Read an Excerpt
"Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”
These were the first words Tennessee Williams spoke to me in that initial phone call to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was September of 1982, a fact I noted in a small blue book. The book was new and had been purchased for an upcoming test in World History that I would not be taking because Tennessee invited me to lunch in New Orleans, and I accepted.
I know that pleasantries were exchanged, and he laughed a lot—a deep, guttural, silly theatrical laugh—but the first quotation attributable to Tennessee Williams to me was the one I wrote in my small blue book.
Perhaps you can be of some help to me.
How could I be of help to Tennessee Williams? How, when in fact I had written to him, several months before, seeking his help? From a battered paperback copy of Who’s Who in the American Theatre, I had found the address of his agent (Audrey Wood, c/o International Famous Agency, 1301 Avenue of the Americas), and had written a letter—lengthy and containing a photograph, and, I’m thankful, lost to us forever—asking for his advice on a writing career. I wrote that his work had meant the most to me; that I was considering a career in the theater. I also enclosed two short stories, both written for a class taken at Louisiana State University. It was a time I recall as happy: I was writing, and exploiting the reserves of the school’s library and its liberal sharing policy with other schools. I was poring over books and papers that related to Tennessee and other writers I admired.
Tennessee (he told me, by the end of that first phone call, to call him Tenn) was in a horrible “knot of time.” He asked me to imagine a knot of time, but time for me at that point was something from which I was seeking favors, something I was approaching. I did not feel a part of time yet, which can be somewhat attributable to growing up and living in Baton Rouge, a city detached from time, thought, or curiosity. Tenn acknowledged with a laugh that Baton Rouge was a city encased in gelatin.
Tenn, however, could see and feel a literal knot of time and people and places encircling him, choking him, pursuing him. While he told me that he could no longer dream, due to age, a lack of flexibility both glandular and creative, and the “monumental accretion of toxins self-administered,” he was, comically, fully equipped to endure nightmares. His most frequent nightmare, one he had endured the night before he chose to call me, consisted of his slow, painful death by means of a massive knot, bearing the image of an enormous boa constrictor as well as an “artistic representation of a penis,” encircling him and squeezing him into darkness and death. The scales of this boa were faces of people and covers of books and posters of plays (both his and others’), travel brochures of trips planned, taken, aborted. The faces of the people and the blurbs on the books and the posters all posed the same question: Where have you been?
This time knot was for Tenn a threat, an indictment, and a motivator, and he took it as a primarily positive occurrence. “This thing, this horror,” he told me, “may very well allow me to write at my previous level of power, and it appears to be telling me to plunge into my memories, to plunder them. And those that are most vivid to me are in Louisiana.”
Tenn believed that writers, all artists, had several homes. There was the biological place of birth; the home in which one grew up, bore witness, fell apart. There was also the place where the “epiphanies” began—a school, a church, perhaps a bed. Rockets were launched and an identity began to be set. There was the physical location where a writer sat each day and scribbled and hunted and pecked and dreamed and drank and cursed his way into a story or a play or a novel. Most importantly, however, there was the emotional, invisible, self-invented place where work began—what Tenn called his “mental theater,” a cerebral proscenium stage upon which his characters walked and stumbled and remained locked forever in his memory, ready, he felt, to be called into action and help him again.
“I’ve got to get home.”
When Tennessee Williams was young, when he could dream and felt that time was a destination awaiting his arrival, he would repair to this mental theater, a safe place that operated under his management, where he could close his eyes and open the stage curtains and be not only home, but working.
If you’re a writer, you write. If you don’t, you’re dead. You have no home, no reason to be offered a seat at any table, and no reason to live.
No play written by Tennessee Williams, however, got its bearings until a fog rolled across the boards, from which a female form emerged.
“I do not know why this is,” Tenn confessed to me, “but there is a premonitory moment before a woman, an important, powerful woman, enters my subconscious, and this moment is announced by the arrival of fog. Perhaps it is some detritus of my brain belching forth both waste and a woman. I do not know, but it comes with a smell, and it is the crisp, pungent smell of radiators hissing and clanking and rattling in rooms in New Orleans and St. Louis and New York. Rooms in which I wrote and dreamed and starved and fucked and cried and read and prayed, and perhaps all that action and all that steam creates both this fog and this woman.
“I have not seen the fog in years.”
Tenn’s primary activity, he told me, was “faking the fog.” When he closed his eyes and summoned his mental theater, he could see the scuffed boards of the stage, the frayed, slow-moving curtains, smell the dust, and feel the excitement of drama forthcoming.
“When I was young,” Tenn told me, “I never sought out a woman, a character. She came to me. She had a story to tell, urgently, violently, fervently. I listened and I identified, and I became her most ardent supporter and witness. I cannot get a witness for me and I cannot be a witness for anyone! I cannot find a woman who will speak to me on my stage.”
