One Great Good True Thing

Thomas Powers

  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
    Bloomsbury, 765 pp, £30.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 4365 9

To spend time with Tennessee Williams – for months on end in the case of Elia Kazan, the director who put his plays on the stage in the 1940s and 1950s; 12 years in the case of his latest and best biographer, John Lahr; or even as little as six weeks by me while reading Lahr’s absorbing Life, along with the work, and a big chunk of all the stuff Williams wrote and said about the work – is to learn and relearn how soberly Williams was speaking when he told Kazan: ‘I don’t know what it is to take anything calmly.’

Two or three times in the course of his life Williams gathered up all the things that agitated him, and following his peculiar method, not like that of any other writer I ever heard of, fashioned a headlong dramatic work of the kind that sends people home half-stunned. How Williams did it was a mystery. When he tried to explain it he only deepened the mystery. In 1947 Williams wanted Kazan to stage his new play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which at its most basic level is about two sisters, as different as any two humans could possibly be, who fall into the orbit of a man whose sexual power may be likened to gravity. Williams wanted a great director for his play but weeks passed with no word from Kazan, who was called Gadget or Gadge by everybody in the theatre world. When Williams called Kazan at home, Molly, Kazan’s wife, picked up the phone. She told Williams she had read Streetcar and thought it a masterpiece. Williams was relieved but Kazan’s silence alarmed him: ‘Gadge likes a thesis,’ he told Molly. ‘I haven’t made up my mind what the thesis of this play is.’ He had worked on the play for a year, it was done, he had a producer, he had a theatre, he was tugging at the lapels of a director – and he still hadn’t decided what the thesis was?

Williams came to Kazan filled with doubt and fear despite the immense success of his first big play, The Glass Menagerie. Lahr begins his book with a long account of its opening night and how Williams at the age of 34, after the ghastly failure of a previous play in Boston, reached Broadway at last. Central to The Glass Menagerie’s success was the performance of Laurette Taylor, an ageing alcoholic directors were afraid to cast. But the play’s director, Eddie Dowling, had insisted on Taylor. When Williams heard an early read-through he pleaded: ‘Oh, Mr Dowling, you’ve got to get rid of that woman who’s doin’ a Negress. My mother ain’t a Negress. My mother’s a lady.’ But Dowling held fast and Taylor, so drunk she couldn’t stand ninety minutes before the curtain went up on opening night, managed to pull herself together, got rapturous notices for her performance, made Williams rich and presented him with the challenge that faces every artist after he or she has dazzled the world – to do it again.

Lahr tells his stories well and his sixty-page version of The Glass Menagerie’s opening is as full of suspense as The Perils of Pauline. Williams’s early life was exhaustively told in Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich, who died before he could complete a second volume but left his trove of materials to Lahr. The new book doesn’t go back over that early ground, but includes enough to sketch in the family dynamics that gave Williams his material. For twenty years Lahr was the New Yorker’s chief drama critic, and he has a sound grasp of all the things that can go wrong for a play on its way to Broadway. Taylor could have been one of them. She had the genius and depth to play Amanda, but her drinking could have sunk the show, and that wasn’t the only danger facing The Glass Menagerie. Lahr maps all the hazards and wrings each for what it’s worth until great success wrested from fate transported Williams in one night from empty pockets to room service in posh hotels.

For the next fifteen astonishing years, Williams, like Pauline, again and again approached the edge of the pit where flops expire with a string of big plays that were all close things, and that’s the way Lahr tells them. The reader always knows what’s coming. If a play’s title is familiar it was a triumph; if not, not. Once or twice the approaching locomotive runs right over Pauline on the tracks. But from The Glass Menagerie to The Night of the Iguana in 1961, the plays mostly worked, adding to Williams’s reputation and bank account. Even the few failures from that period, like Camino Real and Orpheus Descending, were big, substantial, formidable and interesting. Lahr likes some of the plays that followed The Night of the Iguana, or parts of them, or at least something about them, but after 1961 until his death in 1983 Williams never again achieved a big commercial and critical success. Failure was painful and he made it worse with reckless abuse of drink and pills. His sexual and emotional lives were in chaos. It makes for an awful spectacle, but Lahr never loses sight of the work that mattered, or loses interest in the question that haunted Williams: where did he lose his way?

