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The Shadow of Rose

Notebooks

by Tennessee Williams, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton
Yale University Press, 828 pp., $40.00

Although Henry James’s sister Alice was five years his junior, they were the closest among the five James siblings. In her biography of Alice James, Jean Strouse has written:

Alice and Henry shared throughout their lives a deeper intellectual and spiritual kinship than either felt with any other member of the family. Within the family group the second son and only daughter were more isolated than any of the others…. What bound Henry and Alice together was a…profound mutual understanding. Henry had withdrawn early from the competitive masculine fray to a safe inner world.1

As a way of escape Henry James found his “safe inner world” through reading and writing; this was not available in the same way to Alice. Henry created a vast imaginative terrain which he inhabited with considerable determination, independence, and strength of will; his only sister, on the other hand, became a reverse image of him—she was a weak patient, dependent on others, suffering from ailments not easy to name and impossible to cure. Henry James did not keep a personal diary and nowhere set down his dreams and fears, but it is clear from his letters about her, especially when she arrived in England in 1884 and after her death eight years later, that Alice’s fate and her suffering preoccupied him a great deal while he also sought fame as a writer and managed a varied and busy social life.

Just as it is possible to read the character of Rosie Muniment, the witty invalid, in The Princess Casamassima as a version of Alice James, it is also possible to read the children Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw, written three years after Alice’s death, as versions of the two James siblings, Henry and Alice, who both lived unmarried and in exile in England, oddly abandoned and orphaned and, in certain ways, emotionally unprotected. In February 1895 James wrote in his notebook the idea of a

possible little drama residing in the existence of a peculiar intense and interesting affection between a brother and a sister…. I fancy the pair understanding each other too well—fatally well…. [They] abound in the same sense, see with the same sensibilities and the same imagination, vibrate with the same nerves…. Two lives, two beings, and one experience.

Although he never wrote this story, the notebook entry is fascinating for anyone interested in James’s nonchalant masculinity and Alice’s neurotic inertia, as it is for anyone looking at the richly complex emotional and creative life of Henry James and the diaries and letters of his sister Alice.

In his Memoirs, Tennessee Williams, a writer both homosexual and hypochondriac who also devoted fierce energy to his work while his only sister suffered from a mysterious mental illness, wrote about his relationship to his sister Rose:

I may have inadvertently omitted a good deal of material about the unusually close relations between Rose and me. Some perceptive critic of the theatre made the observation that the true theme of my work is “incest.” My sister and I had a close relationship, quite unsullied by any carnal knowledge…. And yet our love was, and is, the deepest in our lives and was, perhaps, very pertinent to our withdrawal from extrafamilial attachments.

Henry James and Tennessee Williams each marveled at his sister’s own prose style in diaries and letters. Alice’s diary, James wrote,

is heroic in its individuality… and the beauty and eloquence with which she often expresses this, let alone the rich irony and humour, constitute…a new claim for the family renown. This last element—her style, her power to write—are indeed to me a delight.

Williams in his Memoirs quoted from Rose’s letters: “I remember one that began with this phrase: ‘Today the sun came up like a five-dollar gold piece!’” Or another in which she wrote: “Today we drove in town and I purchased Palmolive shampoo for my crowning glory.”

In his two best early plays, Williams dramatized relations between siblings, one of them watchful, the other damaged and insecure; each contains a key moment in which the weaker sibling loses her moorings. In The Glass Menagerie (1944) Laura’s brother writes poems, admires the work of D.H. Lawrence, and works in a shoe warehouse, as Williams did, while Laura herself is, like Rose and indeed like Williams himself, immensely fragile and sexually insecure. (The mother in the play was, according to Williams’s younger brother, so accurately based on their mother that she could have sued.) In the play, Laura is psychologically broken by the visit of one gentleman caller; in life, Rose’s troubles began when she was abandoned by her ambitious boyfriend after her father had lost part of his ear in a fight at an all-night poker game, thus ruining his chance of further professional advancement. “Her heart broke, then,” Williams wrote, “and it was after that that the mysterious stomach trouble began.”

As he worked on A Streetcar Named Desire, which was produced in 1947, Williams was living in New Orleans with his boyfriend Pancho Rodriguez. In his notebook he wrote about the difference between them: “He is incapable of reason. Violence belongs to his nature as completely as it is abhorrent to mine.” According to a friend, “Tennessee behaved very badly toward Pancho, and he did so by using Pancho for real-life scenes which he created—and then transformed them into moments of A Streetcar Named Desire.” Thus Pancho, rough, less educated than Williams, became Stanley to Williams’s Stella. The drama begins when Stella’s unstable sister comes to New Orleans and has, eventually, to be taken away. Some of the most fruitful moments in Williams’s work came when he found metaphors in drama for what had really happened to him and his sister Rose.

Williams in his art thus gave shape to his life, or to the parts of it that really interested him. The other sources for his life that he left have to be read judiciously. His impressionistic book Memoirs, for example, which he wrote in 1975 at the age of sixty-four, in the words of his biographer Donald Spoto, “conceals more than it shares, misrepresents more than it documents, omits major events, confuses dates and…tells virtually nothing about the playwright’s career.”2 Williams’s letters as source material are more useful, but they tended to be written to amuse and suit their recipients. Thus his Notebooks, which he kept, mostly in diary form, between 1936 and 1958 and again briefly between 1979 and 1981, and which have been edited and annotated with fastidious care by Margaret Bradham Thornton, are the most useful guide we have to his life and his moods. About many aspects of him, this new volume is invaluable.

The entries we have begin when Williams was twenty-five and living with his family, struggling under considerable pressures to find a voice as a poet, short-story writer, and playwright. These pressures might explain the tone of self-obsession, self-pity, and despair. The entries seem to have been written at night and he himself became alert to their morbid self-indulgence, quoting Nietzsche: “Do not let the evening be judge of the day.” While he was trying to impress everyone in his creative work, in these pages he wished to impress no one and thus could be brutally honest about his own failings. It is interesting that when he found success and fame the tone did not change much, even when he had many lovers, enough money to travel, and many friends and admirers. He still, when he came to write in his notebooks, felt at times sorry for himself but at other times something more interesting and convincing, a huge unease about being in the world at all, which nothing, no matter how thrilling, could lift or cure.

There is never a moment in his Notebooks when he congratulates himself on mastering the structure of a new play or creating a new and memorable character or on that precise day writing a speech that worked wonders. Only a few times did he write about technical problems. (His observation that “the tragedy of a poet writing drama is that when he writes well—from the dramaturgic technical pt. of view he is often writing badly” stands out in this book.) He did not note down ideas as they came to him, as Henry James did, so we do not see in these pages the growth of his most important plays from a single entry. Instead, Williams noted what he was creating as a burden or a dull fact, including scenes he was rewriting or demands from directors and producers. Often, on rereading work in progress, he noted its badness. Precisely how his creative process operated he kept to himself. Instead, he wrote about who had irritated him or pleased him during the day, or how nervous he felt, how many pills he took or how much alcohol he consumed, or how many lengths of the pool he swam. He noted his fears and dreams.

It is strange how out of all of this mostly inchoate and random writing, a sense of a personal vision emerges that would make its way into the very core of Williams’s main characters and scenes. These entries capture an authentic voice, an artist alone and deeply fearful and unusually selfish. Many of his most whining entries were written on the very days when he was producing his most glittering work. His whining was not a game or done for effect; it seems, indeed, a rare example of whining both sincere and heartfelt. Even when he was at his most successful, he could, for example, write: “Today the dreaded occasion of reading over the work and the (almost but never quite) expected fit of revulsion.” Tennessee Williams meant business when he whined. And thus somehow he managed to connect his own dark and obsessive complaints about his works and days, his own dread of life, to his characters and their fate. These notebooks, precisely because they were not intentionally created as raw material for work, now seem to be the rock on which his creations, sparkling and vivid versions of himself, were built.

In the early years he was coy about sex. In a diary entry for 1979 he disclosed:

Such was the Puritanism imposed by Edwina [his mother] that I did not masturbate till the age of Twenty-Six, then not with my hands but by rubbing my groin against my bed-sheets, while recalling the incredible grace and beauty of a boy-diver plunging naked from the high board in the swimming-pool of Washington U. in Saint Louis.