So Tenn sought the women elsewhere, searched for fog in movie theaters, on television screens, and in the pages of magazines, in stacks of photographs. He failed to find fog in literature, because, he explained, “I am a very visual person. I need to have the shape and movement and intent of a woman before me.”
In his homes, in hotel rooms, in lodges and athletic clubs and as a guest of others, Tenn would pull out his typewriter or his pad of paper (which he called the “pale judgment” awaiting his ministrations), move close to a television set, and wait for a woman to speak to him. With friends like Maria St. Just and Jane Smith, whose love for and patience with him were boundless, he would sit in movie theaters for up to three consecutive showings, because a “wisp” of fog was emanating from the screen.
“I have not seen the fog in years,” Tenn repeated. “But your letter made me believe it still existed.”
Writing early in the morning or deep into the night, Tenn kept his television set on, the volume set to low, a radio or a phonograph playing the music of people who had led him to fog-enshrouded stages in the past. An image would come across the screen and catch his eye, the volume would be raised, and a voice would speak to him. Tenn had notes and diagrams and plot outlines scrawled on envelopes, napkins, hotel stationery, menus from restaurants and diners and airport lounges. Once, he delicately constructed a plot outline on a paper tablecloth, which the waiter neatly folded and presented to him along with the check.
He consulted psychics, tarot-card readers, tea-leaf diviners. He placed himself in tubs of warm water and tried to experience rebirth, so that he could emerge from his liquid prison young and alert and full of creative and glandular flexibility, free forever of the impending time knot.
Time and the ever-present pale judgment haunted him, jeered at him, reproached him. In the home of a friend, a fellow writer, he once walked over to a desk holding a ream of white paper and violently pushed it to the floor, then shoved it from view behind a desk. “I will have none of that from you!” he admonished the pile of paper, and went on with his visit.
Where have you been? the scales of the time knot asked him.
“Well, where the hell have you been?” Tenn once yelled out. “I was very loyal to my women, to my plays, to the construct of words. Where are they? Oh, they’re all on tour, baby, and I’m here with silence and clean air and a condemned theater. My heart and eyes are failing, but those gals are doing fine.” In Tennessee’s mind, Amanda and Blanche and Alma and Serafina and the Princess were errant daughters, each of whom who had been carefully listened to and coddled and husbanded by him, their “queer Lear,” and were now on stages telling their stories—the stories that had come to him in the fog—and he was off on his heath, yelling and whining and drinking and fighting off the time knot.
“Sometimes,” he told me during that first phone call, “I think the fog has been replaced by something else. I feel that there is a wind tunnel inside of my head, and inside my head, within my very brain, there are leaves flying about, and each leaf is an idea.”
When I finally met Tenn, he placed two fingers on his forehead, as if pushing against the pressure within, and he told me that the nights were spent scurrying after these leaves, trying to catch and collect them and find some meaning and comfort in them. He had also come to believe that the specks in his eyes, darting and floating, were reflections of these leaves moving across his brain, and if he could only marshal them, calm them down, and make the many dots one whole entity, he would have a character, a play, a woman, an idea.
“I am incapable of containing it,” he told me, “this mulch, this confetti, until I can find some form in which to place it. A shadow box of the cerebellum; a case of curiosities plucked from my subconscious; a brilliantly white page framed in gold that I can approach and admire for its order and cleanness and say to it, in front of it, ‘Yes, I have something to add.’ ”
Because he believed that the spots in his eyes, the floaters in his vitreous humor, were actually reflections of his cerebral leaf storm, Tenn took to staring into white tablecloths, looking upon blank white walls, and facing the sky, blinking and rolling his eyes, hoping to focus and find a connection.
“I’ve heard of connecting the dots,” he laughed, “but this is ridiculous.
“I try to approach the whiteness of the page, the pale judgment, as if I were a neophyte priest, and the paper is the host,” Tenn confessed to me. “I approach it gingerly and ask it to be patient. I see upon it the darting leaves in my brain, and I pray they will alight on the page and have some meaning. Or I touch it gently, a frightened queer faced with his first female breast, a nipple that seeks attention and ministration. ‘Forgive me,’ I say to it, ‘I don’t know my way around these parts.’
“I start with anything—one lone sentence—and I ask the leaves, I ask the page, for the next line, the next phrase.”
Sentence after sentence would follow, and Tenn would write them down, fervently, eagerly. Later, once we had met, once he had decided to trust me, I would write them down for him, and the bits of papers, the pages yanked from journals, and the old bills and envelopes—all littered with words—would pile up.
“I think we can help each other,” Tenn told me in that first phone call.