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.

As early as 1939, six years before The Glass Menagerie, he confided in his notebook: ‘I must remember that my method of survival has always been a very oblique method. A kind of success through failure, programme of dogged resistance to discouragement and constant bobbing up again after apparently final slap-downs and knock-outs . . . I keep making these humiliating, inglorious returns to a place I thought I was leaving for ever on several past occasions.’ The humiliating return to failure, a degradation he imagines he can flee, an ignominy that reappears around every bend of his career, proved to be Williams’s tango, his life-work’s signature-beat of arrival and departure, his fort-da. When the critics didn’t slay him, he slew himself, both through physical self-evaluation (‘My hair has gotten sort of ratty looking, my face dull and sallow, and my front teeth have two visible black cavities that I am too lifeless to have fixed’) and through literary self-disembowelment: in 1951, at the height of his powers, he called ‘the experience of reading over’ a new version of Summer and Smoke ‘a staggering blow’. His verdict: ‘Probably the worst job I’ve ever done. Quite pitiful. Of course as usual I concluded that I had better abandon the world of letters altogether.’ To understand the complex career of Tennessee Williams, we must abandon the categories of ‘good play’ and ‘bad play’. The dramas deemed failures by reviewers are as interesting as the hits. I wouldn’t trade Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for Hello from Bertha, but, in the work of a writer like Williams, who must be considered a process artist rather than a manufacturer of theatrical commodities for popular consumption, every word is created equal.

He ruined his body with drink and pills, but before he did so, he believed his body – like his imagination – already to be a site of ruin. The pedal points of his notebooks are steady self-laceration through chemicals, and scrupulous reporting of medical woes. Drugs give him comfort: their recitation is a metronomic litany of remedies. Williams saw himself as a victim, like Rose, possessed and vulnerable, shattered by character and chemistry. It’s a miracle that he wrote at all, given the quantity of his intake and the extremity of his ailments. From 1951: ‘Suddenly broke out in an itchy rash. Immediately presumed I had scabies. Then gastro-intestinal upset commenced. Green liquid pouring from my bowels. No pain but a gassy stomach. The rash appears to be fading so I now wonder if it was not connected with the other disturbance. Have not yet called a doctor but feel very nervous in spite of 2 seconals.’ There are two points of interest here: 1) Williams’s rectum was a trouble zone, meriting close watchfulness; 2) Seconals are, like syntax or like the rules of harmony in music, an abiding structure, giving form to his days and pace and measure to the notebooks. In 1954: ‘Liquor and seconal are my only refuge and they not unfailing . . . Anal irritation has also developed again and I am afraid of another serious attack in that quarter.’

I’ll take a formalist position: every time he repeats the word ‘pinkie’ (his loving synonym for Seconal), Williams is announcing, if only to himself, an oblique commitment to an abstract literary practice. He is using a word (‘pinkie’) as an object, a thing, half-separated from its significance. He is creating a formal pattern. He may not be aware that, by repeating the word, he produces this abstract effect on the page. Such an experience of pinkie pointillism may be legible only now, to the reader who has the luxury of seeing the Notebooks as a whole work composed in scattered moments, a work achieving only posthumously its Guernica-like status as a monumental fabrication catalysed by history. I mention Guernica not because I wish sacrilegiously to compare the Spanish Civil War to Williams’s war with his own body, but to suggest that any work of art that attempts to confront history must incorporate it through formal as well as literal means. In Williams’s notebooks, verbal signs behave not merely literally but also abstractly, as code and pattern, giving the pleasure of staccato interruption and of broken-off fragment. In 1953: ‘Jolted out of sleep couple of times so took a pinkie and read a bit.’ Again in 1953: ‘Woke up feeling breathless and started to read and washed down the pinkie with a drink of Scotch.’ In 1958: ‘Felt like death when I woke up this morning but, surprisingly, after coffee, double martini and pinkie, I felt pretty good and took a sanguine view of my work on Act Two of “Sweet Bird”.’ On a plane, in 1954: ‘Debating whether or not I should take a pinkie now . . . Have decided to take the pinkie in 5 minutes . . . Never again take a plane without a full bottle’ – of Scotch – ‘on me!’

