Georgina Deverell takes a look back at the illustrious career of Tennessee Williams, and what constitutes successes and failures, particularly as a writer.
Tennessee Williams died thirty years ago, having earned recognition in his own lifetime as the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world. President Carter presented him with the Medal of Freedom, declaring that ‘Tennessee show[ed] that the truly heroic in life or art is human compassion.’
So let’s just get one thing straight here, Tennessee Williams was no failure.
I’ve thought about what that lyric in Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero‘ might mean; Dylan is talking about something intangibly present in human consciousness, and I realise how profoundly it pertains to everything I understand about Tennessee Williams: his plays, his philosophies, his life, or just the way he makes me feel.
Not everybody enjoys watching plays about failure. Some people are more interested in success. Everywhere you look, there are rags-to-riches stories, celebrations of survival against the odds, films with romantic plots that end with weddings. A lot of people crave escapism.
It’s true what Dylan says in the following line, that failure’s no success at all. The line doesn’t take much examining. That’s where many of us are positioned in life, and it’s a pretty unequivocal reality to find oneself in. The magical buoyancy of the preceding line is the one I’m interested in because it speaks of our relationship with ourselves, the world, and those rare people who occasionally make us feel at least reconciled with what it is that we are fighting against. What we are all afraid of. When somebody we admire manages to successfully be heard, and has the unlikely grace to say something truthful about the rest of us, that is poetry.
We’re all failing, to some degree or another, most of the time. And even when we have successes, there will inevitably be more failures to follow. Tennessee Williams himself perceived his own life and work to be a failure much of the time – more of the time than he didn’t, which goes to demonstrate the very subjective notion of success or failure. He worked tirelessly, every morning, drafting and reworking his plays, with an almost evangelical commitment. He was driven, and his output was impressive to say the least, but it wasn’t success that was driving him. It was truth.
He had a sort of crazed compulsion to communicate a truth that lay at the heart of his existence, and he chose to do this through theatre. It was his own confusions and personal struggles that he laid bare in the characters he created; his fear, pain and sorrow that came to life onstage through those roles, illuminated by the miraculous conduit of an actor. He showed failure not as something to be condemned, but something to be identified with and treated with compassion. He invested his protagonists with the dignity that exists within every human heart; and insodoing, he made them noble, reminding his audiences that there but for the grace of God went they.
While one might admire a successful hero or heroine, the one who really moves us – who haunts us through our lives – is the one who has failed. Because that person lives in each of us. We relate to his suffering, and if we can see that he has failed simply because of being human, we love him and forgive him all the more.
Tennessee Williams possessed that most unusual of qualities, emotional intelligence. And he gifted all his significant characters with the same. It’s a beautiful feature and it points towards something that sets the possessor apart from the otherwise ugly morass of humanity, and that thing is awareness.
Williams deals with the stuff of being human. His themes are sex and sexuality, frailty, weakness, addiction, madness and love. Our daily bread indeed, but that we strive to take control of in our quest for stability, normality, and sanity.
Mainstream and low culture are full of pornography, failure, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues and relationship struggles. In soap operas and daytime television, the popular press, or on a walk down any high street in an urban environment, you will be confronted with the horrors and vulgarity of human ugliness. It’s everywhere.
Those among us who, through education, religion, culture or intellect attempt to civilise ourselves against these corrupting elements of human nature might be contemptuous, having successfully eradicated such base, undignified traits from our existences. It is distasteful watching others’ bestial urges in public; flagrant and unconscious, seemingly unable to help themselves or even recognise their gaudiness. There’s a blind ignorance about The Jeremy Kyle Show that is present in the host, the audience, and the guests that makes the accidental viewer want to run for the hills.
And the reason? Because we’re terrified. Threatened beyond words by what these people are manifesting in their unknowing journeys through existence. Their combined lack of awareness and control is horrifying. Because as so-called civilised individuals, we’re supposed not to recognise them, but somewhere underneath our decency and polished speech, we recognise them only too well.
