Ten­nessee Wil­liams was crazed, para­noid, self-in­dul­gent, drug-ad­dled — and a stu­pen­dous ge­nius, writes

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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

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