One drinks, as one writes, in order to float away from ‘reality’, into the realm of ‘book’ or ‘play’, a realm of activity I’d like to call ‘production’, because it sounds theatrical as well as vaguely political. Williams sought refuge in production because it promised abstractness, anaesthesia, dumbness, oblivion and hard labour. In 1953: ‘I only want to be left alone in my little white bed with my book and my seconal and my last libation. Tonight I’ve drunk inordinately, at least a dozen hi balls during the past eight hours.’ Three days later: ‘I have washed a “pinkie” down with Scotch and am naked on the bed with my journal and that tiresome book by Miss Gide.’ The amusing, knowing reference to Gide’s The Immoralist illustrates how craftily Williams used gay argot as a way of being epigrammatic and efficient. Perhaps Williams saw in Gide a version of himself, caught between propriety and lubricity: ‘Miss Gide seems to have been an old auntie all her life! . . . She declares, at one point, that she spends 5 hours a day practising Bach and Chopin – That girl’s ass and fingers must have been something prodigious! To sleep she drinks a “libation of orange water”. Girl!’ Note how expertly Williams folds together words of such different provenance as ‘ass’ and ‘libation’ and ‘Miss Gide’. A similarly hybrid effect obtains when, in a passage from 1949, Williams brings his ‘sore ass’ into linguistic contiguity with his dinner companions Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini: ‘Bergman-Rossolini [sic] rushes – disappointing – sore ass – we all went to Quirinale afterwards. Nobody even seemed to notice Ingrid was there – May leave for Capri tomorrow if the condition of my ass hole permits – Wrote a pretty good poem this A.M. Was happy.’

Happy! Not a rare note for Williams, despite his crises. Happiness comes from poetry, from writing something ‘pretty good’, from production. Williams’s poetry may not be the strongest arrow in his quiver, but it represented nourishment, self-containment and privacy, a method of engaging in creative labour without the necessity of pleasing tetchy theatregoers. Idolising Hart Crane (Williams called Crane and Hemingway ‘two of the best bed-partners a sick old bitch can have’), Williams was attracted to the notion that poets were doomed to early deaths, and he included Crane-like figures in several plays: Blanche DuBois’s early husband, a ‘degenerate’ who killed himself, was a poet, as was Sebastian Venable, the cousin of the about-to-be-lobotomised Catherine. However effete Sebastian might have been, Williams, in his earlier years, considered assiduous writing an occupation that conferred manliness: ‘I’ve got to buck up and be a man instead of such a damned whining sissy,’ he wrote in his notebook in 1936. In 1947, he recalls A Streetcar Named Desire giving him a testosterone boost: ‘And wrote “Streetcar”. All in about 6 weeks, that is, the final draft of it. You recovered your lost manhood!’ He’s not joking. At least in 1947, he still believed in manhood, although he may have considered it a property one was always gaining and losing, like a set of keys. The advantage of gay sex, as Williams practised it, was that the key could be copied.

Williams had a happy-go-lucky relation to sexual pleasure, and the notebooks were the ideal forum for tallying conquests and defeats. Just as he merely pointed to drugs by saying ‘pinkie’, but didn’t explain the highs and lows, so he merely pointed to his sexual exploits by mentioning them, often in shorthand, but leaving out details. This lax poetics – of indicating, ‘over there’, as if the writer need do nothing more athletic than point a finger at the invoked subject – resembles the linguistic phenomenon known as deixis, but deixis is not exactly the right word for Williams’s laconic references to sexual adventures. His refusal to describe constitutes the greatest poetic triumph of the notebooks, which end up resembling a long poem, a casual Cantos: not merely because of Williams’s epigrammatic style and his frequent use of dashes in place of full stops, but because of his elisions and verbal amputations. No room for eloquence: he could leave out artfulness because he was not aiming at an audience; therefore, art sneaked back in. His assumption that the notebooks were not for public consumption exempted them from the pillory of live theatre. Notebooks offered him cushioning, and allowed him to write without exposure or shame: only in notebooks could he refer to sexual encounters with accurate, uncondescending calm. As social history, Williams’s sexual accounts have significance; but they also have much to tell us about Williams’s affiliations with other poets published by New Directions, Williams’s primary American publisher: Pound, William Carlos Williams, Olson, Creeley, Levertov and Oppen. In his notebooks, Williams sometimes behaves like Pound or Olson, aware of the page as a field for uncertainty. And his notations of sexual events, like the references to Scotch and Seconal, participate in a documentary aesthetic that has more in common with the reportage of Renaud Camus’s Tricks, or Boyd McDonald’s Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts or the minimalist portraiture of Ed Ruscha’s gas-station photographs, than with the plays of Eugene O’Neill or William Inge.

