Tennessee Williams: Alive and Still Fabulous
Time either diminishes or magnifies great artists. This website’s namesake, Clyde Fitch, is an illustration of the former. He was one of the world’s most famous and successful playwrights at his death in 1909, but barely a decade later, after World War I, he was largely recalled, if at all, as a cultural relic, his colorful biography and output part of some sepia-toned yesteryear. It didn’t help, of course, that Fitch died at 44 and never wrote a memoir, for such volumes, when you think about it, are really bids for immortality. And the best memoirs are the very highest bids: those that put enough ante down to keep future generations riveted and tantalized.
Tennessee Williams’ Memoirs, published in 1975, is in this respect a royal flush. Forty years on, it retains the power to astonish because the playwright brought such unabashed honesty, self-reflection and swagger to his task. You can find the book in its entirety scanned on Google, and one can imagine what Williams would have thought of that. For our purposes, however, it’s a welcome convenience. Pick any chapter, pick any page, and the unleashed and refreshingly incautious Williams comes alive:
Streetcar opened in New Haven in early November of 1947 and nobody seemed to know what the notices were or to be greatly concerned. After the New Haven opening night we were invited to the quarters of Mr. Thornton Wilder, who was in residence there. It was like having a papal audience. We all sat about this academic gentleman while he put the play down as if delivering a papal bull…
We sat there and listened to him politely. I thought, privately, This character has never had a good lay.
Passages like this — and in Memoirs they proliferate like summer flowers — quickly make you think to yourself, Oh, if only I could have spent an evening with this man.
Well, now you can.
William Shuman, whose New York acting credits go back to the mid-70s, has devised a rollicking solo play about Tennessee Williams that uses his own journals and correspondence as primary source material. Called En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams, it won the Overall Excellence Award for Solo Performance when it was first performed in the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. The play touches on four of the major elements of Williams’ life: his family (including his schizophrenic sister, lobotomized in 1943 and said to have inspired the character of Laura in The Glass Menagerie); his three most important lovers; his major works as a playwright; and what Shuman calls his inner demons, including a sexual compulsiveness made vivid in Memoirs.
And now, 5 questions William Shuman has never been asked. Well, 3 questions from the CFR — and then we have something special for you:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
”What is your connection to Tennessee Williams?” The answer is complex but begins with the fact that we share a birthday. It proceeds through the fact that my first acting experience was in The Glass Menagerie. It burgeoned when the playwright John Ford Noonan suggested that I read the collected short stories where his lyric genius overwhelmed me. I am not a Williams scholar. I’ve seen many and read most, but not all of his plays, much of his poetry and most of his essays. I am currently the exact age he was when he passed.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
The same idiotic question that every actor doing a major role is asked: “How do you learn all those words?” The answer: “It’s my job.”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
As it relates to En Avant!: “Do you ever think you are Tennessee Williams?” The answer is a resounding “No!”
Through a powerful medium known as Men Dacity, we now present three questions from Tennessee Williams himself. We retain Williams’ honeyed accent for purposes of charm.
“Ah noticed your play touches on mah ‘three most impawtant lovers.’ Ah might point out for you, suh, awl mah lovers were impawtant, with the most impawtant being those lovers with whom I cogitated at any particular juncture. How did you determine who constituted mah ‘three most impawtant lovers’? And which lovers did you omit from your enumeration, and why?”
I must respectfully disagree with your premise. It is very clear from his journal, his letters to Donald Windham and others that the three I’ve focused on were paramount. Kip Kiernan (born Bernard Dubowsky) was undoubtedly the love of his life. An affair that lasted barely five weeks was burned into his heart and soul. Frank Merlo, “the little horse,” was the only long term relationship in his life, lasting from 1947 to 1963 (though not without intervals of separation). And Amado Rodriguez y Gonzalez (Pancho) was a violent and passionate chapter in his life at a time when he was rising from obscurity to prominence. I will not comment on those he so easily discarded. He says at one point,
When I think of all that I did just to hear the nightingales sing, well, what do I really think? I think excitement is dispensable, no danger, no demands, no questions. Quiet and privacy is lovely. Cool clean sheets should comfort even the dying and a drawn shade is like the soft touch of love. Besides, I always fuck so quietly, perhaps I don’t really enjoy it at all.
“Inner demons, inner demons! Ah suggest to you, suh, that the inner demons of Tennessee Williams were hardly inner but outer, which ah displayed proudly and with neither compunction nor hesitation during my life. Inner is for wild savages, for the mentally delinquent! Or are you sayin’ ah was never the best estimator of mah own psyche?”
I accept that perhaps of the use of the descriptive “inner” when referring to his demons is a mistake. But Tennessee did not celebrate his demons. He endured them. He endowed many of his characters with these demons but always in an attempt to survive and overcome them. It is clear that because Rose was mentally ill and because there was more than a soupcon of insanity in his family line, his fear of losing his mind was one of the most terrifying of his demons. He also says, “My greatest affliction is the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, too ponderous to carry with my all of my days.”
As I said in question three, I can’t know the mind of Tennessee Williams. I can only present my admittedly limited understanding of the various elements that created this admittedly “wounded” man.
“Ah am so relieved, sir, that your play canvasses the story of mah family with fairness and accuracy. When ah arrived at the afterlife, ah reconciled with my father, and came to an understandin’ with my mother. Here then, suh, is mah final question: When mah sister arrived here, in the afterlife, what do you think ah I said to her? If you perform on this question correctly, Mr. Shuman, I shall bestow upon your play my blessin’.
“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting 13 years, put down the cigarette and let’s dance.”