Powers of Tenn

Talking Tennessee Williams' genius with critic John Lahr

Undated photo of Tennessee Williams
Undated photo of Tennessee Williams

Blanche DuBois was no Athena.

That is to say, the faded belle of Belle Reve, who makes her way to her sister's cramped French Quarter digs via that fateful streetcar named Desire, didn't spring fully formed from the head of her creator. For that matter, neither did her sister Stella or Stella's brutish husband, Stanley, or the drama in which they all live. However gifted and inspired a writer Tennessee Williams may have been – and he was as gifted and inspired as any the American theatre has produced – he was not a writer whose work first hit the page in finished form. Those landmark plays for which he is best known – Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke, The Night of the Iguana – were the result of many revisions and drafts, some of which took the plays down very different roads than the ones we know. He would sometimes rework a play over a span of years, as he did with the 1940 drama Battle of Angels, which by 1957 he had transformed into Orpheus Descending.

This sense of Williams as intensely prolific reviser comes through clearly in the Harry Ransom Center exhibition "Becoming Tennessee Williams," which explores the first half of the writer's career through its extensive holdings of Williams material, much of it from the writer's own archives. Excerpts from multiple drafts of the plays are displayed, alongside letters and notes in which Williams details story changes he's made or plans to pursue. With John Lahr, the esteemed senior drama critic for The New Yorker and an authority on Williams, giving a lecture this week in conjunction with the Ransom Center exhibition, the Chronicle sought insights from him about Tennessee Williams. We began the conversation by asking about Williams' drive to revise.

John Lahr: Williams lived with his characters in a way that most people didn't. He had a kind of intuition about a story and characters not having fulfilled their truth, and he just kept teasing out more from these stories. Like, how do you know when a sentence is right? How do you know when a story is finished or a poem is finished? It's a sort of intuition about the material, about what you feel about the material. I think it's wrong to think of it just in terms of craft, because sometimes it was a little self-defeating; sometimes he would work on these things and work them to death. Sometimes he would find something. I've read drafts of A Streetcar Named Desire where he played with the idea – and that's what he's doing, always playing and reinventing and re-seeing – where Blanche goes off with Stanley Kowalski. It was a way of imagining. Williams liked being in this imaginary world. He was more comfortable in it. He kept himself in this, for lack of a better word, sacred space, a time out of time, for about eight hours a day, what he called "outer oblivion and inner violence." He was working out his problems, which were enormous. So what was his craft was also his psychological necessity – I suppose that's the nicest way of putting it. He wrote and rewrote, and what it was was an ongoing dialogue with himself, taking his moral and emotional temperature almost on a daily basis.

Playbill for Williams' <i>The Glass Menagerie</i>, signed by Laurette Taylor, the original Amanda Wingfield
Playbill for Williams' The Glass Menagerie, signed by Laurette Taylor, the original Amanda Wingfield

Austin Chronicle: You spoke of his intuition. Did he respond to the criticisms of others?

JL: Yeah, sometimes too quickly. In what is considered his great period, which was his great period, he collaborated with the greatest director probably of the 20th century, Elia Kazan. And his collaboration with Kazan was incredible because it was based on absolute trust of the opinion and capability of another. In my recent article on Kazan ["Method Man," The New Yorker, Dec. 13, 2010], there's an example where Kazan writes him a letter and says, "How about this in Camino Real?" And Williams takes the rhythms and the ideas of the letter right out of the letter and then folds them into the play. Williams was organizationally challenged in a lot of his plays, and because of how he worked and rewrote these things, the fact that he kept revising and taking the characters down other paths, he never knew quite which version was right. He couldn't figure that out because he got so involved in the characters and the byways of his plot. And what Kazan did for him was really set boundaries and challenges and challenge him to write better. So they had this extraordinary collaboration, which accounted for a lot of the great work. In the later plays, when he didn't have that kind of strong, inspired hand guiding him, he often would take notes that were not necessarily good notes. They would send him off down a path which might not be as useful or creative as Kazan's.

AC: In Williams' early career, when he moves from social drama – like the prison play Not About Nightingales – to the more personal work of The Glass Menagerie, his breakthrough play, were there voices outside him that were instrumental in taking Williams down that road?

JL: My speech is going to deal with some of that, but the thing that was instrumental in making Williams a playwright and finding his voice was sex. He was a stranger to his own body until he was about 28. But with sex is the beginning of knowledge and curiosity, and once he was able to free himself from his inhibitions, and it was a kind of ongoing battle, it opened up a universe of feeling and people and experience that gave him his themes. I think it's very psychologically complicated, but the people who pushed him in this direction were his family that he carried around with him, whose voices obsessed him. He internalized his family, and they were his cast of characters essentially – if you can imagine a series of mannequins that he dressed up in different postures and set out. There are other people, of course, but Gore Vidal called his family his repertory of actors, and that is what they were. He had uncanny access to his unconscious. And what's so wonderful about the plays is that, depending on what one you're reading, you're getting a kind of psychic autobiography of where he was in himself at any given time. He was the most autobiographical of American playwrights, but he was trying to use playwriting in a psychodynamic way to figure out who he was in that moment. And as he changed, the plays changed. The subject of my talk is the out-crying heart of Tennessee Williams, and that heart cried out differently at different times. And the source of that outcry was hysteria. And his struggle as a playwright was how to contain the hysteria and keep it in his life and in his plays from suffocating the project. Sometimes he succeeded, and sometimes he couldn't. He's very critical of his work; he would say, "This is too hysterical." All the great arias are wonderful hysterical riffs: Maggie the Cat or Princess Kosmonopolis or Flora Goforth, that's all Williams – Williams in a kind of desperation.

