Tennessee Williams was crazed, paranoid, self-indulgent, drug-addled — and a stupendous genius, writes
TENNESSEE Williams is the American playwright who reshaped everyone’s sense of what drama meant. We would never have seen Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on screen in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because that play would never have been written without the influence of Williams. And although Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night was written long before Williams, the climate of feeling that allowed it finally to be staged and then filmed with Katharine Hepburn owed everything to the Bird, as Williams was known. Walter Kerr, one of the toughest of the mid-century New York theatre critics, said Williams wasn’t just the greatest living American playwright, he was the greatest ever.
Now John Lahr, a former theatre critic for The New Yorker and son of Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion himself, has written the definitive biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. He says Williams, out of not much more than a desire to be loved, “made his characters become part of American folklore”.
And it’s true that our minds will never be free of the image of Stanley Kowalski — Marlon Brando in his greatest role — trampling Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) into the dirt and debris of madness in Elia Kazan’s great film of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Or that of Maggie, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, taunting Brick about his dead buddy as he waits for the click that only drink can give. And that mad mother in The Glass Menagerie tormenting the Tennessee-in-waiting of a son as she tries to find a beau for her lame daughter, Laura, the one with the glass animals.
I have seen Cate Blanchett and Sigrid Thornton play Blanche and Ashley Judd play Maggie (with the great Ned Beatty as Big Daddy and Margo Martindale as Big Momma). And I have seen, in different productions, Jessica Lange as the mother in The Glass Menagerie and Ben Mendelsohn as the son. I have seen Guy Pearce and Wendy Hughes do Sweet Bird of Youth in Melbourne. But not Lauren Bacall, who played the one-time beloved star long after the days of her own brightest fame. The plays of Tennessee Williams will stalk our dreams forever.
He said, very early on, that he wanted to write something, “Like a Chekhov play, only much wilder and much sadder.” Well, not much is sadder but Williams was almost always much wilder. He was fortunate The Glass Menagerie, which opened towards the end of World War II, a month or so before the death of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, had as the mother an actress of genius, Laurette Taylor. She hit the bottle and kept a bucket in the wings to throw up in.
Williams said he had never seen a performance like it. “Illumination and revelation coalesced.” After the show, Taylor said to Williams’s mother, Edwina, the mother from hell, “Well, Mrs Williams, how did you like yourself?” “Myself?” came the icy reply as, in Lahr’s phrase, “She grandly rose above the impertinence.”
Lahr brilliantly gives us this theatrical open-
November 15-16, 2014 Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh By John Lahr Bloomsbury, 765pp, $49.99 (HB) ing, then backtracks to Tennessee’s childhood. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, he confessed, staggeringly, that he did not masturbate until he was 26, “and then, not with my own hands”. His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, a travelling shoe salesman, called him Miss Nancy and barked at his family threats such as, “Come out of there, I’m going to kill you.”
Tennessee’s blacking factory moment came when his father dragged him out of college to work in the International Shoe Company. Although Cornelius came from one of the oldest families in Tennessee and spoke without a southern accent, Tennessee, significantly, had a southern drawl like his mother. She bought him a typewriter when he was 12 and referred to him as “Mah writer son”. As Lahr observes, “He was joined to her apron strings by a shared fantasy of self.”
Everyone knows — or has repressed the knowledge — that Williams’s mother was responsible for his sister, Rose, being given a frontal lobotomy. It’s a theme that appears in Williams’s 1958 play Suddenly, Last Summer. Lahr is inclined to think, a bit too grimly, that Williams cared for nothing but his work and his sister. His money paid for Rose’s care until she died in 1996, a dozen years after him, by which time her accommodation in a luxury hospital was $US300,000 a year. Although Edwina Williams blamed her husband, Williams himself said his father cried about his daughter’s situation. Rose was going around, off her head, talking about “we girls … used to abuse ourselves with altar candles”. Edwina said, “Do anything, anything to shut her up.” When The Glass Menagerie was a runaway success, Williams gave half the royalties to his mother, who promptly got out of the unhappy marriage.
