Dishevelled

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Tennessee Williams: Notebooks edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton
    Yale, 828 pp, £27.50, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 11682 3

One event dominated Tennessee Williams’s life: his sister Rose’s bilateral prefrontal lobotomy, performed on 13 January 1943, two years before The Glass Menagerie, the play he forged from her condition, was first produced. He rarely mentions the lobotomy in his private notebooks, the fragmented daybooks which he kept for much of his life, and which have now been edited, with sumptuous photographic and biographical supplementation, by Margaret Bradham Thornton, to whom devotees of Williams should be grateful. By keeping virtually silent about the lobotomy, he maintains its status as incommunicable trauma, an episode outside words or knowledge. A lobotomy is a crime committed against language, emotion and mental agility: that Tennessee’s response to Rose Williams’s evicted brain couldn’t be caught in the net of his notebooks (though the operation – the brutalisation – received explicit acknowledgment in such works as Suddenly Last Summer) suggests that her silencing gave him pause, and turned writing, for him, into a trial. He identified with her wound; and indirectly reinflicted it, in his writing, drinking and pill-popping. Williams sought anaesthesia, but he also wanted something more complicated and enveloping than mere unconsciousness: he wanted recapitulation. And recapitulation – the sensation of going back, through the proxy of words, to the crime – brought with it a measure of thrill, a pleasure he expressed through overstatement, overwriting, each play foraging in the same moraine.

Here, then, is the brief, blade-sharp account of Rose’s martyrdom, as it appears in the notebooks:

1000 miles away.
Rose. Her head cut open.
A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking.
My father, mean as a devil, snoring. 1000 miles away.

What happened? Nothing that words could communicate or redress. In a letter to his mother, Williams wrote: ‘I did not at all understand the news about Rose.’ At first he thought she had improved. ‘We drove out to see my sister yesterday,’ he wrote in another letter, ‘and found the operation on the brain had accomplished something quite amazing . . . She herself is reading 19th-century history and is particularly fascinated by Victor Hugo. Before the operation she was unable to read at all and was interested in nothing.’ As if a lobotomy encouraged intellectual labour. Only much later, in 1979, four years before he died, would the notebooks receive an accurate recounting of the crime: his mother ‘approved for my sister to have one of the first prefrontal lobotomies performed in the States because she was shocked by Rose’s tastefully phrased but explicit disclosures of masturbation practised with Candles stolen from the Chapel, at All Saints in Vicksburg.’ ‘Tastefully phrased but explicit’ is a good description of Williams’s style. Acidulous precision allows him to acknowledge – when he notices his sister wearing ‘a livid green dress from Woolco’s, as tasteless as possible and as unbecoming’ – that he’d meant to buy her a dress ‘in a pastel shade, such as lettuce’. A word like ‘lettuce’ is Williams at his best. It shows his sensitivity to bruising and wilting.

As Rose was ruined by psychosurgery, so Williams, in a different register, re-endured that ruin at the hands of the critical establishment; after his early winning streak, as each new play bombed, he underwent public whippings. John Simon called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth ‘cowardly’, and, in 1978, wrote: ‘The kindest thing to assume is that Williams died shortly after completing Sweet Bird of Youth, and that his subsequent, ever more dismal plays are the work of a lover of his who has learned to impersonate him perfectly in daily life, but only very crudely in playwriting.’ Not only his plays were castigated. An editor at the New Yorker, rejecting an essay of Williams’s in 1948, called it ‘mannered’, ‘phoney’ and ‘unbelievably bad’. Williams kept on writing, as a method of survival, and as a way to plunge back into the experience of martyrdom that public exposure, whether in print or on stage, had become; as if he were Sebastian Venable (in Suddenly Last Summer), his sex-tourist devoured by the native boys he’d attempted to seduce. Williams tried to seduce audiences and critics with play after play; this gladiatorial ritual left him always in the position of rejected, spat-on courtesan.

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