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The poetry of panic

1 March 2007

9:06 AM

1 March 2007

9:06 AM

Notebooks: Tennessee Williams edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton

Yale, pp.828, 27.50

Tenn — as friends and sycophants called him — Williams was one more of those American writers whose lives have spectacular first acts, but dwindle away, more or less slowly, into repetition, sterility and self-pity eased (and exacerbated) by sex, alcohol and drugs (‘Way to go’, some might say). Williams was born in 1911, in Mississippi; if he had died 45 years later, admirers would be wondering what masterpieces he might have written, had he survived into maturity. In fact he did survive, but he did not mature: he lasted till 1982, his small body and fragile genius having endured as much punishment as its owner could inflict. He choked finally on a pill-bottle top, in a hurry for nirvana: a melodramatic final curtain worthy of his better days.

Williams’s enormously fat notebooks, edited here by Margaret Bradham Thornton with matching obesity (every page of Williams is copiously annotated and illustrated en face), sanction the view that he was, for most of his life, his own doppelgänger, critic, cheer-leader and teddy bear. What he called ‘the mad pilgrimage of the flesh’ was a via dolorosa with rarely a shortage of pit-stops or passing trade. If he was gay as a bird (and was he not?), we learn of an early heterosexual passionate physical love affair before he was ‘thrown over by beloved bitch’. She is identified as ‘Bette’ Reitz who, if we care, later had two marriages but no children. The notes are nothing if not exhaustive, and then some, but they do also retrieve lost minor characters and do them precise, often pictorial, obituary justice.

Ken Tynan, in his uncited diary of 1970, came to this conclusion:

There is a sensitive and poetic girl called Rose Williams, confined to asylums since 1939, who writes plays. These are performed and published under the name of her wastrel brother ‘Tennessee’, a raffish low-life homosexual addicted to dope and drink.


Tynan’s shrewdness may be a function of his creative impotence (proximity lent him the lineaments of art, but never supplied a set of his own), but here he is on the money. Williams’s work was finest when it sprang from the long guilt, which he hardly deserved, as a result of his sister’s ‘madness’ and the mortifying lobotomy with which a quack surgeon affected to cure it. In December 1939, one of his more touching poems began:


You know how the mad come into a room,
too boldly,
their eyes exploding on the air like roses …

It requires no great acumen to insert an apostrophe in that last word. The frail, doomed ‘heroines’ of The Glass Menagerie and of A Streetcar Named Desire, his masterpieces, were versions of Rose, whose twin sister Tenn impersonated when he wasn’t wishing for the brutal, drunken self-confidence of the father, whom he made over as Stanley Kowalski.

Williams’s drab déclassé, his want of organised education, his prolonged sense of himself as a ‘wretched, whining sissy’ both hobbled and energised him. Revulsion from ‘this deadly middle-west’ put spurs to a wanderlust which, like that of his early pagod, D. H. Lawrence, was never sated by new places which at first seemed to offer sunny prospects. One of the early plays was based on Lawrence’s story ‘You Touched Me’. In pursuit of Lorenzo’s ghost (and copyright permission from Frieda) Williams went to Taos in August 1939. He met both Frieda and Dorothy Brett but — typical of these notebooks — he writes only, ‘No descriptions tonight’. What is lacking, almost throughout these usually staccato jottings, is any coherent interest in other people, let alone in world events: ‘Disasters abroad merely add an edge of excitement to our evenings in America. C’est la vie, c’est la guêrre, c’est l’amour.’ That circumflex accent on guerre shows how insouciant he is. Does it matter? Does it matter that every other evening of his life he wishes himself ‘Bon nuit’? Gender problems — ‘le fin’ is another — are in line with his sustained (and uncorrected) self-regard. His editor seems never to notice Tenn’s tin-eared sophistication. When he writes, ‘I am very much “Moraturi” ’, she helpfully tells us that it is Latin for ‘those about to die’, whereas in truth it means, as here misprinted, ‘those about to delay’, a class to which the restlessly dawdling T.W. was a regular recruit.

On the other hand, he was by no means only Tynan’s wastrel, nor did he lack critical sharpness, if rarely in his own case. Here he is on André Gide:

Miss Gide seems to have been an old auntie all her life! Her writing has never moved me though I observe its excellencies. She is a bit dry for my fruity tastes … I don’t have the impression from her journal that she liked anyone very much except Miss Gide whom she pretends to deprecate but whom … she regards as a girl of destiny pretty nearly all the way through.

In the same way, he sees the sisterliness beneath Hemingway’s skin with a texted accuracy that trumps Gore Vidal’s bitching. He also has a genuine appetite for good writing, even if a published list of his bedside reading at the height of his fame — Human Destiny by Lecomte de Nouy, The Theory of Relativity, The Idiot and Camus’ The Stranger among others — smacks of Little Miss Goody-two-shoes. No Jean Genet, for instance?

The notebooks break off in October 1958 when T.W.’s stock is tilting downwards and resume only in March of 1979, when he is in a protracted terminal slide. Failure to set down much except his états dame, as he might put it, deprives us of his intelligence, not least about eminent contemporaries whom he rarely mentions, unless they please or betray him (or he them). However, his editor quotes a letter to Gadg Kazan responding to that director’s criticism of the character of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which indicates an alert and articulate appreciation of human weakness. What emerges beyond doubt is that homosexuality — or at least T.W.’s kind of compulsive ‘devigation’ — is not a matter of preference, as gay cant has it, but of addiction to (frequently rented) promiscuity. Danger — he is oddly thrilled to be beaten up by a bunch of sailors — is part of the pleasure. So Williams was a psycho-logical and pharmacological mess; so what? The best of the work was a marvel of ventriloquial intuition, the poetry of panic; you can’t take that away from him or her.


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