The work he produced seemed almost part of a self-disgust, or a desperate need to overcome it, an aspect of pure frustration with himself and his circumstances. On April 15, 1936, for example, he wrote:

It’s a horrible hot afternoon and I have that horrible oppressed feeling that hot weather gives me. This house frightens me again. I feel trapped—shut in. The radio is on—that awful ball-game—it will be going every afternoon now and hearing it makes me sick—I’m too tired to write—Can do nothing—I am disgusted with the story I wrote Saturday…. It seems idiotic to me now…. I wish I could write something decent—strong—but everything about me is weak—and silly—Terrible to feel like this.

The feeling of uselessness arose sometimes from his fears about his masculinity, the sense that he was a sissy, a guy without guts, as much as from his judgments on the badness of his work. Two weeks after the entry quoted above, he wrote:

I must remember that my ancestors fought the Indians! No, I must remember that I am a man—when all is said and done—and not a snivelling baby.

And then on May 8: “If only I could realize I am not 2 persons. I am only one. There is no sense in this division. An enemy inside myself! How absurd!” Later that year, it struck him about Shakespeare: “I bet he was a guy that had plenty of guts. No damn sissy.” The following year, he wrote:

But if I were God I would feel a little bit sorry for Tom [Tennessee] Williams once in a while—he doesn’t have a very gay easy time of it and he does have guts of a sort even though he is a stinking sissy!

In the middle of all of this Williams was capable of what one presumes—it is hard to know—was irony, even self-mockery, when in April 1940 in New York he noticed the war:

Tonight Germany seized Denmark and war was declared by Norway—but infinitely more important is the fact that my play will be discussed and perhaps a decision rendered by the Theatre Guild.

As he moved away from home, Williams fell in love a number of times, first with a Canadian, Kip Kiernan, then with Pancho Rodriguez, and then Frank Merlo, with whom he lived for many years, but this did not prevent him from having many casual lovers, often one or two a day wherever he went. On June 27, 1941, he wrote:

I am fatigued, I am dull, I am bitter at heart. But I do not suffer much. I have diverted myself with the most extraordinary amount of sexual license I have ever indulged in.

This sexual license, however, was accompanied by strange moments of unease about his sexuality and about homosexuality in general. When in 1941 a friend suggested that homosexuals should be exterminated at twenty-five “for the good of society,” Williams wondered:

How many of us feel that way, I wonder? 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 devigation. 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. Some day society will take perhaps the suitable action—but I do not believe that it will or should be extermination.

And sex itself much of the time, despite the energy he put into it, disappointed him. On September 16, 1941, he wrote, for example:

The cold and beautiful bodies of the young! They spread themselves out like a banquet table, you dine voraciously and afterwards it is like you had eaten nothing but air.

As he got older and began to travel, especially in Italy and Spain where he went every summer, he paid for sex, but this did not seem to make him happy either, especially afterward. In Rome in July 1955 he wrote:

The most embarrassing of all relations is with a whore. At least, after the act, when you suffer the post-orgasmic withdrawal anyway, a good whore, in the sense of a really wise one, knows how to create an atmosphere that obviates this hazard but the one this afternoon, though divinely gifted in the practise of bed, made me feel very sheepish afterwards. I didn’t know how to offer the money or how to say goodbye. It is because of my Puritanical feeling that it is wrong, wrong!—to use another being’s body like this because of having need, on one hand, and cash on the other—Still—I owe more pleasure to this circumstance in life than anything else, I guess. Can I complain? Breast beating is twice as false as the love of any whore.

Because of his bad eyesight, Williams did not serve in World War II and it is an aspect of his honesty as well as his self-obsession that the war impinged on his consciousness, as revealed in his notebooks, very little. In January 1942 he wrote:

I am frightened thinking of the changes or rather the increased vicissitudes the war may create in my life. I suppose if it did not affect me personally my feelings about it would be only abstractly regretful. Things have to impinge on my own life to matter to me very much. Is it that way with most people? Yes. I am sure that it is.

He had, as he said, a way of reducing or indeed elevating everything to the personal. In a letter to Elia Kazan about Nixon in August 1952, for example: “He looks like the gradeschool bully that used to wait for me behind a broken fence and twist my ear to make me say obscene things.”