Tennessee Williams saves those of us who feel ashamed of our humanity. Those of us who live in our bodies as well as our minds. Those of us who feel we should be better than we are; achieving where we are failing; feeling what we ought not to feel, falling apart when we ought to be keeping it together; succumbing where we ought to be resisting. All the while this is happening in our lives, we feel mortified, and want to hide from the judgment of those who appear to be happier, or more functional than ourselves. We are locked in the pain of isolation.
But Williams does something amazing with his work – he invests intelligence, spirituality and awareness into the hearts of the afflicted.
He dares to bring the ‘little people,’ as he called them, as his hero D H Lawrence called them before him, some of that glory. He says: Look! These people are not famous or rich, they’re not anything. But they ARE beautiful. They are intelligent, dignified and proud, and they are suffering just like you. He explains in an essay entitled ‘The Timeless World of the Play’ that it is time itself that imposes the judgments we make on each other, all of us up against the relentless pressures of existence. ‘For a couple of hours,’ he says, ‘we may surrender ourselves to a world of fiercely illuminated values in conflict.’
Tennessee’s themes are re-occurring because they are the things that he himself is in turmoil over. Being homosexual when it was still socially stigmatised meant he struggled with a sense of marginalisation and defiance. A bullying alcoholic father meant he grappled with feelings of shame and fear matched by equally intense fury and hatred. Many of his characters occupy an uncomfortable sexuality: Shannon and his young girls in Night of the Iguana, Blanche and her young boys, Brick and his sorrow over his dead friend, Maggie and her humiliation in the face of her husband’s homosexuality, Archie Lee and his jealous torment over his virgin wife, Sebastian and his appetite for young boys. The list goes on. In The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, and through Sissy Goforth, the ‘unsightly’ idea of desire and age co-existing, particularly in women, is explored. The popular response is: how excruciating. That is still true of a contemporary audience. It is only the young that are allowed to experience or admit desire. But the ageing feel it just as acutely. By granting older women their sexuality, TW was being almost as controversial as publicly admitting his own sexuality. He was able to inhabit the female characters that he wrote as much as, if not more than the male leads because he identified with the underdog, the misfit. In his Memoirs, he confesses, Iit is extremely unattractive and humiliating and sleep-destroying to still be at my age a sensualist as well as a romanticist.’
His beloved sister Rose was lobotomised at a tragically young age, one of the first people in the United States to be subjected to the procedure. Tennessee’s mixed emotions of regret and loss of trust in the world over his family’s decision, haunted him for the rest of his life. His own fear of insanity and confinement was exacerbated by the horror of his sister’s experience, and many of Williams’ characters are at the mercy of impending madness, dangerously close at hand. Alma Winemiller is oppressed by a neurotic sensitivity; Williams admits, ‘I am as much of an hysteric… as Blanche.’ Madness is the worst threat to the constructed self and his characters have to fight for their survival against institutionalisation, real or imagined. Shannon, Blanche, Cathie, Laura, and the Princess are all living under the shadow of their precariously-balanced sanity, and often the only way to cling onto some semblance of it is with the help of drugs or liquor, or both.
So many of TW’s characters are dependent on alcohol or narcotics. He knows their weaknesses and their addictions, because he knows his own.
In Baby Doll, the sexual need and longing embodied in Archie’s frustration are offset by Baby’s sexual withholding. There’s a scene at the doctor’s where Archie is prescribed a sedative. ‘Sedative! What do I need with a Sedative???’ He’s outraged by the idea of deadening his desire. TW is pre-occupied with addiction and prescription. He writes about drugs and alcohol as a means to deaden pain and numb desire, fascinated by the pervasiveness of the need.
