Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) by Murray Kempton
In his late years, Tennessee Williams missed out on a bit of our attention; but he could never forfeit the tenderness of his claim on the memory, which may explain why someone who never said hello to him in life felt a need to say goodbye to him at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home. He lay in what Campbell’s has most inappropriately chosen to call its Mayfair Room. It is a place altogether too pretentious for his themes; one wanted some small parlor and a mother and a sister putting the stranger at ease and denying reality. Death is not the social occasion it was when Tennessee Williams was a boy.
But all the same he conquered the empty air about him with the look of the grandee serene in its mastery of the self. He had triumphantly given the lie to all the gossip about his terminal loneliness and decay. No life is a tragedy that leaves any man this fit for the tomb.
There weren’t many pilgrims and they came in small, slightly overpowered clumps. We ought not to be surprised that most of them were women. We cannot appreciate Tennessee Williams without putting his homoeroticism into full account; and that may explain why women caught him more keenly and cherished him more lovingly than men. He delighted masculine sensibilities, to be sure, with his Stanley Kowalskis and his Big Daddies; but they are, when the laughter ceases, only the heavy tread of the boot upon the flower. At bottom those plays of his that live most vividly in the mind tell us about how men must look to women—ogres to be appeased, small boys to put up with, or, if one’s luck turns for the better, strangers who will accept you and keep you safe.
I confess to having begun to neglect him when he was quite young and after he gave way to the temptations of poetic grandeur. The only two of his plays upon which I might hazard a cross-examination are The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and both were earlier on. No living actress is, I suppose, old-fashioned enough to do what Laurette Taylor did in The Glass Menagerie. No one who grew up shabby-genteel in the border South could fail to recognize in her something of the women who had been around him then. She was, of course, outsized in qualities of dreadfulness we never had to endure; but the notes of the mother’s eternal fixed despair and fugitive hope came from one’s own dinner table. And yet she was redeemed because, in her son’s peculiarly painful joke, her husband had worked for the telephone company and gone long distance. She was, however awful, in the heroic mold; she had gone it alone; she was an abandoned woman and shared the vulnerability of her sex. I had not before imagined that an extreme caricature of what is a small part of every mother would make me love my own mother even more.
And so I do not think that any American playwright could ever have been more deservingly loved by women than Tennessee Williams was. I remember once attending one of those circuses that Marilyn Monroe’s press conferences used to be; and one of her visitors brought up his name. He wasn’t someone easily thought of as her type; and yet she fairly glowed; he might have been the beloved sister she never had. He made real those sisters and sisters-in-law so cruelly used by life because he identified with them, was them in fact. His was the poetry of those misled by moonlight and the rose.
Ignazio Silone said once that nobody could write about anything that happened to him after he was twelve years old. There is the sense that the Williams that best endures has to do with his boyhood; manhood hadn’t as much to offer. But that is not a unique case; we might very well almost have forgotten Eugene O’Neill if, late in the game, he had not resorted to the capital of his adolescence. Tennessee Williams spent his capital right off the bat and prodigally. But what a wonderful show he made with it.
© 1983 Newsday, reprinted in the New York Review of Books