"Imagined,” whispered the drama student, “that he’d be blind and led in by a small boy.” Instead Tennessee Williams, distinguished-artist-in-residence for five weeks at the University of British Columbia, had sauntered nimbly into a hushed graduate seminar, jaunty in a bohemian checked jacket, blue knit tie all askew. A restless 69 despite a self-confessed profligate life, Williams is still called America’s greatest living playwright. The author of modern classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, he is now an icon of American drama. Yet in recent years Williams’ image has faltered. Almost 20 years have passed since his last success on Broadway— The Night of the Iguana—and reviewers have shaken their heads at his efforts since. When Williams’ Clothes for a Summer Hotel flopped on Broadway last spring, the acerbic New York critic John Simon summed up public sentiment in a scathing review, managing only one backhanded compliment: “Tennessee Williams has finally written a play that, unlike its eight or 10 predecessors, is not embarrassing.” Williams, however, is plugging on defiantly, dismissing charges that he is written out as “unthinkable.” Sitting on a park bench overlooking the rumbling
tugs and wheeling gulls of Vancouver’s harbor, Williams warms to an argument on the senility of Broadway versus the vitality of regional theatre. “I’ve got one more play in reserve but I wouldn’t take it to New York until they begged me for it,” he says pugnaciously. “It’s important that I produce a last major play. Then I will content myself with smaller things.”
For the moment Williams is contenting himself with another reworking of his southern Gothic melodrama, The Red Devil Battery Sign, shepherding it through rehearsals at Vancouver’s Playhouse Theatre (years ago he watched the same play flop in Boston). Battery Sign is an angry, extravagant play, a “raw wound” according to Williams, written after his 1969 collapse and confinement in a psychiatric ward. At its best it contains echoes of Williams’ evocative power, gifts revealed in his prolific output of 30 fulllength plays and almost 30 short ones.
Never strong on plot, Williams’ genius is in his characters, mad men and especially women, romantics seared by the real world. At his best, Williams tempers a tendency to purple melodrama with the rhythm of the street. Creating figures like Big Daddy, the blustering dying plantation owner in Cat, or florid, blowsy women such as the Blanche DuBois of Streetcar, he was in the front trenches of the post-war revi-
val of American drama. By writing of the dissolute, the losers, and by using previously unthinkable dramatic devices such as episodes of homosexuality, castration, drug addiction, even cannibalism, he absorbed the full critical shock, easing the way for the likes of Edward Albee and Joe Orton. Since his first Broadway triumph with Menagerie in 1945, Williams has displayed no ideology, no icy existentialism, only his characters, sweaty, gasping people propelled to the edge of civility where the cement of manners and hard work is swept away.
Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, this formula succeeded extravagantly, earning Williams two Pulitzer Prizes and three New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards. There was a string of popular successes, including Sweet Bird of Youth and The Rose Tattoo. But since Iguana, his reputation as a dramatist has slipped. Forgettable plays such as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel and Out Cry died ignoble deaths. His harrowing, dark view of life remained, but the cadence of the sidewalk disappeared. The suspension of disbelief that allowed Williams’ potent melodrama to succeed in the earlier plays broke down in the later ones. Too often the shocks became trickery, the effect pleaded for.
Williams apparent literary decline in many ways parallelled a private one, giving rise to inevitable gossip, most of which was bluntly addressed in his 1975 confessional Memoirs. The book offered a portrait of a delicate southern youth, brought up in Columbus, Miss., and St. Louis and called Miss Nancy by his bluff caricature of a shoe-salesman father. Sick with diphtheria at the age of 7, he came increasingly under the influence of his dainty hectoring mother, Edwina.
At university in Missouri in the 1930s he formed his first of many homosexual liaisons. What he terms the “catastrophe of success” set in after the early New York triumphs. The failure of Orpheus Descending in 1957 triggered a dissolute spiral of Nembutal and emotional problems culminating in his 1969 collapse. His lovers have died of brain tumors or been decapitated by subway trains, have succumbed to madness, cancer and drink. Ironically, it is a life Williams appears to have sought. “There is,” he admits, “something of the Gothic about me.” Human vices fuel his work; desire is both the engine and the mechanism of doom for his characters. The recurrent Williams dramatic themes of loneliness, love lost and grace in adversity echo through Memoirs.
Why then not retire from the wars, take his considerable royalties and reputation and retreat to putter in his garden in Key West, Fla.? The answer is basic: he is a professional and he loves to write, habitually rising at 5 a.m. to spend four hours at the typewriter. “My present life is quite pleasant at last,” he told a Vancouver news conference shortly after his arrival. In Vancouver he was ferreted away in a downtown hotel, giving politely vague writing seminars at UBC, sampling Vancouver’s discreet but active gay night life and revising Battery Sign. “He’s the easiest writer I’ve ever worked with,” says Playhouse artistic director Roger Hodgman, who asked for and received extensive cuts in the play. At earlier Vancouver appearances Williams had offered his proper donnish face, referring to Clothes as “the last of my Broadway blockbusters.” When asked how he’d like to be remembered, he replied sweetly: “Just remembered.”
Sitting on the park bench, however, Williams presents a more complicated picture—at once courtly with his muffin-sweet southern drawl, then as stingingly waspish as the New York critics who have attacked him. Speaking of one offender, he sputters, “I’d be glad to engage a hit man to get him,” and laughs in open-mouthed staccato. For the next while he’s avoiding New York, heading to rehearsals in Chicago of a trio of one-acts called Tennessee Laughs, then to Rome for the Guccisponsored launch of the 1950 novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He also talks vaguely, if enthusiastically, of returning to Vancouver’s Playhouse to adapt and codirect a new version of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull. He clearly has no intention of humoring the doctor who once advised him to return to Key West and live quietly, “like a crocodile.” Like Muhammad Ali, Tennessee Williams fades between scraps. “Key West?” he says, eyes widening in mock horror, “I’d be bored as hell.”
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