Perfect Tenn: A Life of Tennessee Williams
Reviewed by Max Dunbar
An inconvenience of biography is that before the interesting stuff is revealed, one first has to wade through chapter after chapter of formative years. Two or three hundred pages of secondary school, teenage crush, Early Promise, liberal arts college, first, terrible drafts – all very earnest and detailed, and all the time the reader is thinking, like Edie Marsh in Stormy Weather, being chatted up by a Kennedy cousin: ‘Who gives a shit about illiteracy in South Boston? Tell me about Jackie and the Greek!’
But John Lahr opens his biography of Tennessee Williams right en media res. After long years drifting around Washington, Iowa and Memphis, writing one-act plays produced by community groups in dusty upstairs rooms, Williams’s play Battle of Angels opens in Boston on December 30. It is a disaster. A councilman denounced the play, and called for its producers to be arrested; the police commissioner argued for changes in the dialogue. (Lahr writes that ‘the assistant city censor’ – apparently there was such a thing – ‘threw his weight against the play’ because, in the censor’s words, ‘too many of the lines have double meanings’). The public concurred. Lahr is uncompromising with his subject:
If ever the professional debut of a major playwright was a greater fiasco, history does not record it. Battle of Angels set a kind of high-water mark for disaster. ‘The bright angels were pretty badly beaten in Boston,’ Williams wrote to a friend. Even the audience in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1896, which booed Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull so loudly that the actors could not hear themselves speak, stayed to the finale to vent its hate.
The Tennessee Williams anecdote that stays most in my mind is from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. In 1928 the seventeen year old Williams, already prone to jitters, was taken on a tour of Europe by his beloved grandfather Dakin. By Paris he had developed a phobia of what he called ‘the process of thought… a terrifyingly complex mystery of human life.’ Although he never mentioned his anxiety, Laing writes, ‘by the time the tour reached the Rhine he was certain he was going crazy.’ At a cathedral in Cologne he fell to his knees and had ‘the uncanny sense of being touched by a hand’, at which ‘the phobia was away as lightly as a snowflake’. God had cured him of panic – or so Williams thought. By the time he reached Amsterdam, the anxiety attacks returned. This time he wrote ‘a poem on the comforts of remembering one is only an individual in a crowd of equally complex beings.’ Laing concludes: ‘discovering that he could dissolve anxiety by looking outward didn’t just save his sanity. It also alerted him to the importance of empathy, that cardinal virtue of the playwright.’
The play. The make-or-break artform, where if you fail, everyone in town sees you do it. Williams admitted it wasn’t planned: ‘Probably no one has written for the theatre,’ he said, ‘with less foreknowledge of it.’ But he said that ‘even the giants of literature, such as Chekhov, when writing narratives, were only describing dramas’ and that the built stage saved dramatists from a reliance on the limited imagination of their audience: ‘a play on the stage – let any fool come to it!’ Perhaps there was elitism in his view (‘What can we produce from the tall silk hat of our esoteric fancy to cast a spell upon this sweating rabble?’) but it’s more than offset by the great and palpable imaginative sympathy in his work. He was dramatic, even melodramatic, but at the same time a pragmatist who worked with the grain of human nature. ‘The truth of the matter,’ Williams wrote, ‘is that all human ideals have been hats too big for the human head… Chivalry – democracy – christianity – the Hellenic ideal of Intellectual purity (the one I find most appealing) – all too big a hat!’
‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,’ said the poet Czeslaw Milosz. But Williams’s family was finished way before Tennessee himself came along. The Williams family combined the voluptuous decline of the South with the stalled ambition of the North. His father, Cornelius Coffin (‘CC’) Williams – a name not even Tennessee could have made up – did come from a well regarded southern family: ‘but, with CC, a pedestrian salesman, the heroic lineage of the claim seemed to have come to a halt.’ When CC wasn’t selling shoes, he was drinking, and he was a petulant, nasty drunk. ‘Most of the time, life with him held either spoken or unspoken terror,’ Williams’s mother, Edwina, later said. Edwina herself was a teetotaller and a fundamental prude. Tennessee’s childhood was a petri dish of predictable neuroses. His sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, committed, given shock treatments, and finally lobotomised.
Williams was a laureate against convention, a child of the night and the paper lantern. Lahr writes: ‘The night eroticised his sense of absence, that oppressive absence he had carried with him since childhood.’ On cruising, he wrote: ‘For us it is time to search for something to satisfy that empty space that home fills in the normal adult’s life.’ Drama bought his freedom from home. And many other things. Prizes. Parties. Connections. Honorary degrees. Expensive suits. ‘He could afford a high-ceilinged apartment at 710 Orleans Street, with twelve-foot shuttered windows’. Lahr notes that ‘in the aristocracy of success there are no strangers’ and Williams’s sex life, always hectic, went into overdrive. He wrote to a friend from Rome: ‘You can’t walk a block without being accosted by someone you would spend a whole evening trying vainly to make in the New York bars… You may wonder how I ever get any work done here. The answer is I don’t get much.’ Williams did form several long term relationships, mainly with headstrong, obscure young men. Even then, disaster never seemed to be far away. One longterm boyfriend, ex-soldier Frank Merlo, when asked by an industry tycoon ‘What do you do?’ replied shortly: ‘I sleep with Mr Williams.’ In 1960, ‘by his own admission, Williams had spent an afternoon in a drunken orgy with three queens in a South Beach hotel, after which he returned home for a home-cooked dinner with Merlo. ‘I set myself down at our patio table like a king, waiting to be served. The kitchen door banged open and past me sailed a meat loaf, missing my head by inches’.
Sarah Churchwell, reviewing this book, wrote that ‘Ultimately, Williams suffered the fate of many reformers: the price of his success was rendering his vision obsolete, as America embraced the sexual liberation he had advocated.’ Although Williams took his hits from the world’s cultural registrars (‘those infantile moralists that make it so hard for anyone to do honest work’) Churchwell’s assessment is apt: plays so rooted in a particular time, in a changing society, weren’t going to keep the impact they once had. The decline is the most exhausting tale of Lahr’s exhaustive biography. As he grew older, Williams became consumed by alcohol and paranoia. In the mid seventies Williams went out to a restaurant with director John Hancock. As they crossed the road, ‘there was an opening in the gutter that leads down into those big storm drains that underlie the north-south streets in that area, and, seeing that, he whirled on me with crazed eyes and drew away from me in fear. Later, he confessed that he thought I was going to push him down into the storm drain… I remember thinking, Is he still talented enough to be this crazy?’
But social irrelevance doesn’t necessarily destroy a life. ‘Go, go, go,’ says the bird in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’: ‘human kind/Cannot bear too much reality.’ Reality is a big dark theme in Lahr. He quotes a line from The Night of the Iguana: ‘We – live on two levels, Miss Jelkes, the realistic level and the fantastic level… But when you live on the fantastic level as I have lately but have got to operate on the realistic level, that’s where you’re spooked’. From a late teleplay, Stopped Rocking: ‘Reality gives no rest, it gives no peace.’ Maybe what killed Williams in that lonely hotel room in 1983 was nothing more or less than that intensity of living, the eye of the storm of his Europe terror: ‘the sound of shock felt by people each moment of still being alive’.
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, (Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2014) 978-1408843659, Hardback, 784 pages.
Max Dunbar lives in Yorkshire and can be found on twitter @MaxDunbar1