What impinged on Williams’s life as much as his work, as is clear from these pages, was his family. His father appeared in the early entries as a bully and a nuisance, “a dormant volcano”; his younger brother Dakin hardly at all; his mother Edwina surprisingly little. But his maternal grandparents, whom he loved, were invoked regularly. His grandmother, also called Rose, was, he wrote in 1941, “a miracle of gentleness. A faded golden rose in fading sunlight. The finest thing in my life.” And the fate of his sister Rose troubled him year after year, flitting through his waking life and his dreams. As he worked with fierce determination on his plays, as he traveled the world like a maniac, as he sought new sexual partners, as he drank and took pills and went to parties, there was always the sense, made clear in many notebook entries, that he was in flight from what was done to his sister. He lived in the shadow of her suffering and there were times when he seemed to seek pleasure and experience enough for two of them.

Rose was sixteen months older than Williams; as children, they were very close. She saw her first psychiatrist when she was twenty-one. In 1937 she was diagnosed with dementia praecox, an early term for schizophrenia. In 1943 she underwent a prefrontal lobotomy. In notes made in 1979 Williams wrote that his mother

approved for my sister to have one of the first pre-frontal lobotomies performed in the States because she was shocked by Rose’s tastefully phrased but explicit disclosures of masturbation practised with Candles stolen from the Chapel, at All Saints in Vicksburg.

Rose lived in institutions for the rest of her life.

As Margaret Bradham Thornton makes clear in her copious annotations to these diaries—each right-hand page of Williams’s entries is faced by a left-hand page of informative notes—Rose appeared in various guises in many of Williams’s plays, poems, and stories. Her life as it made its way into his imagination is central to his work.

In October 1936 Williams first noted a problem with Rose:

The house is wretched. Rose is on one of her neurotic sprees—fancies herself an invalid—talks in a silly dying-off way—trails around the house in negligees. Disgusting.

Three years later, when the seriousness of her condition was fully clear, Williams wrote an emendation to this: “God forgive me for this!” In January 1937 Williams’s mother Edwina wrote to her parents about Rose’s breakdown and her “raving on the subject of ‘sex’…and I was ashamed for Dakin and Tom to hear her the other night.” The same day Williams wrote in his notebook:

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. Now we are forced to see it, know it. The thought is an aching numbness—a horror!

By May, when Rose had been moved to an institution, Williams’s mother wrote to her parents once more: “Tom and I went out to see Rose Sunday…. The visit made Tom ill so I can’t take him to see her again. I can’t have two of them there!” In September that year, having seen Rose, Williams wrote: “No, I haven’t forgotten poor Rose—I beg whatever power there is to save her and spare her from suffering.” The following year, he saw her again:

She is like a person half-asleep now—quiet, gentle and thank God—not in any way revolting like so many of the others—She sat with us in a bright sunny room full of flowers—said “yes” to all our questions—looked puzzled, searching for something—sometimes her eyes filled with tears—(So did mine).

In August 1939 Rose’s medical report read:

Does no work. Manifests delusion of persecution. Smiles and laughs when telling of person plotting to kill her. Talk free and irrelevant. Admits auditory hallucinations. Quiet on the ward. Masturbates frequently. Also expresses various somatic delusions, all of which she explains on a sexual basis. Memory for remote past is nil. Appetite good. Well nourished.

Four months later when Williams had made another visit, he wrote:

Visited Rose at sanitarium—horrible, horrible! Her talk was so obscene—she laughed and spoke continual obscenities—Mother insisted I go in, though I dreaded it and wanted to go out stay outside. We talked to the Doctor afterwards—a cold, unsympathetic young man—he said her condition was hopeless that we could only expect a progressive deterioration.

In March 1943, when Rose had a lobotomy, Williams wrote:

A cord breaking. 1000 miles away. Rose. Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain. Me. Here. Smoking. My father, mean as a devil, snoring 1000 miles away.

Rose came to him in dreams in which his identity and hers seemed confused. In December 1948, while crossing the Atlantic, he noted:

Later I dreamed of my sister. Woke up. Then went to sleep and dreamed of her again. At one point I was lying in her bed, the ivory-colored bed: but it was not a dream of incest, although I am at a loss to explain it. I was standing naked in a room. Heard footsteps. Jumped in the bed to cover myself. Discovered it was my sister’s bed. She entered the room. Spoke to me angrily and pulled back the covers. I struggled not to expose my nakedness. She turned away crossly while I got hastily up from the bed. There I woke up.

