Today in history: March 26, 1914

Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Williams) was born in Columbus, Mississippi.

Will you do a total stranger the kindness of reading his verse?

Thank you!

Thomas Lanier Williams

— Tennessee Williams, letter to editor Harriet Monroe, March 11, 1933

“You’re always having to compete with yourself. They always say, ‘It’s not as good as Streetcar or Cat‘. Of course it’s not. At 69, you don’t write the kind of play you write at 30. You haven’t got the kind of energy you used to have.”

— Tennessee Williams

In 1928, Tennessee Williams wrote in a letter to his beloved grandfather:

I have been reading a good number of biographies this year which I am sure you will commend. Probably you remember how I picked up that volume of Ludwig’s Napoleon on the boat and liked it so well that the owner had to ask me for it. I tried to get it at the library but it was out. Instead i got a life of the Kaiser Wilhelm by the same author. Since then I hve read several others of celebrated literary personages. I have one at home now about Shelley, whose poetry I am studying at school. His life is very interesting. He seems to have been the wild, passionate and dissolute type of genius: which makes him very entertaining to read about.

Tennessee Williams said the following about Streetcar (excerpt here), and his main point of that entire play:

There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into a last corner to make a last desperate stand – but as a calculating bitch with ’round heels’…. Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life.

Here is a post about the birth of Streetcar Named Desire.

Tennessee Williams wrote the following elegiac essay about Laurette Taylor (who created the role of Amanda so memorably in Glass Menagerie (excerpt here) and made him star) for The New York Times after news of her death in 1949:

I do not altogether trust the emotionalism that is commonly indulged in over the death of an artist, not because it is necessarily lacking in sincerity but because it may come too easily. In what I say now about Laurette Taylor I restrict myself to those things which I have felt continually about her as apart from any which this unhappy occasion produces.

Of course the first is that I consider her the greatest artist of her profession that I have known. The second is that I loved her as a person. In a way the second is more remarkable. I have seldom encountered any argument about her preeminent stature as an actress. But for me to love her was remarkable because I have always been so awkward and diffident around actors that it has made a barrier between us almost all but insuperable.

In the case of Laurette Taylor, I cannot say that I ever got over the awkwardness and the awe which originally were present, but she would not allow it to stand between us. The great warmth of her heart burned through and we became close friends.

I am afraid it is the only close friendship I have ever had with a player…

It is our immeasurable loss that Laurette Taylor’s performances were not preserved on the modern screen. The same is true of Duse and Bernhardt, with whom her name belongs. Their glory survives in the testimony and inspiration of those who saw them. Too many people have been too deeply moved by the gift of Laurette Taylor for that to disappear from us.

In this unfathomable experience of ours there are sometimes hints of something that lies outside the flesh and its mortality. I suppose these intuitions come to many people in their religious vocations, but I have sensed them more clearly in the work of artists and most clearly of all in the art of Laurette Taylor. There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space beyond us.

The last word that I received from her was a telegram which reached me early this fall. It was immediately after the road company of our play had opened in Pittsburgh. The notices spoke warmly of Pauline Lord’s performance in the part of Amanda. “I have just read the Pittsburgh notices,” Laurette wired me. “What did I tell you, my boy? You don’t need me.”

I feel now – as I have always felt – that a whole career of writing for the theatre is rewarded enough by having created one good part for a great actress.

Having created a part for Laurette Taylor is a reward I find sufficient for all the effort that went before and any that may come after.

Her performance launched him into stardom. And his creation of Amanda revitalized her career just before she died. She had had a great career early in her life, and went on a 10 year binge following the death of her husband. Laurette Taylor was “washed up”. Until …

And now, she’s a legend, her performance in Glass Menagerie is legendary. “What did I tell you, my boy, you don’t need me…” In a way, she was completely right. The play is better than any one performance. The play didn’t depend on Laurette Taylor’s genius, although thank God she found the vehicle. The star of the play is actually the play itself, and Laurette Taylor knew that. The star of the play was the new voice of Tennessee Williams. And so no, Tennessee didn’t “need” her. And about Tennessee saying: “I consider her the greatest artist of her profession that I have known.” Anyone who knows anything about theatre would be hard-pressed to disagree. I haven’t even SEEN the woman act, obviously, but I don’t need to. I will take the hundreds and hundreds of eyewitness’ word for it. In the same way that I know, in my heart, that Eleanora Duse was one of the “greatest artists of her profession” as well. I don’t need to have seen her live. (My post about Laurette Taylor here.)