Archie Lee resists prescription, but for how long? Anyone who feels, and is denied, needs help. A lot of people in TW’s plays use drugs, because they are in pain. One of the most shocking examples in his work is Alma Winemiller’s addiction to sleeping pills in Summer & Smoke. She’s such a pure and spotless heroine, yet she’s in pain over her heart and her desires, and TW gives her those things AND spiritual purity. She’s the last person in the world you can imagine getting involved with prescription drugs and yet she does! And TW washes away some of the shame of it! If not all of it! There’s no shame in his world. People are who they are.
He understands that a society needs its drugs to manage its pain, and that the American Dream and the Western model for success doesn’t allow for people’s pain.
Despite his father’s alcoholism, there is no reactionary shift towards sanctimony. He remains non-judgmental. His work is his mantra of forgiveness.
He talks candidly about the fact that he wrote under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but very gallantly cautions ‘any young writer… [against] elect[ing] that way until it is forced upon him, until he cannot continue his work without resorting to stimulants.’
But there’s another theme that runs through the veins of all his work and that’s love. And although he deals a lot in the currency of the carnal nature of love, the single most powerful element that unites each play is spirituality. And it’s this spirituality that transforms the other elements of his drama from something that, if it ever ran the risk of being vulgar, prevents it from being so.
Tennessee’s maternal grandfather was an Episcopalian minister, a church with a pervasively tolerant persuasion, and his grandparents were a species of guardian angel in his life. It’s easy to get carried away with the glamour, the romance, the tragic faded elegance of Williams’ world, and forget about the essential gentleness that beats in the heart of his plays.
His genius lies in his exquisite ability to balance the sacred with the profane. He recognises the conflicts that make up the human condition, and accepts them. He doesn’t pigeonhole his characters. He just sees that they are struggling to be good, but also struggling to be authentic, and understands that often those two paradigms are in conflict.
Williams deals in broken dreams and failed aspirations, but his characters possess a chiarascuro kind of success: the integrity of their hearts. He celebrates the tender frailty of humanity, not what people have achieved. He captures the human condition by endowing his characters with an acute self-consciousness. They are painfully and commendably aware of their own failings, without wallowing in self-pity.
In 1943, Tennessee wrote to his mother with gracious concern for his elderly grandmother during an illness. Yet his journals of the same day reveal a contradictory feeling. He confesses it is ‘shameful that the news about Grand [his grandmother] means so little… I’ve grown hard… turned into a crocodile.’ A sense of love towards his family prompted the correspondence, but he was able to articulate within the safe space of his journals how detached and weird he was feeling about his life at that moment. The fact that he was able to verbalise these contradictions demonstrates that he was quite the opposite of a crocodile.
We like to label things; To compartmentalise. We do it with people too. It helps us feel in control. Tennessee held the mirror up to the audience and gently demonstrated the naïve fruitlessness of that mission. His plays hold contradictions. And the contradictions are the alchemical ingredients of poetry. When we think all is carnal sensuality, he gives us spirituality. The merely carnal would render him uncouth. The merely spiritual would have us falling asleep. But the combination of the two forces an intelligent response.
He pours his soul into his plays, and he expects a lot from an audience in return. By giving his characters this visionary intelligence, he transcends the vulgarity of humanity’s ‘acting without questioning’. In Small Craft Warnings he sails so close to the wind that for some audiences the rawness is too much. But still the characters are sentient enough to force an audience to observe what they might rather not. The cast are not permitted to blindly stumble through life without questioning their motivations, so the audience is not permitted to lazily observe without questioning their response either.
In Night of the Iguana, Hannah tells Shannon, ‘Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent.’ And of course she’s speaking for Williams. When an audience thinks they have him down as a degenerate, he calls their bluff, demonstrating that he has such a heightened sense of humanity that he stands outside the moral arena. He isn’t interested in the moral side of things at all. He completely transcends it. He is interested only in the human and the spiritual. Everything else in between he leaves to other playwrights.
At the end of Summer & Smoke, Alma (whose name means soul), speaks this line: ‘I always say that life is such a mysteriously complicated thing that no one should really presume to judge and condemn the behaviour of anyone else!’