AC: It helps make his work so ripe for parody.

Tennessee Williams signs the authors' door during a visit to the Ransom Center in 1973.
Tennessee Williams signs the "authors' door" during a visit to the Ransom Center in 1973. (Photo by Frank Armstrong)

JL: Yes. And he could parody himself, as in The Gnädiges Fräulein. It verges on that. There's a wonderful line in Joe Orton: "Lunatics are melodramatic." But if you understand his life, all these areas recapitulate aspects of his life or his fears about his life. Take Maggie the Cat. Maggie the Cat wants to claim her inheritance. Well, Williams wanted to claim his literary inheritance and felt that he wasn't going to be able to, and he was going to try to drive through and claim it, which is the correlative there. He finds a correlative for his own actual need and then speaks it through the character. It's like a game of hide-and-seek: If you hide too well, you can't be found, and there's no fun. Williams in his writing hid himself away, and the plays allow him to be found. That's where you find him, in the plays, a kind of perfected self but where he can actually admit the contradictory, paradoxical hate and love and fun and fury that were [in him]. He's such a contradictory person, a very difficult person to deal with in life and to write about, because he contains and is aware of this incredible combination of strength and weakness.

AC: How do you feel trying to sift through that life as a biographer?

JL: It's hard. It's very hard. But I think I have – and I would, wouldn't I? – the correct take on it. You have to have a point of view because you are trying to synthesize and interpret an absolute Himalaya of material. The guy wrote eight hours a day for 40 years. It's just a massive amount of data to synthesize. And, of course, within that there are always going to be contradictions. But I think there is a psychological through-line which makes sense for not only his own behavior but what is behind all the plays. But that comes out of a psychological understanding, I hope, of hysteria and the hysteric as a person.

AC: In this spate of revivals of Williams' later plays in New York, are we finding new things in the plays that were missed when they premiered?

JL: That's a really good question, and I'm going to give you a really strong answer. I'm all for interpretation of Williams. I think a good director always interprets the text. But there is a thin line between interpretation and desecration, and I would say that the recent [Gordon] Edelstein production of The Glass Menagerie – which changes virtually every scene of the play by making Tom a kind of doppelgänger, a shadow of the scenes, writing it down – changes what the play is in its essence. It's like changing the play from the first person to the third person in tone. It's an example of a gross misinterpretation of the play.

Undated photo of Tennessee Williams in Biloxi, Miss.
Undated photo of Tennessee Williams in Biloxi, Miss.

This is a real problem for Williams. Williams, when he wrote, just wrote. He wrote in a fury, and he wrote for long periods of time, and at the end of the day, there would be piles of paper at his feet, and he would simply scoop those pieces of paper up, and there were many versions of his plays. And sometimes directors will go and take some scenes that they like from, say, the third version and some from the printed version and some from the first version, and they'll make a collage of the script, so they in essence become co-authors with Williams. I think this is wrong. I think it's wrong because when Williams decides to print a play, even if the play is still not finished in his eyes this time around – say, Summer and Smoke, which goes through many iterations – this is the script he wanted. This is the script he gave his imprimatur to, and anything else is wrong. It's meretricious, in my view. The meanings of the play change. You suddenly have a love story where there was no love story, symbols where there were no symbols. I mean, I could make a collage of A Streetcar Named Desire from all the different drafts and have the wackiest story going at the end of it. It's nuts, and it should be stopped.

One of the problems is that once Williams died, and once [his sister] Rose died, there was no reason for the Williams estate. In other words, the Williams estate was there to protect Rose and to make sure that she had $300,000 a year for her upkeep at this swank sanitarium. Once she died, the rights went to Sewanee, who benefits from the money. But the people who are making those decisions, whether they're at Sewanee or the Casarotto Ramsay agency in London, who handle the productions, they really have not been responsible in overseeing these productions. It really is not right that people who are seeing these plays for the next generation are not seeing the plays as written. Yes, interpret them within what Williams sanctioned. But don't, please, give me a play that he never wrote or intended and say that it is The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. They don't say Michael Wilson's version of The Milk Train. ... They say Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. No. Not.

AC: So do audiences now need interpreters with greater sensitivity to Williams' later plays?

JL: No, you just need intelligent and talented people to stage it in an intelligent and talented way. The audience has nothing to do but go. One of the things that's so interesting even about an avant-garde, quote-unquote, production, the audience is held not by the hijinks of the production but because Williams' words are good. Even when they're not brilliant, they're eloquent and elegant, and that holds the audience. It's like a melody which in this riff had gone off on some sort of abstract solo like Coltrane, squealing and screaming and noisy, but there's still the words, and the words still hold you. We've forgotten in our contemporary moment, except with a few very good playwrights, we've forgotten the power of eloquence and the power of poetry onstage, because most people can't do it. So when you hear it, you're spellbound by it, which is what you're supposed to be

John Lahr speaks on "Tennessee Williams and the Out-Crying Heart" Thursday, March 3, 7pm, in Jessen Auditorium in Rainey Hall on the UT campus.

"Becoming Tennessee Williams" continues through July 31 at the Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe. For more information, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.

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Tennessee Williams, John Lahr, Ransom Center, Elia Kazan

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