KR BlogUncategorized

Remembering Tennessee Williams

The regrettable result of overemphasizing a particular work of literature can be the obfuscation of the truth of that author’s illuminating presence. Take Glass Menagerie: might the impressionable youth of America, diligently reading that play in high school, have guessed another Tennessee Williams play, Suddenly Last Summer, features Darwinian-cannibalistic children, decadent homosexuals, sexy psychoanalysts, and lobotomy prone surgeons? Now imagine it rendered as cinema with the help of Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift. If we sometimes need a reminder of the expansive sensibilities of great writers, we are lucky to have them from autobiographies and memoirs, such as the most recent edition of Williams’ Memoirs recently republished by New Directions, which celebrates this year seven decades of publishing some of the most important and often experimental or controversial art of our time.
In an introduction to the Memoirs entitled “Mr. Williams Saved My Life,” John Waters admits knowing of the playwright from a young age and in a manner suitable to the wonderfully hysterical, camp, deranged, and debased films Waters would later produce. Williams was the author whose plays were held back by the librarian for those old enough to read them, the “bad man” according to “the nuns in Catholic Sunday School [who] had told us we’d go to hell” for reading his works or seeing the infamous Baby Doll. Williams was the prime auteur in Waters’ adolescent peep show, “the fantasy dirty-movie theater in my mind.” Everyone either has or should have their own personal version of such a theater, though few have promoted theirs so diligently as John Waters and Tennessee Williams. We can all therefore be grateful that this edition of the Memoirs brings the two together.

One might describe Williams’ Memoirs as just this. And the cool reception of these recollections on their original publication might just have something to do with the ever frank Tennessee roaming from cruising grounds to lost loves. Tragic loves, I might have said. For all the the Memoirs hardly seem shocking now (or perhaps I’m altogether too willing to enter the dirty movie theater of another’s mind), what shocks is the simple brutality and desperation that characterize Williams’ life. Tennessee Williams existed and excelled as a playwright perhaps because of the particular torments he endured: some physical, some erotic, some artistic, some professional, and some self-inflicted.

Nearly every page displays Williams’ characteristic wit, frivolity, elegance of style, and deep understanding of the darker regions of the mind, of the body, and of the heart. Were one to start underlining the truly astonishing things he says–and this requires of necessity passing over the astonishing circumstances, details, photographs, and personages–there wouldn’t be any white space left in the book. So let’s end with some words of ending just pages before the Memoir comes to a halt:

“I have told you about the events of my life, and described, as best I could, without legal repercussions, the dramatis personae of it.

But life is made up of moment-to-moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions, and try as you may, you can’t commit them to the actualities of your history…And those who painted and sculpted the sensuous and the sensual of naked life in its moments of glory made them palpable to you as we can never feel with our fingertips and the erogenous parts of our own flesh.”
While Williams refused, in the Memoir or elsewhere to write about the nature of his plays (which he thought was self-evident), it seems his reflection here on the art of others tells us all we need to know about his harrowing and life-giving plays. Thank you, Tennessee Williams, for saving my life as well.