Bearer of Light: T.E. Kalem's Obituary of Tennessee Williams
|Tenn captured by W. Eugene Smith|
Tennessee Williams: 1911-1983
A great artist is reborn at the hour of his death. His works cast a larger and more durable shadow than the man who wrote them. So it will prove with Thomas Lanier Williams, a.k.a. Tennessee, who choked to death in Manhattan last week (after swallowing the cap of a medicine bottle). With the debatable exception of Eugene O'Neill, he was the greatest playwright in U.S. dramatic history.
O'Neill gave the American theater a new birth of seriousness. Williams annexed for it a new terrain of freedom. In his plays, the previously unmentionable was said; the formerly unavowed, acknowledged. He once defined the motivation at the core of his writing: "I was brought up puritanically. I try to outrage that Puritanism."
Outrage it he did, to the point of being regarded by some as a kind of Southern gothic erotomaniac. Williams dealt in taboos, yet the taboo is often the touchstone of drama: in the profoundest Greek play, a man murders his father and marries his mother. Williams mesmerized as well as outraged playgoers with "Orpheus Descending" (murder by blowtorch), "A Streetcar Named Desire" (rape, nymphomania), "Summer and Smoke" (frigidity), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (impotence, alcoholism, homosexuality) "Sweet Bird of Youth" (drug addiction, castration), "Suddenly Last Summer" (homosexuality, cannibalism), and "The Night of the Iguana" (masturbation, fetishism, coprophagy).
Yet the shocking surface was never the substance in Williams. He was and will remain the laureate of the outcast, what he called "the fugitive kind"—the odd, the lonely, the emotionally violated. The sense of loss and vulnerability that one finds in his characters was imprinted on the playwright at an early age. Williams was born in his Episcopalian clergyman grandfather's rectory in Columbus, Miss. His forebears included a genealogical treeful of romantics, adventurers and notables: Poet Sidney Lanier (1842-81), some Tennessee Indian fighters, an early U.S. Senator, and, way back, a brother of St. Francis Xavier's. When Tennessee was seven, the sunlit backyards of his boyhood were exchanged for rows of St. Louis brick flats the color of "dried blood and mustard." The change was shattering for Williams, and he was to make of the South a mythic past, an expulsion from Eden.
His mother, whom Tennessee always called "Miss Edwina," nourished the myth with illusory memories of a grand and gracious heritage. His father was a gruff and aggressive traveling shoe salesman, who, on rare home stays, taunted his son as a sissy and called him "Miss Nancy." His older sister Rose, an imaginative muse to Williams, tragically retreated into schizophrenia until a prefrontal lobotomy in 1937 immured her in a perpetual mental twilight.
In his highly autobiographical "The Glass Menagerie," Williams tenderly exorcised the painful burden of his family history. When the play opened on Broadway in 1945, it galvanized a theater that had exhausted its creative momentum. Onto this becalmed stage, Williams brought a kind of drama that reflected an entire generation's failure of nerve, and touched the exposed nerve ends.
It combined three basic elements: Chekhovian sensibility, with that playwright's rueful portrait of the hero as antihero; the Freudian irrational unconscious, with the wayward id buffeting the will-less ego; and the romantic temperament, which Classicist Gilbert Murray called "the glorification of passion — any passion—just because it is violent, overwhelming, unreasonable."
Passion is also the heart's blood of the theater, and Williams is to the stage what a lion is to the jungle. At its best, his dialogue sings with a tone-poem eloquence far from the drab disjunctive patterns of everyday talk. He is an electrifying scenewright simply because his people are the sort who are born to make scenes, explosively and woundingly. In "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" Big Daddy jerks the crutch out from under his son Brick's arm and sends him sprawling in agony; a few minutes later Brick kicks the life out of Big Daddy by telling the old man that he is dying of cancer. Williams' vibrantly durable characters stalk the mind. Try to forget Maggie the Cat, or Blanche DuBois or Big Daddy or Stanley Kowalski, the hairy ape in a T shirt.
Williams was also a moral symbolist. His earthy characters journey over a landscape that pulses with the strife-torn dualities of human nature. The duel is between God and the Devil, love and death, the flesh and the spirit, innocence and corruption, light and darkness, the eternal Cain and the eternal Abel. In the American tradition, this links Williams to three 19th century moral symbolists: Hawthorne, Poe and Melville.
As a playwright, Williams had the minor defects of his major virtues. He sometimes ran a purple ribbon through his typewriter and gushed where he should have dammed. Occasionally, his characters were too busy striking attitudes to hit honest veins of emotion. His symbols sometimes multiplied like fruit flies and almost as mindlessly. His chief danger was the unhealthy narcissism of most modern art, whose tendency has been to gaze inward and contemplate the artist's ego, as well as his navel, to the point of myopia and hallucination. Almost inevitably, he suffered the attrition of dramatic power that afflicts most playwrights after the age of 50.
In the greatest drama, Greek and Shakespearean, there is a final reconciliatory acceptance of man's fate. Williams could not achieve that exalting serenity of vision. "Hell is yourself," he said more than once, and the only redemption he knew of was "when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person." In the finest moments of his finest plays, Williams achieves the lesser, but genuine, catharsis of self-transcendence. In breaking out of the imprisoning cycle of self-concern, the playwright and his characters evoke a line from Ecclesiastes: "To him that is joined to all the living there is hope. . ."
Tennessee Williams is no longer joined to the living. At one point in "Streetcar,"Blanche pleads with her sister not to "hang back with the brutes," saying, "Such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!" Williams was one of the bearers of that light. —By T.E. Kalem
From Time/March 7, 1983