Tennessee Williams (1911–1983)

In his late years; Tennessee Williams missed out on a bit of our attention; but he could never forfeit the tenderness of his claim on the memory, which may explain why someone who never said hello to him in life felt a need to say goodbye to him at the Frank C. Campbell Funeral Home. He lay in what Campbell’s has most inappropriately chosen to call its Mayfair Room. It is a place altogether too pretentious for his themes; one wanted some small parlor and a mother and a sister putting the stranger at ease and denying reality. Death is not the social occasion it was when Tennessee Williams was a boy.

But all the same he conquered the empty air about him with the look of the grandee serene in its mastery of the self. He had triumphantly given the lie to all the gossip about his terminal loneliness and decay. No life is a tragedy that leaves any man this fit for the tomb.

There weren’t many pilgrims and they came in small, slightly overpowered clumps. We ought not to be surprised that most of them were women. We cannot appreciate Tennessee Williams without putting his homoeroticism into full account; and that may explain why women caught him more keenly and cherished him more lovingly than men. He delighted masculine sensibilities, to be sure, with his Stanley Kowalskis and his Big Daddies; but they are, when the laughter ceases, only the heavy tread of the boot upon the flower. At bottom those plays of his that live most vividly in the mind tell us about how men must look to women—ogres to be appeased, small boys to put up with, or, if one’s luck turns for the better, strangers who will accept you and keep you safe.

I confess to having begun to neglect him when he was quite young and after he gave way to the temptations of poetic grandeur. The only two of his plays upon which I might hazard a cross-examination are The Glass Managerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and both were earlier on. No living actress is, I suppose, old-fashioned enough to do what Laurette Taylor did in The Glass Managerie. No one who grew up shabby-genteel in the border South could fail to recognize in her something of the women who had been around him then. She was, of course, outsized in qualities of dreadfulness we never had to endure; but the notes of the mother’s eternal fixed despair and fugitive hope came from one’s own dinner table. And yet she was redeemed because, in her son’s peculiarly painful joke, her husband had worked for the telephone company and gone long distance. She was, however awful, in the heroic mold; she had gone it alone; she was an abandoned woman and shared the vulnerability of her sex. I had not before imagined that an extreme caricature of what is a small part of every mother …

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