The doctor’s son, who she is in love with, has spent the first half of the play in a sensual degeneracy that has made a mockery of Alma’s sensitivity, but a shock has brought him to his senses and he considers himself reformed. He explains to Alma that there is more to a relationship between a man and woman than respect, that there’s ‘such a thing as intimate relations.’ We think that Alma is being put in her place by John; that she is naïve. But she soars way over John’s head: ‘Some people bring just their bodies. But there are some people, there are some women, John – who can bring their hearts to it, also – who can bring their souls to it!’
Later, he says to her: ‘I’ve settled with life on fairly acceptable terms. Isn’t that all a reasonable person can ask for?’ He seems to have convinced himself he can adhere to that on the long term. And maybe for years, he will; but eventually, his spirit will resurface and things will get choppy again in his life. He represents the shifts in moral position that we all assume, especially those of us who’ve had our fingers burned as John has. But Alma knows it is a false morality. It can’t last. You can repress it, but you can’t quash a strong spirit. She says: ‘He can ask for much more than that. He can ask for the coming true of his most improbable dreams.’
Summer & Smoke is about the moral flux within the human struggle, and Williams, being the intensely spiritual man that he is, is able to articulate these things by placing poetry in the mouths of ordinary people. It is so rarely done – that poetry is spoken and contextualised by actors in a play. But it can be done. Shakespeare did it. And Williams does it. He accords in bald humanity a sense of the sublime.
Because the truth is that if Williams hadn’t had his art, he would have BEEN one of the characters in his plays; in many ways was anyway, but he would have been an even more tragic one, and he recognised this very early in his career, and remained true to his belief that writing and the theatre saved his life. Through his art he wrote out versions of himself again and again. And he was relentlessly non-judgmental. He was always only compassionate, patient and empathic with his characters. Yet despite his tenderness towards them, and towards himself, he wrote and exposed them with all their faults, in all their wanton desperation. But Brick and Maggie and Blanche and Val are not victims, and they never see themselves as such. They are fired with his spirit, his energy and his intelligence. Williams makes no excuses for the characters he writes. He doesn’t try to water them down or make them more palatable. On the contrary he is drawn to their failings and the taboo elements of their natures. If society is rejecting it, he will haul it out and examine it. And he will do it precisely because he identifies with the pain of it.
He simply says: It’s alright to feel. He never advocates madness or degeneracy, but nor does he condemn it. He puts beautiful people in vulnerable situations. And he doesn’t moralise. He’s not writing for sensation, he’s writing for support. Both to receive it and to offer it. It’s a genuine exchange. The best there is.
There’s no attempt to disguise himself in his writing. He occupies his character’s minds, and he’s right behind them, rooting for them. He doesn’t invite an audience to sit back and observe the degeneracy of the human race, he invites them to experience how it feels to love and to hurt. None of what he does is ever at his characters’ expense, and this is evident in his stage directions. He says of Alma Winemiller’s ‘breathless little laugh’ that it ‘must never be stressed to the point of making her at all ludicrous in a less sympathetic way.’
He was never a commercially driven writer. He only wanted to write plays that he felt came from an integral part of his soul. He was shocked when institutions and organisations he regarded as authentic betrayed profit-driven motivations. He defended the personal in writing to the extent that he didn’t really give much credence to anything that wasn’t coming from that place.
Tennessee Williams was vehement that there are two kinds of writing. There’s the sort that people do to knock out a script in Hollywood, which they do for money, or there’s the other kind, that which he called ‘organic,’ or ‘the personal kind of writing’.
In an essay, entitled Person to Person, he said ‘…I have never for one moment doubted that there are people – millions! – to say things to. We come to each other, gradually, but with love…. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.’
Tennessee Williams doesn’t feel a need to draw a distinction between his life and his work, saying in his Memoirs: ‘Has any of my writing been a “professional matter”? I have always written for deeper necessities than the term “professional” implies, and I think this has sometimes been to the detriment of my career.’
