Tennessee Williams at 100
Tennessee Williams was born March 25, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the grandson of an Episcopal rector. he moved north to Saint Louis at seven when his itinerant shoe salesman father, Cornelius, got a job there in a shoe factory. Years later, Williams' father yanked Tennessee ( then called Tom) from college and forced him to take a menial job at the shoe factory. From the memories of those claustrophobic and dismal Saint Louis years, living in a tenement flat, Williams concocted a near auto-biographical play, "The Glass Menagerie." That was his first successful play, winning the New York Drama Critics' award for best play in the 1945 season. In New York, it starred the remarkable Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield. She is still widely remembered for that performance as one of the best acting stints of the twentieth century. The Glass Menangerie was made into a movie ( the first such adaption of a Williams' play for the screen) in 1950. The playwright thought that film adaptation the worst such adaptation for the screen of any of his plays.
To celebrate Williams' centenary, many theater companies have mounted his plays. Here in the San Francisco area, the San Francisco Playhouse is currently showing Williams' 1960 play, A Period of Adjustment. He was prompted into writing that play which he dubbed " a serious comedy" about two war veterans and their dysfunctional marriages in response to chiding by the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. She had asked Williams why his plays were always " plunging into the sewers?". In response, he wrote an op ed piece for The New York times in which he said: " The theatre has made its greatest artistic advances through the unlocking and lighting up and ventilation of closets, attics and basements of human behavior and experience. No significant area of human experience should be inaccessible, provided it is presented with honest intention and taste, to the writers of our desperate time."
I went the other night to see the Marin Theater Company's new and truly excellent production of "The Glass Menagerie" and fell under its intriguing spell. The play begins by having Tom Wingfield ( the Tennessee Williams character) evoking the motif of memory. But memories are also often as fragile as Tom's sister ( modeled after Williams' own schizophrenic sister, Rose) Laura's brittle animal glass menagerie. Amanda Wingfield represents Williams' former Southern belle mother, Edwina. How she could still charm and play the coquette and be, simultaneously, conniving, deluded and manipulative ! Her own repeated memories of myriad gentlemen callers and some exaggerated higher social status in her youth may also involve memories which are quite fragile. Just as birttle can be the bonds of genuine love toward flawed and often dysfunctional family members. It is not that love is entirely lacking in the Wingfield household, just that it is often cloying, manipulative and too closely tied to delusions and dysfunctions.
In point of fact, Williams was less intent in writing this memory play in conjuring and savoring pleasant or deep memories than he was desirous to escape the prison house of his family. But the play ends with Tom exclaiming that no matter how he tried to move on ( psychologically and physically) from that Saint Louis cramped flat and equally curtailed life he could not escape the memory of his sister, Laura. Williams felt a great deal of guilt about his schizophrenic sister, Rose who had been his confidant in difficult family years. She was later lobotomized and institutionalized. Williams left her the bulk of his estate when he died.
Part of the secret of the Amanda role is its ability to combine a winsome and even genuine charm with a manipulative and deluded character. She should not be portrayed just as a conniving harridan. Some faulted Katherine Hepburn's performance of the role in a made for T.V. version because she lacked that winning charm. I remember well a mother of a school boy friend of mine who came from the South who had just that combination of charm and conniving that Amanda has in the play. The actress who portrays the role at the Marin Theater Company's production, Sherman Fracher, caught this strange dichotomy of charm and cunning to a tee. The actor who plays Tom, Nicholas Pelzcar, uncanningly, looks physically much like Tennessee Williams did in his early portraits.
The dramaturg for the Marin Theater Company's production said of Williams: " Williams used writing as an escape from reality, yet in doing so, he vividly recreated a version of reality that often revealed the situation he had been trying to escape. All his characters arose from a place of honesty; there are no great heroes, no saints or villains, just flawed people trying to secure their place in the world or merely in the eyes of another person. Writing for self-reflection and release rather than spectacle allowed Williams to portray the humor and gravity of ordinary people dealing with everyday, impossible circumstances. His characters range from prostitutes to plantation owners to poets working in a shoe factory, yet all face a dilemma still wrestled with today: what to do when desires and responsibilities conflict. There are times in life when wants and obligations co-exist but at some point, even temporarily, on will rise above the other."
Williams was never, conventionally, a religious person. Raised early as an Episcopalian, he converted in his dark years, around 1969, to Catholicism, partially under the push of his younger brother, Daken. Williams did keep an icon of the virgin by his bedside. When he died in 1983, he was buried from Saint Malachy's Catholic Church in New York City and ( against his wishes-- since Williams wanted his ashes scattered over the sea in homage to his beloved poet, Hart crane) buried in the catholic Calvary cemetery in Saint Louis.
An often troubled soul, by any account; himself in some ways also pathologically shy; unable to fathom or live comfortably with success; a long time abuser of alcohol and prescription drugs, Williams, nevertheless achieved a lasting legacy. He was arguably the foremost ( or a close second to Eugene O' Neil) American playwright of the twentieth century. Still much in thrall with the Marin Theater Company's production I saw two days ago, several days later I pause to reflect on my own myriad memories of loved but dysfunctional family members and acquaintances. I tried to make my own Williams own astute comment. It does seem to capture a quite humane, even religious, compassion. Williams spoke of " the need for understanding and tenderness and fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance.". Perhaps there is an authentic religious longing in the words Tom Wingfield says in "The Glass Menagerie": "We all dream about the long-delayed but always expected something we live for." Surely, Williams could have and did make his own Prospero's quip: "We are such things as dreams are made of and our little life gets rounded with a sleep."
John A. Coleman