Four years later in Spain he noted another dream:

I’ve dreamed of my sister, seeing her in a cream colored lace dress which I had forgotten. In the dream a lady who looked like my sister wore it—then I had it on and then I was struggling to sit down between two tables and was wedged so tightly between them I couldn’t breathe.

In later years, he saw more of his sister, writing in 1979 in Key West:

My sister Rose, the living presence of truth and faith in my life. If I go abroad to die, I must not leave her, afterwards, in the custody of her present companion, a tasteless woman whose idea of giving Rose a good time is to take her to the Masonic Lodge…. Tonight she had dressed Rose for a party at Kate’s in a livid green dress from Woolco’s, as tasteless as possible and as unbecoming. I had said that Rose should have a green dress but I meant to buy it for her myself, in a pastel shade, such as lettuce.

Part of the reason for Williams’s obsession with his sister was his feeling that he, too, could easily have followed her into a mental institution. “The shadow of what happened to Rose” followed him in the years of his success and in subsequent years when the plays he wrote did not find large audiences or win much praise and he was addicted to various drugs and to alcohol. As early as his visit to her in 1939 he saw the danger for himself as his mother had two years earlier. He wrote: “It was a horrible ordeal. Especially since I fear that end for myself.” The artist Vassilis Voglis, a friend of Williams’s, told his biographer Donald Spoto:

He was devoted to Rose, but in a way she was an extension of himself. He could have had the lobotomy. He felt the outsider, marred in some way. He really cared for her, and perhaps he never really cared for anyone else in this life, ever. And I think he knew it.

In 1973, speaking of his play Out Cry, he said:

I’ve had a great deal of experience with madness; I have been locked up. My sister was institutionalized for most of her adult life. Both my sister and I need a lot of taking care of…. I’m a lonely person, lonelier than most people. I have a touch of schizophrenia in me and in order to avoid madness I have to work.

In his notebooks for 1957, Williams noted that he was “stealing a week between New York and the ‘retreat’…at Stockbridge, assuming I do go there.” He wrote to his mother:

I stayed only five minutes in the Institute. I took one look at the other patients and told Frank to carry my bags right back out to the car. I checked into the local hotel and stayed there over the weekend to make sure that this was not the place for me, then drove back to New York. I think the psychiatrist Dr. Kubie who is head of the analytic institute in New York, is right in thinking I need some therapy of that kind to relieve the tensions that I have been living under, but I think it’s unnecessary for me to live in a house full of characters that appeared to be more disturbed than myself.

The following year, he wrote to Elia Kazan:

I had to defy my analyst to continue my work this past year. He said I was over-worked and must quit and “lie fallow” as he put it, for a year or so, and then resume work in what he declared would be a great new tide of creative power, which he apparently thought would come out of my analysis with him. I wanted to accept this instruction but without my work, I was unbearable lonely, my life unbearably empty.

In 1969, a period not covered in the Notebooks, Williams was confined to a mental hospital in Saint Louis by his brother where he stayed for three dreadful months.

Williams managed in his best work to harness that shadow of madness which lay over him and which fell on his sister. He made it appear almost normal, an unsettled striving within the soul, a brave dreaming up of the more wondrous parts of the self. He made its roots seem common to us all. But then, as he must have seen it develop in Rose, he dramatized its growth into a sort of poisonous power which slowly overcame and undid his characters.

It is remarkable in the Notebooks how little credit he gave himself for his own genius at handling and shaping this material, his skills at catching patterns of speech and building dramatic structure, his astonishing sympathy for powerless dreamers especially when they came dressed up and ready to kill or were full of hidden erotic hope. As his own power waned, he did not, as other dramatists did, spend time overseeing new productions of old work. It was part of his unresolved innocence, his own nature as a dreamer, that he went on writing, despite the fact that most of his work after The Night of the Iguana in 1961 seemed to fail; it had been a great struggle to start, and now, as the last miserable pages of his Notebooks make clear, it was too much of a struggle to stop. He knew that the creation of his characters was what had justified his life. As he came close to the end he wrote:

Did I die by my own hand or was I destroyed slowly and brutally by a conspiratorial group? There is probably no clear cut answer….

Perhaps I was never meant to exist at all, but if I hadn’t, a number of my created beings would have been denied their passionate existence.

  1. 1

    Jean Strouse, Alice James: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 49.

  2. 2

    Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Wil-liams (Little, Brown, 1985), p. 308.

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