Tennessee Williams never saw his work in such cut and dry terms. ‘People have said and said and said that my work is too personal: and I have just as persistently countered this charge with my assertion that all true work of an artist must be personal, whether directly or obliquely, it must and it does reflect the emotional climates of its creator.’
Inevitably, some critics and audiences couldn’t understand what Tennessee Williams was about. He was so much ahead of his time in his unapologetically personal approach that plenty of people were unable to accept it. He paved the way for writers like William Inge, Carson McCullers and the confessional poets; for the most part he was situated outside the mainstream, and he wanted it that way. ‘My place in society… has been in Bohemia. I love to visit the other side now and then, but on my social passport Bohemia is indelibly stamped, without regret on my part.’
Of course Tennessee Williams made himself vulnerable to criticism this way. And because of the beautiful and sensitive nature of his soul, he could not help but take criticism much to heart.
Both Elia Kazan and the actress Estelle Parsons have talked about the ‘nakedness’ that both Tennessee Williams and his work have about them. And he always said of his agent Audrey Wood, ‘I don’t think Audrey ever realised how subject I was to depression about my work…’
If audiences misunderstood or criticised the work, Williams always felt it meant they were directly criticising him. He couldn’t separate it out, and after his phenomenally successful years on Broadway and in Hollywood, he felt an immense sense of failure when his popularity waned throughout the 1960s.
He said he felt that his critics were constantly trying to cut him down to size, and he said, with touching humility that ‘what… my size… is, I trust, [is] the size of an artist who has consistently given all that he has to give to his work, with a most peculiar passion.’
He was grieving the loss of his long-standing lover Frank Merlo, and had succumbed to an equally long-standing dependency on amphetamines and alcohol.
‘To know me is not to love me,’ he said. ‘At best, it is to tolerate me, and of drama critics I would say that tolerance seems now to be just about worn out.’
Yet despite his feelings of failure and alienation from his audiences, Tennessee Williams still continued to write. Because through his work he could admit to his own failings, he could share them and commiserate with the rest of the world, without having to sit down with people and discuss it face to face. He found that by bringing his failures to the work, he could continue to exist and breathe. He wasn’t ashamed of it, he thrived on it, and he took great solace in knowing that it was touching other people and their failings equally strongly.
The truth is that he has been a lifeline for millions. And when he reflects on his life in his Memoirs, the thing that comes through so strongly is his vital sense of being alive. Unlike the plays, the Memoirs are relentlessly irreverent, full of astonishing wit, and most importantly, an explosively satisfying joie-de-vivre.
The Memoirs are unflinchingly honest and he’s beautifully aware of the fact:
‘Is it possible to be a dirty old man in your middle thirties? I seem to be giving that impression. This book is a sort of catharsis of puritanical guilt feelings I suppose. “All good art is an indiscretion”. Well, I can’t assure you that this book will be art, but it is bound to be an indiscretion, since it deals with my adult life… Of course, I could devote this whole book to a discussion to the art of drama, but wouldn’t that be a bore? It would bore me to extinction I’m afraid, and it would be a very, very short book.’
And there you have it. Tennessee Williams is the least boring, and most successful failure you’ll ever read. Even his stage directions are dripping with sumptuous beauty and throbbing with gorgeously loaded imagery and description.
The dramaturgist Peter Schaffer said of him: ‘He was a born dramatist as few are ever born. Whatever he put on paper, superb or superfluous, glorious or gaudy, could not fail to be electrifyingly actable. He could not write a dull scene . . . Tennessee Williams will live as long as drama itself.’
Like the magician and the poet he is, he has transformed his failings into masterpieces, and through them offered a kind of salvation to the rest of us in the solace of his all-forgiving, compassionate embrace.
At the end of his memoirs he reflects with fitting modesty: ‘High station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis
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Georgina Deverell is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.