Cruising for sex, and consummating the encounter, gave Williams a sense of closure and achievement. In 1956 he wrote: ‘The partner was highly desirable, Caucasian, and perhaps the youngest I’ve had outside of Morocco. But thoroughly experienced.’ Even the failed encounter deserved its single sentence, its brushstroke. 1955: ‘A fairly attractive pick-up but disagreement over the pay envelope ended the encounter on a sour note.’ Williams’s sexual sentences, unemotional, reporting the nightly news without overt literary intent, have a metaphysically potent vacuity. 1954: ‘I had my first affair in Taormina, today on a little island near beach. That was when I took my first seconal.’ The sex might be fictional, but the sentence recording its occurrence is factual. The fact, in literature, is not exactly the equivalent of facture, the sign of the hand, in painting, but both phenomena point to the existence of a figure (the artist, the writer) we may idolise, demean and nearly touch. Reading Williams, I sometimes revere and never dismiss: always, I respect the sign of his hand. 1954: ‘A bell hop brought cigarettes and tried to seduce me. I was not responsive – physically or emotionally.’ Here, unresponsiveness constitutes a fact. Sexual ennui, or its notation, is an adamantine landmark.

Accustomed to subterfuge, Williams often used the code word ‘nightingale’ to refer to a sexual partner. 1953: ‘A friendly stranger said “BuenaSera” and I strolled on the beach, not alone. And later to the hotel, not alone, and the nightingales sang, not at the top of their pitch, but with a fair sweetness.’ Williams called his tricks ‘nightingales’ because it accorded them a Keatsian status (‘Miss Keats’, he writes), but also because it helped him be brief. ‘Nightingale’ conflates poetry and sex; similarly, Williams felt that three kinds of failure – failure to sleep, failure to write (or to write well) and failure to find a satisfactory sexual partner – had a family likeness, as in the following notebook entry, from 1952: ‘I found somebody, but such halitosis my interest expired. Drank 4 1/2 Scotches. Took 2 sleeping tablets. Dreamed of failure. Dreamed that I was examining a Ms. to find out why It didn’t read right . . .’ Here, Williams’s themes – sex, drink, drugs, literary failure – cluster together, indivisible.

Swimming, like sex, kept Williams alive. 1936: ‘I can’t get along without swimming – at least I don’t see how I could as it is my only physical “release”.’ Swimming gave him the pleasure that easy problems give a student not otherwise adept at maths. 1941: ‘Only the athletic club pulls me thru these days – the hot shower the swim – the quiet, sedative reading room.’ Even a reading room can serve as a pinkie. Lobotomy might have been his sword of Damocles, but sedation was his idea of heaven. He liked to list hygienic practices, and though he might at times have found sex filthy, he also considered it a cleansing ritual, like twenty laps. 1953: ‘I spent 6 hours on the San Sebastian beach and had an affair in my Cabana with someone procured by Franz. Had a Paella on the beach, a good swim in a salt water pool.’ Two days later, the same ritual: ‘A Paella for lunch, a swim at St Sebastian and afterwards open house in my room for about 6 hours. A totally disastrous “lay” with the last remaining guest, who stripped very badly.’ ‘Stripping badly’ is an unusual concept. Williams seems to be complaining not about the stripper’s body but about the tempo or inflections of his disrobing.

The notebook, as practised by Tennessee Williams, was a faltering, stammering form. It allowed him to pile up disconnected and partial indications. It allowed him to point to a reality outside the dream-box of literature (though his ‘reality’, of course, was partly composed of literature). His notebooks do not belong to the respectable genre of the writer’s diary, of which Virginia Woolf was an ideal practitioner. Williams’s notebooks are far more elliptical; they pose existence as a problem not to be overcome by description or eloquence. I won’t demean his notebooks by calling them raw material. Call them, instead, Sprechstimme: a form of declamation halfway between song and speech. The poet Harold Norse, quoted by Thornton in one of her many and excellent notes, describes Sprechstimme as ‘musical speech, rather like the tone of wonder and awe that grown-ups employ when narrating fairy tales to children, but heightened and intensified by sudden dramatic variations in pitch, volume and duration, punctuated by eerie cries’. Williams’s notebooks may not rise to tones of wonder and awe, but they certainly contain dramatic variations (1940: ‘My brain is curiously dead’ – three years before Rose’s lobotomy) and eerie cries (1955: ‘I lie here, after a morning “pinkie” a double martini, and with a Scotch, waiting for a golden rose to arrive “after one”’).

Williams’s notebooks are not chock-a-block with verbal derring-do. Remote from hothouse prose, they adhere to the tepid temperature of daily life, its sedated, uncurated, haphazard sequence. They are utterance interruptus; interruption is half the charm. For plays, he polished language; for notebooks, he left it dishevelled. Some of us prefer dishevelled language. Take this line, from 1981, the last sentence of the collected notebooks: ‘Where do I from here?’ The verb is missing. He probably means ‘where do I go from here’. But somehow – inebriation, haste – he skipped the ‘go’. I like the missing word. It suggests stoic carelessness. No more destinations. No more vehicles. Williams had ceased to believe in nightingales.