*

Early in 1946, fresh from the success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams left New York for New Orleans, where he went back to an abandoned fragment of a play. There wasn’t much, only a single scene – it was night, a woman in a darkened room was waiting for a knock at the door from a lover who never came. Her name was Blanche; she was sitting in a beam of moonlight. The poignance of the scene had terrified Williams at the time. He always felt what his characters felt. ‘I can’t cope with it,’ he said to himself. ‘I can’t pull this off.’ But in New Orleans Williams picked up the thread. At the time he called this his play about ‘the sisters’. Twenty years later he said that, while he was working on it in New Orleans, ‘I was under the mistaken impression that I was dying.’ In truth that impression rarely left him, but he kept the fear at bay, then and later, with ‘a theory that an artist will never die … while he is engaged in a piece of work that is very important to him’. He kept going with work, oyster stew, swimming laps at the New Orleans Athletic Club, and nightly Brandy Alexanders at Victor’s around the corner. But mortality was the thing that drove him. ‘Without that idea of imminent death,’ he remarked, ‘I doubt that I could have created Blanche DuBois.’

Throughout his life Williams insisted that he worked every day, by which he meant every day, seven days a week. The reader rebels. Surely it can’t be true? There were whole decades where he was so drunk, so pumped up or flattened out by pills, so wracked with lust, anger, grief and hysterical alarm for his health that he thought he was going to die, and even wanted to die. He told Gore Vidal that he slept through the whole of the 1960s. ‘You didn’t miss a thing,’ Vidal told him. But even during his lost decade it seems evident that Williams sat down every day at his desk. ‘My life seems to be chalked off not in years but in plays,’ he once told an interviewer.

His working day went like this. Up in the morning – it was usually the morning, but on some days he didn’t retire until dawn was breaking. He put on a bathrobe, then had two cups of strong coffee. Step by step as he aged the strong coffee was followed by other pick-me-ups: first a pill or two and then during one extended period when Williams veered suicidally close to the rocks he also gave himself an intramuscular injection of a magic potion concocted by a New York doctor called Max Jacobson, referred to by celebrities who had his phone number – Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy – as Doctor Feelgood. Lahr identifies the ingredients in these ‘fire-shots’ as amphetamines, painkillers, vitamins and human placenta. Williams was trying to clear the fog in his brain, to call up some residue of the energy of his youth. The chief ingredient in the potion was amphetamine – speed. But to get things exactly right Williams’s daily self-medication before addressing the typewriter required one final element: cranked up to racing mode with speed, he backed down the rpms before starting to work by making himself a Martini. He told Kazan it was a double Martini. When a man makes himself a double Martini before dressing he is not using a graduated beaker to get the measure right. At that point in his life Williams was exhibiting classic signs of end-stage alcoholism. He told Kazan that until his preparations kicked in he was ‘nothing but an ageing faggot’.

Properly fortified he faced the page. He seems to have approached every play with what he called ‘my methodless method of work’. He brought so little to that first page you are tempted to call it nothing. Not knowing how to get started, Willem de Kooning would sometimes take a wide brush, fill it with paint, and scrawl on his canvas a word like ‘shit’. Then he had something to work with. Like de Kooning, Williams didn’t start with anything you might call an ‘idea’. He just had some small thing – a person, a moment, some fragment of a situation. Something like a woman sitting in a darkened room waiting for a knock on the door. He would work on that fragment for three or four hours. That was his working day. The next day, reading over what he had, he would see where the fragment was trying to go, and the day after that the same again. When he dried up on one scene or character or incident he switched to another. The thing that would make these fragments into a play was very elusive. It came at a moment of its own sweet choosing. ‘Only about three or four days out of a year,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘Those are the days when you really write the play.’

The sisters were still in his new play in March 1947 but the working title, ‘The Poker Game’, had changed to A Streetcar Named Desire – a reference to the New Orleans trolley line that brought Blanche to the apartment where she sought refuge with her sister, Stella, whose husband, Stanley, radiated sexual heat. By this time Williams was beginning to think that he had a play. When Kazan finally read it he agreed with his wife – he had been asked to direct a masterpiece.

*

The work of Tennessee Williams includes so many different things of so many different types that it is difficult to sum up what he did. By Lahr’s count he wrote thirty full-length plays, seventy one-act plays, one novel, dozens of short stories, numerous poems and scores of non-fiction pieces, many still unpublished. Lahr and John Bak catalogued a vast number of these fragments and fugitive pieces in their 2009 edition of Williams’s posthumously published New Selected Essays. Lahr’s Life of the playwright is fat and thorough but readers who want the full flavour of Williams should get hold of the Essays, too, along with Albert Devlin’s Conversations with Tennessee Williams.[*] Everything Williams wrote had interest but five or six plays were central to his achievement. Of those, three stand out – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Two of the three were brought to the stage by Elia Kazan, who thought A Streetcar Named Desire was almost flawless when it reached him – ‘complete at birth’, he called it – while Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in Kazan’s view, was bedevilled by a weak third act.

Williams once told an interviewer that ‘all plays come out of some inner tension in the playwright himself.’ The tension in A Streetcar Named Desire centres on emotional longing, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on sexual desire, although there is plenty of both in each. Williams’s education in longing and desire began at home – in the small town of Columbus, Mississippi on the Tombigbee River until he was eight, and later in St Louis. Vidal called Williams’s family his ‘basic repertory company’: a mother who lived at a high emotional pitch, talked all the time and ‘used to scream every time she had sex with my father’; an angry father who drank, gambled, womanised and made fun of his sissy son as ‘Miss Nancy’; a gentle preacher grandfather with a gift for religious poetry; a sister, Rose, who spent most of her life in an institution after a lobotomy; his Aunt Belle in Knoxville, transmuted by Williams into Blanche DuBois, a woman consumed by longing, desire and the memory of telling her husband she had seen him with a man – ‘I saw! I know! You disgust me.’ When he killed himself, guilt left her vulnerable, longing for exactly that sort of tenderness she had cruelly snatched away. Blanche’s longing had many objects: spent youth and Belle Reve, the family mansion, long lost; the army boys she turned to after her husband shot himself; her sister’s happiness and her sister’s husband, Stanley, even as she was repelled by his coarse bellow – ‘I am the king around here!’

In A Streetcar Named Desire everything worked; there were no loose ends, no characters without motivation, nothing impossible to accept or believe, nothing that needed to be fixed. It was the play that set Williams apart for life. Few lines outside of Shakespeare are as widely recognised as Blanche’s final words – ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Blanche and Stanley are among the great characters of American literature. ‘The play carried us all,’ Kazan wrote in his autobiography, A Life. ‘There was no way to spoil Streetcar.’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was another matter.

It was again essentially a three-character play: Big Daddy Pollitt, owner of a huge plantation (28,000 acres) in the Mississippi Delta, convinced he has beaten cancer because no one has the courage to tell him the truth; his alcoholic son, Brick, a one-time high school football star undone by the tortured memory of his ‘friendship’ with Skipper, now dead; and Brick’s wife, Maggie, determined to bear the child that Big Daddy demands before including Brick in his will. Blocking the way is Brick’s cold fury with Maggie, whom he rejects for detestable crimes and failings. Greed for Big Daddy’s wealth is one of them. Jealousy of his ‘friendship’ with Skipper is another. Finally there is her confession of an almost-thing with Skipper, who couldn’t quite manage actual sex. The failure convinced him the awful charge must be true – he was a ducking sissy, a queer! – and in despair he killed himself. ‘How in hell on earth,’ Brick demands of Maggie, ‘do you imagine that you’re going to have a child by a man that can’t stand you?’ ‘That’s a problem,’ Maggie answers, ‘that I will have to work out.’

It’s all powerful stuff, but Kazan was right: this tangle of motives is not quite resolved in the third act. One obvious fix was to bring back Big Daddy, whose dramatic confrontation with Brick in Act Two is the play’s centre of gravity. Kazan pressed for a reappearance and Williams complied with a scene of Big Daddy telling a joke. Kazan and Williams both thought it was okay at best but kept it in the play. In A Life, Kazan says that Big Daddy’s return was his only request, ‘a suggestion that had nothing to do with making the play more commercial’. But Lahr has gathered up plenty of other evidence that Kazan wanted subtler and deeper changes: a Maggie less shrill, more sympathetic; some explanation of the trouble between Brick and Maggie, even maybe a suggestion of a happy ending – a phrase no one dared utter, but which all knew would enhance the commercial prospects of the play. Williams was never indifferent to commerce. He came around slowly, agreeing that ‘there has to be a reason for Brick’s impasse (his drinking is only an expression of it) that will “hold water”.’

Sixty years later the source of the impasse is unmistakable. Skipper all along was the true object of Brick’s romantic and sexual longing. Williams isn’t quite ready to let Maggie say that, but she does speak plainly about Skipper’s longing for his high school buddy. Brick denies that sex had anything to do with it, insisting he had ‘one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true! – I had friendship with Skipper. – You are naming it dirty!’ Later he accuses Big Daddy of the same slur. ‘You think me an’ Skipper did, did, did! – Sodomy! – together?’

The anger, the despair, the suicidal drinking, the ranting disgust with mendacity, the anger at a father who wants to control everything starting with the sex life of his son, the furious sexual rejection of Maggie: all of it makes sense if Brick, a child of his era and so steeped in denial, is calmly identified as a gay man who loved Skipper but cannot bring himself to admit it. Williams approaches the plain facts cautiously, giving Brick a speech that brings him to the cusp of confession. ‘Oh, once in a while,’ he tells Big Daddy, ‘he put his hand on my shoulder or I’d put my hand on his, oh, maybe even, when we were touring the country in pro-football an’ shared hotel rooms we’d reach across the space between the two beds and shake hands to say goodnight, yeah, one or two times we –’

Well?

‘I now believe,’ Williams wrote to Kazan during their struggle over the third act, ‘that, in the deeper sense, not the literal sense, Brick is homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment.’ He knows it but he doesn’t know it. ‘But if a mask is ripped off,’ Williams continues, ‘suddenly, roughly, that’s quite enough to blast the whole Mechanism, the whole adjustment, knock the world out from under their feet, and leave them [men trapped in denial like Brick] no alternative but – owning up to the truth or retreat into something like liquor.’

That is the truth of the play. Brick can drink himself to death, or stop denying the obvious and admit that Maggie leaves him sexually cold, but he cannot perform an about-face and father the all-important child and assume the ‘normal’ life that will satisfy the dying Big Daddy. Williams might have written the play that way. He knew plenty of men for whom homosexuality was a guilt-ridden ordeal. But Williams in 1955, knowing what would fly on Broadway and what would not, was just not prepared to leave Brick out there, hanging from a gibbet and twisting in the wind, a gay man who can’t admit it. In the end he sticks with Brick and the ‘heterosexual adjustment’ – maybe he and Skipper shared a gentle touch, reached across the space between the beds – but that was it. Written that way, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof offers only bleak despair at the final curtain. Kazan believed this approach would be poison at the box office, or at least a soporific. He pressed Williams to follow the safer course, soften Maggie, open the door for reconciliation, let the dead Skipper carry the burden of truth alone, and send the audience out into the night thinking the air had been cleared, father and son reconciled, love of husband and wife rekindled, and – all the claptrap that was explicit by the time Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reached the screen with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

The play and movie were both big successes; Williams lived on them for decades. But the struggle over the third act had been painful, and his friendship with Kazan was never quite the same. He said once that the rewriting ‘seemed almost like a prostitution or a corruption’, later that it was ‘like a deep psychic violation’. For months afterwards he couldn’t write at all. It was then, he once said, that he turned to pills and Doctor Feelgood’s magic shots to start his working day. ‘I needed these things to give me the physical energy to work.’ When he published the play he included both versions of the third act: the one he had written originally, which ended bleakly but with evasions intact; and the softened, more hopeful, more conventional version he wrote for Kazan. In a ‘Note of Explanation’ Williams said in effect that he had been pushed and perhaps even pressured into changes. At about the same time he wrote an essay for Playbill in which he tipped his hat to Kazan with the admission that ‘a play must nearly always be raised above its manuscript level’ with the help of actors, set designers, producers and directors, but fiercely added: ‘except – I repeat, except! – in those rare instances when the playwright’s work is so highly individual that no one but the playwright is capable of discovering the right key for it.’ The theatre world had no trouble understanding which director and what play Williams had in mind. Still simmering nearly twenty years later, Williams scorned in print the softer version as ‘the sentimentally ingenuous solution of the marital dilemma between Maggie and Brick’. The sniping and insinuation irritated Kazan, who protested in his autobiography: ‘I especially resented Tennessee’s calling “my” third act … the “commercial” third act.’