Tennessee (born Thomas) was a timid boy and said the “fear of the real world, the fight to face it and not run away was the realest thing in all experience to me”. He also said, “If I were God, I would feel a little sorry for Tom Williams — he does have guts of a sort even though he’s a stinking sissy.” Early on, at university, he slept with a girl and said to a jock at a urinal, “It was like the f..king Suez Canal.” But the most haunting love of his life was a guy called Kip Kiernan, who made him feel like he was “polishing the Statue of Liberty”. Kiernan was persuaded to give up Williams “because he was in the process of turning homosexual”. He married and died of a brain tumour at 26. Tennessee kept his photo for decades until his wallet was lost. Still, he also needed wild boys such as Pablo Rodriguez, who contributed to the characterisation of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams received a half-million dollars for the screen rights of The Glass Menagerie when the average annual income was about $US2000 and that set the pattern. With A Streetcar Named Desire everything came together. They found Jessica Tandy, who unlocked the mystery of Blanche and received a staggering “bravo” from every corner of the house at the Broadway opening, which Williams described as “Great, great, GREAT”. With Kazan he had the tough extroverted director of genius he needed. And he had Brando. “There was nothing you could with Brando,” Kazan said, “that touched what he could do with himself. In those days he was a genius.”
And Brando returned the compliment. “The best actor’s director I worked with,” he said of Kazan, despite having made Last Tango in Paris with Bernardo Bertolucci and The Godfather with Francis Ford Coppola. Kazan dispatched Brando with his girlfriend and $20 — he was all of 23 — to see Williams in Provincetown, at the time they were searching for a Stanley. Williams said he arrived to a scene of “domestic
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof cataclysm”. The lights were out, the toilet was blocked. “To Williams,” Lahr writes, “Brando was a spectacle of both beauty … and prowess.” Brando fixed the lights and unblocked the drains. Williams thought Brando was incredibly beautiful, a “glossy, young bull”. Kazan said, quite rightly, that the “sexuality” of the play was all “in the menace of it”.
Brando would act for Williams again in The Fugitive Kind with the great Italian actress Anna Magnani. Brando got a cool million dollars, in the 1950s, for that role. He was Williams’s archetypal male lead and when the playwright was explaining Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Kazan, he said, “He’s homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment … like Brando … he’s the nearest thing to Brick we both know.” When Kazan directed the play on Broadway in 1955, Ben Gazzara played Brick. Paul Newman took the role, opposite Elizabeth Taylor, in the film version three years later.
Kazan said the Bird was riding a crush. There’s certainly a very lyrical description of Williams and Brando. They were at his famous bad review party to which he had invited the critics who had panned Summer and Smoke of 1948. They decided to go for a spin on Brando’s new motorbike. Lahr can’t resist a comment, and what biographer could? “There at the zenith of the century’s promise, in the time of their defining triumph, the greatest actor and the greatest playwright in the world of their era sped around Manhattan feeling the exhilarating surge of power beneath them.”
Williams doesn’t seem to have resisted much either: “I enjoyed the ride. Clamping his buttocks between my knees as we flew along the East River, along the river drive with the cold wind whistling and a moon.” Yes, he rode with giants, though he was looked after at this point by a man called Frank Merlo, who Christopher Isherwood described as “no goody goody, he was just good”. Eventually they grew apart, and Merlo died at 44 of lung cancer, the disease of which Williams had a hypochondriacal fear.
Meanwhile, Kazan, at the height of McCarthyism, betrayed some of his colleagues, including Arthur Miller, to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. It was worse because he was such of a man of steel. Williams stuck with him. “The most loyal and understanding friend I had was Tennessee Williams,” Kazan said later. In one sense he was well advised to. When he came to write Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was Kazan who knew Big Daddy — the Burl Ives part — had to be brought back for the last act.
As Lahr puts it, “Kazan offered Williams a safety net … to write beyond himself.” The director thought Big Daddy should be brought back and so did Audrey Wood, Williams’s brilliant and loyal agent. The Bird responded that
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptation of