Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams
By Ralph F. Voss
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Turn of the Century
George W. Crandell
Part 1 of Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, lends itself to this consideration of Tennessee Williams scholarship at the turn of the century, because as we enter the millennium, we can see that years ago the apocalyptic vision of Tennessee Williams inspired and first prepared the way for the epic extravaganza that Kushner subtitles "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Kushner, of course, has publicly acknowledged his debt to Williams, saying: "I've always loved Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated" (qtd. in Fisher 26), and James Fisher, tracing "images of homosexuality on the American stage," credits Williams with being "the dramatist most responsible for forcefully introducing sexual issues, both gay and straight, to the American stage" (13). Influential as well as innovative, Tennessee Williams continues to engage the attention of theater audiences as well as theater critics. Consequently, he is the subject of a significant and continuously growing body of scholarly work.
Since the late 1950s, when scholarship devoted to Williams first began to appear, critics have attempted to characterize the distinctive vision of Tennessee Williams, often employing such contradictory labels as romantic, realistic, surrealistic, expressionistic, and lyrical as well as poetic. It may now be appropriate, considering the new millennium, to introduce yet another label, by noting the apocalyptic tendency that characterizes so much of the playwright's mature work. Already critics have likened the cataclysmic events in plays such as Battle of Angels (later revised and retitled Orpheus Descending), Clothes for a Summer Hotel, and The Red Devil Battery Sign to an apocalypse. Even in A Streetcar Named Desire, audiences witness what Anne Fleche describes as "Blanche's apocalyptic destruction at the hands of her 'executioner,' Stanley" (Mimetic 93). But apart from these events, the plays of Tennessee Williams (like the millennium) compel us to consider our relationship to time and history and even teleological concerns about the end of time. As Chance Wayne remarks at the conclusion of Sweet Bird of Youth, time is "the enemy ... in us all" (124), the entity that threatens our destruction both individually and collectively as a civilization.
The impending doom sometimes signaled by Williams's apocalyptic vision is presented not necessarily by a chronological succession of events but rather by the arrest of time. As Williams explains in his preface to The Rose Tattoo, called "The Timeless World of a Play":
Carson McCullers concludes one of her lyric poems with the line: "Time, the endless idiot, runs screaming 'round the world." It is this continual rush of time, so violent that it appears to be screaming, that deprives our actual lives of so much dignity and meaning, and it is, perhaps more than anything else, the arrest of time which has taken place in a completed work of art that gives to certain plays their feeling of depth and significance. (Rose 259)
In the drama of Tennessee Williams, the arrest of time permits the juxtaposition of irreconcilable visions: of a past more glorious than the present but irretrievably lost, of a future more ominous than the present but seemingly inevitable, and of a future more hopeful than the present but one impossible to realize. Christopher Bigsby, in his critical history of American drama from 1945 to 1990, points to this kind of juxtaposition when he characterizes Williams's contrasting visions of the past and the future; plays such as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire look backward in time and "suggest the end of a particular model of America and of individual character" (Bigsby, "Tennessee" 32). At the same time, these plays point to a future, according to Bigsby, that offers "little more than a bland materialism or a drugged conformity" ("Tennessee" 32). Offering a different characterization of the future toward which Williams directs his prophetic gaze, David Savran writes that Williams's plays "look forward to that utopian (or messianic) moment that will, in Walter Benjamin's words, 'blast open the continuum of history' and produce a new social and political order" (92).
For Williams, the arrest of time permits a period of repose in which theater audiences can contemplate what happens onstage and from that experience, if the playwright has been successful, see the relevance between the timeless world of the play and the actual "world in which time is included" (Rose 264). If this recognition takes place, as Williams hopes, something truly magical will happen: people will discover that which is eternal in the merely temporal. As Williams explains:
About their lives people ought to remember that when they are finished, everything in them will be contained in a marvelous state of repose which is the same as that which they unconsciously admired in drama. The rush is temporary. The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power deliberately to choose certain moral values by which to live as steadfastly as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time. Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence. (Rose 262)
As much as the drama of Tennessee Williams provides audiences with multiple visions of the past and the future, so, too, does Tennessee Williams scholarship provide multiple, often conflicting, perspectives on Williams the playwright and his work. The diversity of this body of criticism resists easy summary and categorization, but foremost among recent efforts are works devoted to Williams's life and letters, studies tracing the textual and bibliographical history of his published and unpublished works, documentary accounts of the critical reception and production of his plays, and a multitude of critical essays (published singly or collected in anthologies) focusing on his drama. Although A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie have certainly garnered the most critical attention, Williams's other plays as well as his fiction and poetry have not been neglected. Recent studies of the poetry and short fiction typically highlight the features that help us understand Williams the dramatist or Williams the performer; Nancy Tischler, for example, suggests that Williams emulated the life of the poet Vachel Lindsay, casting himself in the role of the "vagabond poet" (75). Elsewhere in this volume, Albert Devlin also elaborates comparisons between Williams and Lindsay.
The life of Tennessee Williams continues to be a source of great fascination and, for a significant number of writers, a key to understanding his work. For many years, scholars relied upon their own resources in the absence of a complete or reliable guide to Williams's biography. Benjamin Nelson's Tennessee Williams: His Life and Work (1961) provides only a partial account of Williams's life, and while Donald Spoto offers a more comprehensive view in The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (1985), reviewers have not been kind to Spoto, whose informative but dispassionate account most importantly omits, as Terry Teachout remarks, "the voice of Williams himself" ("Irregular" 54). Ronald Hayman's more recent study Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience (1993), repeats an already familiar story without attempting a substantive reassessment of Williams and his work.
Scholars eagerly anticipated and enthusiastically welcomed the publication of Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, the first volume in a projected two-volume biography of Williams by Lyle Leverich. Leverich, whom Williams authorized to write the biography in 1979, completed the first volume in 1989, but a protracted battle with Maria St. Just, cotrustee of the Rose Williams estate, delayed its publication until 1995 (Smith 75). In an illuminating essay published in the New Yorker, John Lahr details the battle between Leverich and Williams's "self-proclaimed ... literary guardian" (Lahr 90). Lahr credits Maria St. Just with single-handedly setting back Williams scholarship by refusing "the right to quote from Williams' unpublished writings, or even to Xerox material from Williams' early papers" (88). As Lahr also reports, Cathy Henderson, research librarian at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, participated in an unsuccessful effort to persuade St. Just to permit greater access to Williams's manuscripts. In a 1992 letter to St. Just, Henderson wrote: "Denying this group of users the option of doing at least a portion of their research from photocopies discourages critical attention and sets the stage for there being less of an audience for his works" (qtd. in Lahr 89).
The first volume of Leverich's biography is distinguished by its reliance upon primary materials, including Williams's private journals and voluminous correspondence. Consequently, it supersedes all previous attempts to document the development of the young Thomas Lanier Williams. Most critics, whose response to the book has been favorable, would agree with William Jay Smith, a personal friend of Williams, who writes that Leverich is sometimes "misled by his subject's imaginative fabrications" (76) but he has otherwise written a "faithful, thorough, sensitive, and carefully documented study" (75).
The Leverich biography has so far stimulated rather than stymied further biographical study of Williams. Allean Hale, for example, continues to unearth new information about Williams's early life. Dakin Williams continues to fuel both investigation and controversy by providing details about the life of his older brother the playwright. In a 1995 interview with Robert Bray, Dakin discusses literary influences on Williams, their early lives together in St. Louis, and the playwright's religious beliefs as well as autobiographical details in Williams's work.
As much as scholars looked forward to the publication of Leverich's biography, they also eagerly awaited the publication of more of his letters and journals. The publication of the The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume 1, edited by Albert Devlin and Nancy Tischler, made publicly available much of what had previously been held privately or was only remotely accessible in libraries with substantial Tennessee Williams holdings. Carefully edited and easily readable, volume 1 provides readers with a remarkably candid portrait of Williams performing in a variety of roles as son, brother, student, aspiring writer, friend, poet, and playwright. The judicious selection of letters, coupled with informative notes that include excerpts from Williams's private journals, satisfies the need for a clear and coherent narrative in Williams's own words. At the same time, Devlin's and Tischler's informed commentary allows us to see Williams as he censors himself and modulates his tone for various audiences.
In an essay appearing in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review prior to the publication of volume 1 of The Selected Letters, Devlin emphasized the importance of the published letters for an understanding of Williams's life and work. Since then, the number of letters collected has grown to 2,800, and from among these, Devlin and Tischler selected and annotated 330 that appear in volume 1. Covering the time period from 1920 to 1945, the letters in this first volume are addressed most frequently to members of the Williams family, to Williams's mother, and to Audrey Wood, Williams's agent from 1939 to 1971. Devlin suggests that the letters reveal a Tennessee Williams who enacts "a self-scripted drama of disclosure and disguise" (27). Devlin's characterization of Williams's performance in the letters reflects a current topic in Williams scholarship, namely Williams's unwillingness or inability (because of social prohibitions) to disclose the truth — at least onstage — about sensitive topics such as homosexuality or race relations. Devlin is also able to discern a "progress toward maturity" (29) that informs not only Williams's relationship with his agent but also his relationships with his collaborators, most significant among them Elia Kazan.
During the 1990s, critics have considered Williams not only as an independent artist but also as a collaborator influenced, favorably or unfavorably, by various theater professionals and contemporary writers. In her pioneering study Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre, Brenda Murphy chronicles the successes and failures of this uniquely dynamic relationship in an insightful analysis of the four major plays on which Williams and Kazan collaborated: A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Murphy's work, more than a supplement to existing biographical accounts of this relationship, also highlights the complex relationship between what Keir Elam has termed the "dramatic text," that is, textual material "composed for the theatre," and the "performance text," that is, textual material "produced in the theatre" (Elam 3). Marian Price, who likewise examines the relationship between Williams and Kazan, views their collaboration less positively than Murphy. Focusing more specifically on the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Price concludes that wheen Williams agreed to changes suggested by Kazan, he significantly compromised his artistic integrity in order to satisfy a personal desire for commercial success (334).
Williams's jealousy apparently turned many of his professional and personal relationships into rivalries. As Devlin demonstrates, Williams finally ended his long association with the agent Audrey Wood, jealously fearing that she was conspiring against him (Devlin 31). John S. Bak likewise characterizes Williams's relationship with fellow playwright William Inge as one that begins in friendship but ends in rivalry as the two of them became "jealous of each other's successes in the theatre" (23).
Even so, Williams remained friends for many years with Carson McCullers and may genuinely have benefited from an acquaintance with Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima, whom Williams first met in 1957 (Hale, "Noh" 37). Allean Hale suggests that Mishima's influence is first evident in The Night of the Iguana (1961) and subsequently in The Gnädiges Fräulein (1967), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969), The Two-Character Play (1969), and I Can't Imagine Tomorrow (1970). Likewise according to Hale, the most convincing evidence of Mishima's influence may be found in an unpublished work called "The Day on Which a Man Dies" ("Noh" 37-38).
Scholars can hope that more and more of Williams's unpublished manuscripts will be published, but from the time of Williams's death in 1983 until the death of Maria St. Just in 1994, only a few, minor plays appeared in print. In 1984, the Missouri Review published two one-act plays, both apprentice works: "Beauty Is the Word" and "Hot Milk at Three in the Morning." In 1991, Antaeus printed "The Chalky White Substance," another one-act play, probably written sometime in the 1970s (Kolin, "Existential" 8). Philip Kolin accurately describes it as an "existential nightmare," comparable to the "hapless" work of Beckett, Sartre, and Pinter (8). Not coincidentally, publication of Williams's manuscripts resumed following the death of Maria St. Just. In 1995, for example, New Directions released Something Cloudy, Something Clear, a play St. Just deliberately withheld from publication, "presumably because of its homosexual content" (Lahr 89). Two years later, the Missouri Review published Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? This was a comic play about a pair of women who entertain ghostly apparitions, including visits from Vincent Van Gogh and Arthur Rimbaud. In the same year, 1997, Allean Hale edited and introduced The Notebook of Trigorin, Williams's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, and she has since edited Not About Nightingales, which opened in London to favorable reviews in March 1998; following its 1999 New York production, Not About Nightingales earned six Tony Award nominations and won the prize for best scene design. Dan Isaac's edition of Spring Storm was published in 1999 and was followed by a production of Stairs to the Roof in 2000 at the University of Illinois. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Magical Muse by Ralph F. Voss. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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