Tennessee Williams – Mad Pilgrimmage of the Flesh

by John Lahr

Tennessee, Tennessee Williams / let your sweet inspiration flow / let it be around when we hear the sound / when the spring time rivers flow / sings 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 for 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 Vivian Leigh as Blanche DuBois. She who uttered the immortal line so beloved of drag queens, “I have always depended on the kindness of Strangers.” 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.

Tennessee Williams, christened Tom, spent his early years in the Mississippi Delta and died in New York in 1983 aged 71 and though at the time of his death he was, in Graham Greene’s term, a burnt out case; his productivity in the great years was truly astonishing. He wrote 30 major plays, 70 one-act plays, 9 so called minor plays, and is responsible for at least another 70 film and television adaptions; 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, yet today he is America’s most performed playwright with many festivals dedicated to him. The Providence Tennessee Williams Festival this September. The Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival this October and The Tennessee Williams New Orleans Festival scheduled for March of 2015 are just the current crop.Three locations where Williams lived and worked.

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 8 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 twenty-six 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 centers 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. Later Miller was unfortunately drawn to the amplitude of feeling offered by Marilyn Monroe, a person even more damaged than 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. Though 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.

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 lovable, 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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