Tennessee Williams: Big Daddy of the theatre world
Neil Donnelly on a new and definitive life on one of the four great American playwrights
Biography: Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr. Bloomsbury Circus, hdbk, 784pp, £30
Tennessee, Tennessee Williams let your sweet inspiration flow let it be around when we hear the sound when the spring time rivers flow...
The lines come from Van Morrison on his 'Wild Children' from 1973 and later on in the same song he name checks Marlon Brando. Indeed Williams and Brando are eternally linked.
In 1947 the 24-year-old Brando starred in the breakthrough Broadway production of arguably Williams' most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by the great Elia Kazan, who also helmed Brando in the film version with Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois. She who uttered the immortal line so beloved of drag queens: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
Streetcar remains a favourite of Dublin audiences and Williams is the most popular American playwright here, even more so than Arthur Miller. Gillian Anderson is currently burning up the stage as Blanche in a sold out London production. Woody Allen's recent Blue Jasmine unashamedly borrows Streetcar's plot. The appeal of Williams remains as strong as ever Tennessee Williams, christened Tom, spent his early years in the Mississippi Delta and died in New York in 1983 aged 71.
At the time of his death he was, in Graham Greene's term, "a burnt out case," but his productivity in the great years was truly astonishing. He wrote 30 major plays, 70 one-act plays, nine so-called minor plays, and is responsible for at least another 70 film and television adaptations; plus novels, books of short stories, essays, memoirs and hundreds of brilliantly written letters. Williams wasn't a political writer like Miller, instead he was a creator of theatrical atmosphere, writing spectacular acting parts, especially for younger men and older women.
Emotion overwhelmed his characters and sometimes his plays. He is America's most performed playwright. In theatre, Williams' intention was to write plays that were "a picture of my own heart," fusing lyricism and realism. He was hugely influenced by Chekhov and like The Seagull's Trigorin, he was a compulsive writer. He wrote for up to eight hours at a time - a huge excavation from body and soul - hysteria was Williams idiom, writes Lahr.
True, of his later self, but here, aged 26, Williams sits in a Mexican cantina reflecting on his time in New Orleans: The sunlight rich as egg-yolk in the narrow streets, great, flat banana leaves, and the slow, slow rain. The fog coming up from the river, swallowing Andrew Jackson on his big iron horse . . . life getting bigger and plainer and uglier and more beautiful all the time . . . Schooldays in Mississippi.
Walking along aimless country roads through a delicate spring rain with the fields, flat, and wide, and dark, ending at the levee and at the cypress brakes, and the buzzards wheeling leisurely a long way. Dark life. Confused, tormented, uncomprehendable and fabulously rich and beautiful.
Williams had his first major success in 1945 at the age of 34 with The Glass Menagerie, a direct transposition of his repressive unhappy upbringing. It has all the familiar Williams' elements which recur in nearly all his plays - a grotesque faded-genteel older woman, a young innocent woman, a tough young male hero, and a run-down Southern background.
It centres on Laura, based on his sister Rose who was schizophrenic and spent much of her life in care. Incidentally, in a 1977 production at the Shaw Theatre London, John Lahr's wife, Connie Booth, played Laura in a performance much admired by Williams, who came backstage to tell her so. Of Menagerie, Arthur Miller wrote: "American theatre found, perhaps for the first time, an eloquence and amplitude of feeling."
The cerebral Miller drawn to the opposite, the emotionally expansive gift of Williams. The success of Menagerie transformed Williams from timid virgin to florid gay man. Then came the great triumph of Streetcar and the demands of Hollywood for happy endings and instead of just taking the money and running, Williams got into ridiculous fights with studio heads. His need for commercial success supplanted the serious writer he had started out as. Williams the wounded artist became Williams the wounded celebrity.
In spite of this, there were many subsequent achievements with fine titles, The Rose Tattoo, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, The Night of the Iguana, and my own favourite, the film based on Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind, again starring Brando. And there were so many unforgettable characters, like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But, like F Scott Fitzgerald, another with a great talent but a fragile temperament, the emotional wear and tear on Williams was immense and an escape into alcohol and drugs didn't help.
Of the four great American playwrights: Albee, Miller, O'Neill and Williams, he is the most vulnerable, the most loveable, the most revolutionary, and the best poet. The biography's sub-title is unnecessary. Williams was from the sultry Delta, where John Barry in his study of the 1927 Mississippi flood says, "sex represented everything."
Williams was an openly gay man who loved not wisely but too well and documented his emotional and sexual highs and lows in his diaries and memoirs. Nothing new for the prurient. Mad Pilgrimage of a Great Talent, might have been more apt. That aside, John Lahr has painstakingly assembled a wonderful biography of a deeply flawed human being who was also a true artist.
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Neil Donnelly is a writer, playwright and member of Aosdana