The Magazine

The Tennessee Waltz

Dancing with genius and despair.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOHN SIMON
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The biggest and most valuable part of Notebooks concerns Williams's struggle with his work, which often came very hard. There were years of sporadic publications of stories, poems, and one-act plays. But this and an occasional minor prize or subsidy were as nothing compared with the rejections upon rejections. There were, to be sure, teachers, friends, and theatrical folk who encouraged Tom, but finally it was his dogged perseverance, his stubborn efforts, that prevailed. The steady rewritings and re-rewritings, the false starts and major revisions, make fascinating reading, but unfortunately cannot be conveyed through brief, quotable passages.

There were setbacks for every slender success, and frequent faltering and rebounding. Take this, from 1953:

Sometimes when I read the work over it seems like the work of a lunatic or drunkard, at best the second. But each time I recover my blind hope or faith and go again the next day.

Repeatedly, he concludes with his optimistic motto: En avant! Then there are the absorbing accounts of relations with agents, producers, directors--even Hollywood, where an attempt at a screenplay for Lana Turner bombed.

After several disheartening near-breakthroughs, success finally came with The Glass Menagerie. But even a string of successes couldn't guarantee smooth sailing. "I don't get along with normal men," he complains; but luckily for him, there weren't too many of those in the theater. Particularly interesting is the well-documented relationship with Elia Kazan, whose directorial talent and commercial sense helped put Williams across, even if sometimes at the cost of loss in art.

We learn about Williams's taste in writers. His perennial favorites were Chekhov and Hart Crane, sometimes joined by Lawrence, Kafka, Strindberg, Proust, and Joyce. But there was mutability. So Sons and Lovers had to yield to Lady Chatterley's Lover (misspelled as "Chatterly") as Lawrence's best on June 24, 1955. Two days later, however, "Lady C. bores me this time."

A constant thread running through the journals, besides alcohol, is the steady ingestion of drugs, both medicinal and hallucinogenic. Among the sundry barbiturates, Seconal takes pride of place, as remedy for both insomnia and fear of flying, which Tennessee never quite conquered. There were flights when Seconal had to be seconded by alcohol, though even this wasn't always palliative enough.

Some close friendships enliven the journals, although they sometimes crumbled, as did the ones with his fellow writers Paul Bowles and Donald Windham. The latter, an early Williams lover and collaborator on the Lawrence-based play You Touched Me!, elicited Tennessee's wrath by publishing their correspondence with an unpleasant afterword. Whereupon he becomes "my old friend Donald Windham, a consummate liar and betrayer in his dealings with me."

Two great friendships with women proved steadfast: With the married Marion Vaccaro, even if he misspelled her as "Marian," and with the Russian-born British actress Maria Britneva, later, by marriage, Lady St. Just, and, after his death, Williams's literary executrix. No less lasting were the misspellings; thus one of the late plays, Kirche, Kutchen und Kinder, never got the error in its title corrected: The German for kitchen is Küche, not "Kutchen."

Critics provided some dependable bugbears, chiefly George Jean Nathan, Robert Brustein, and I. So, in a very late diary entry, Tennessee declares, "I recognize them as potential assassins, before, now, and later." Thornton quotes some of my late, unfavorable reviews, but not my enthusiastic ones for the vastly superior earlier plays.

The writing in the Notebooks is generally quite mundane, not meant for publication. Even so, there are bright, witty, and even lyrical passages, as when Tennessee feels like "a piece of toast forgotten in the toaster," or remarks, "I think I have discovered my first grey hair, but hope it is just a blond one."

My own contact with Tennessee Williams came about when he gave a talk--really just a Q & A--at Harvard and was asked what he thought about existentialism, then all the rage. He said he knew little about it, but maybe someone in the audience could enlighten him. A brash graduate student, I volunteered, which later earned me an invitation to lunch at his hotel, the Ritz Carlton. He received me in his pajamas, and I, becoming suspicious, talked about nothing but women.

What struck me most about the great man was the triteness of his conversation, as it also did Kenneth Tynan during a long interview: "He says nothing that is not candid and little that is not trite." Our lunch was on a frigid Armistice Day, and Tennessee, seeing through the window soldiers shivering atop armored vehicles waiting to join the parade, observed, "Those poor boys, they must be cold as a witch's teat." Raving to me about Greta Garbo, he remarked, "She seemed to be walking on air." Many years later, when his genius had forsaken him, he sat at a restaurant table next to mine and, understandably not recognizing me, leaned over to ask what time it was. I resisted saying, "Later than you might think."

Let me not shortchange him. For a man who had known extreme poverty, sometimes going hungry ("I have exactly one dime--and that borrowed"), often forced to take menial jobs (anything from work on a pigeon ranch--"killed and picked sixty squabs yesterday"--to getting promptly fired as an elevator operator), he did not, having become affluent, prove stingy to others, as many do. He was generous to all, and spent lavishly on good lifelong care for his beloved institutionalized sister.

Toward the end, days darkened with premonition. In a letter to a woman friend, he wrote, "I don't understand my life, past or present, nor do I understand life itself. Death seems more comprehensible to me." That was on May 31, 1982. On February 25, 1983, he was found dead, asphyxiated by mistakenly swallowing in the night the small, bell-shaped plastic cap of an eye-drop bottle.

I remember him gratefully for the pleasure his best works have given me. And sometimes with melancholy, when I listen to Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, one of them the setting of a poem by Theodor Storm, which, in translation, begins, "It happens that the nightingale / Has sung the whole night through," and ends, "From its sweet sound / Echoing and re-echoing, / The roses have burgeoned."

What beauty Williams was able to cull from his messy life.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.