Friday, November 14, 2014

‘Tennessee Williams,’ by John Lahr

by Blake Bailey

New York Times

November 14, 2014

Tennessee Williams’s career began and ended very badly. The boffo finish of his first Broadway-bound play, “Battle of Angels” (1940), was a big onstage fire — a special effect that generated so much smoke a number of theatergoers fainted while others bolted for the exits. “If ever the professional debut of a major playwright was a greater fiasco,” John Lahr writes in his new biography of Williams, piquantly subtitled “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” “history does not record it.” Five years and a lot of crummy jobs later, Williams clawed his way back with a play that would make him famous, “The Glass Menagerie,” whose premiere almost proved an even bigger disaster. Laurette Taylor, plucked from a long alcoholic oblivion to play Amanda Wingfield, was found an hour and a half before opening curtain in an alley outside the stage door, soaking wet in the rain and all but dead drunk. Occasionally pausing to vomit in a bucket offstage, she gave the performance of her life and thus saved our greatest postwar playwright from almost certain ruin.

“Well, Mrs. Williams,” the raffish actress remarked to the author’s mother, Edwina, after the Chicago premiere, “how did you like yourself?” Whether Edwina had sufficient self-awareness to recognize her own maundering about (say) “seventeen! — gentleman callers!” is doubtful, but she was indeed Amanda in the flesh: a doughty chatterbox from Ohio who adopted the manner of a Southern belle and eschewed both drink and sex to the greatest extent possible. Her husband, Cornelius, was inordinately fond of both, and theirs was not a happy union. Drunk and embittered, Cornelius took to calling his effeminate older son Miss Nancy — until, many years later, as Tennessee Williams, this son would have the ineffable pleasure of sitting on the family tombstone while signing autographs at Cornelius’s funeral.

Williams might have used that image as an insignia on his letterhead, so aptly did it capture the triumph of art over life — the alchemy whereby a miserable childhood, and the enduring alienation that followed, were made into something sublime. For her part in this process, Edwina was rewarded with half the royalties from “The Glass Menagerie”; she had supplied not only the play’s most memorable character, but also a theme that Williams would never quite exhaust: the ravages of repression. Edwina used to scream (in horror) during sex, and imposed on her children such a “dread of the physical” that Tennessee did not masturbate until the age of 26 — as Lahr informs us twice, lest we be skeptical in light of Williams’s later exertions. As for the playwright’s unfortunate sister, Rose, she was driven to such a pitch of hysteria that she taunted her mother with tales of abusing herself with altar candles at All Saints College, until Edwina demanded that her innocence be restored by way of a lobotomy. Or so Williams claimed, with a faintly humorous rue and no little sympathy, perhaps, for both parties. Often told that he dealt only with neurotic people, Williams replied that “when you penetrate into almost anybody you either find madness or dullness,” and he was considerably less interested in dullness.


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