Williams was in genuine agony – he insisted he detested ‘mendacity’ – but he also backed off. He knew how much Kazan had contributed to the success of his big plays and said so. ‘When you’re dealing with an artist as creative and as great as Kazan, you can’t use the word “tamper”,’ he told an interviewer. They worked together on one more big play – Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959 – but broke for good a year later when Kazan backed out of an agreement to direct Williams’s new play, Period of Adjustment. Williams conspicuously failed to take this calmly. He was drunk, of course, and attacked with bitter words. Kazan wrote a furious reply citing years of wounded feelings, misunderstandings and creative abrasions. Neither man ever recognised the real nature of their impasse – their mutual fear of taking a play to Broadway that hinged on a hero who was gay but couldn’t admit it. Their break was painful but they liked and respected each other too much to nurse hurt feelings. Neither ever enjoyed alone the success they had achieved together.

*

Williams worked on, producing a steady stream of new work and often going back to old plays in the hope of getting them right at last. Disgust with age began early. Time is the enemy, the battered hero, Chance Wayne, tells the audience at the end of Sweet Bird of Youth. Kazan thought it ‘the frankest play he has written’ and Williams to a point agreed. In a letter he told Kazan he had based Chance on himself: ‘Am simply very self-centred without confidence in the centre – Chance without looks, shall we say. And middle-aged and hate it.’

He was spared the common indignities; he was always famous and never poor, but the failure of a play was as painful as a death in the family. He brooded on the critics who thought he was finished, grieved for the loss of friends and lovers, couldn’t remain long in one place, angrily insisted he would never write for Broadway again, was certain he had cancer, felt his heart was failing, and quarrelled obsessively. He accused Kazan of thinking he was ‘a cheap, pretentious old bitch. Well, you’re right in a way … I am haunted all the time by “the goddam end of my life”, by which I don’t mean my physical death but my death as an artist: I am haunted by that terror, and that’s why I drink as I do, and why I work so compulsively as I do, shouting at life: it ain’t so!’

At times he railed at the suggestion he had run dry, at others wondered why it was so. What had he lost – what had any writer lost? – when his best in mid or late career drew only polite interest or, God forbid, a shrug? ‘It seems to me around age 45 it occurs,’ he suggested in 1975, when he was in his mid-sixties. ‘It may be just a matter of their running out of material.’ He knew his powers had diminished; it was a diminished writer who was trying to compete with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. It was then that he learned that ‘the failure of a play is one of the world’s more agonising adventures.’

Watching Williams’s life run out is like watching a dog in the street that has been hit by a car; the dying goes on longer than you would think. Naturally, as happens with great public figures, every bleak cry, every cruel word or bodily weakness was noticed and recorded by somebody and Lahr has not drawn a veil over the last years and days. My advice is to forget all that, go back to Williams’s essay ‘A Summer of Discovery’, and read his account of a month in Acapulco, then an unspoiled fishing village. With him he carried an X-ray plate of a dark patch on his lung to prove he was dying of tuberculosis. The year was 1940. His felt his career was sputtering out. He thought maybe TB offered the easier way. He decided he didn’t care. He spent his nights in a hammock drinking Rum Cocos with another young American writer, even more despondent than himself, who said there was no hope for either of them. If they had any courage, the other fellow said, when they finished their drinks they would go down the hill to the beach for ‘the long swim to China’.

But circumstances changed and they found themselves in a car with an American tourist heading north to Texas along a tortuous mountain road of hairpin turns. Tennessee was horrified to hear his despondent friend ask ‘if he couldn’t take over the wheel for a while’. On one side of the road was a cliff wall, on the other eternity. ‘“Oh no,” I exclaimed.’ ‘It was then,’ Williams added, ‘that I was all through with my death wish.’ It’s a classic Williams story – two characters, emotionally fraught, no thesis.

[*] Published by Mississippi in 2012 in the excellent Literary Conversations Series.