Old friends and colleagues began to keep their distance, often in response to accusatory attacks by Williams. (“Tenn was big in giving blame to others,” his friend Dotson Rader noted.) Homophobes in Key West assaulted him on the street; writers in Gay Sunshine and The New York Times tasked him with having failed to portray the truth of gay life in his plays. (He responded: “Is there such a thing as precise sexual identity in life? I’ve never encountered it in sixty-five years of living and getting about widely.”) At a party in honor of his sixty-ninth birthday, he was barely restrained by Eli Wallach from throwing himself off the balcony of a Sutton Place duplex.

He was conscious of entering a prematurely postmortem phase of his career, acclaimed for earlier work that continued to be revived all over the world while he wrote new plays that were unfailingly and harshly panned. He planned out his burial at sea, near the spot where Hart Crane drowned (instructions that his brother chose for self-serving reasons to ignore). “I am widely regarded,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1977, “as the ghost of a writer, a ghost still visible.” To Dick Cavett, in a 1979 television interview, he described himself as “imminently posthumous.” Already by the time of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore he seemed to be writing—the title declared it—from within his sense of his own slow ongoing death, but at no point did he surrender to silence despite much encouragement to do just that. (“Why,” wrote Richard Gilman of Milk Train, “rather than be banal and hysterical and absurd, doesn’t he keep quiet?”)

It may well be that those despised or simply unknown late plays will enjoy an afterlife that Williams’s immediate contemporaries could not foresee. As much as he returned compulsively to the remembered situations he had already explored, he went on as well trying different angles of approach, different voicings, novel shades of grotesquerie and abstraction. Obsessed with a sense of personal corruption and self-betrayal, he did not abandon his imperative allegiance to making art even amid his own disintegration, taking as material that very disintegration.

Speaking of Suddenly Last Summer, Lahr writes: “Williams himself was an unusual specimen in the annals of psychic cannibalism: he devoured himself.” In his conclusion he reverts to the same phrase: “In order to name our pain, he devoured himself.” It is a fair and precise way to put it, with the appropriate touch of melodramatic grandeur that the steady contemplation of Williams’s life must prompt. All the more reason then to turn from Lahr’s pages back to those scenes—those intercepted dialogues—in which he contrived to fashion an enduring life, played out on an imaginary stage.