Here is one of the original reviews of Glass Menagerie, after its premiere on an icy winter night in Chicago. This review focuses on the miracle that was Laurette Taylor’s performance.

January 14, 1945


CHICAGO – As this is written there exists doubt as to whether Eddie Dowling has anything more satisfying than an artistic success in his new production, “The Glass Menagerie”, at the Civic Theatre, but there is no doubt whatsoever that he has brought back Laurette Taylor as a great character actress.

Not since she did “Peg o’My Heart,” exactly thirty years ago, has she been so talked and written about.

In “The Glass Menagerie,” which is a tenuous and moody tragedy from the pen of Tennessee Williams, she plays a decaying Delta belle overfond of haranguing her two children, one a warehouse worker (Mr. Dowling) and the other a morbidly bashful maiden (Julie Haydon), upon their duty to rise above the drabness of life in a St. Louis alley flat. Fumbling around the dolorous precincts of her home in a slipshod Mother Hubbard, she is forever reciting the plantation glories of her youth, how seventeen young gentlemen callers were forever complimenting her among the magnolias, and how she could have had this or that grandson instead of the captivating plebeian drunk who took her only to desert her and leave her to current St. Louis blues.

When Miss Taylor mumbles in magnificent realism she is still enough of a vocal wizard to be intelligible to her audiences, and when she pouts, nags or struts in pathetic bursts of romantic memory she is superb as a pantomime. Her descents into hysteria are masterpieces of understatement, dramatic in that they force her audience to do the acting for her.

She accomplishes her tour de force of acting without a single gesture which could be charged with showmanship. Some of her most telling lines are fumbling mutterings delivered over her shoulder. And in a scene wherein she prods her son into bringing home somebody, anybody, who might possibly marry his psychopathic sister before he himself wanders off, as his mother knows he will, into the big, blue and tipsy yonder, she gives a performance that could fit into the best of the Abbey Theatre’s Irish plays.

One moment she is a ridiculous pretender and the next only a poor old woman dreading so soon to be dead because her helpless daughter will then be alone. When a ‘caller’ is eventually dragooned and brought to the house for dinner, Miss Taylor’s appearance in an ancient taffety and high-toned manners is a delicate feat in the creation of that narrow line between the absurd and the sad.

Oh. For a time machine.

Williams wrote in his memoirs about Taylor:

In Chicago the first night, no one knew how to take [Glass] Menagerie, it was something of an innovation in the theatre and even though Laurette [Taylor] gave an incredibly luminous, electrifying performance [as Amanda Wingfield], and people observed it. But people are people, and most of them went home afterward to take at least equal pleasure in their usual entertainments. It took that lovely lady, Claudia Cassidy, the drama critic of the Chicago Tribune, a lot of time to sell it to them to tell them it was special.
She said Laurette ranked with [Eleonora] Duse.

Eventually, though, Menagerie was a startling success, which success I attribute in large part to Laurette. She was, as I have said many times, a gallant performer; I still consider her the greatest artist of her profession that I have known. I wrote a tribute to her, on her death, in which I said that it is our immeasurable loss that Laurette’s performances were not preserved on the modern screen. The same is true of Duse and [Sarah] Bernhardt, with whom Laurette’s name belongs.

I also wrote that there are sometimes hints, during our lives, of something that lies outside the flesh and its mortality. I suppose these intuitions come to many people in their religious vocations, but I have sensed them equally clearly in the work of artists and most clearly of all in the art of Laurette. There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space beyond us.

Here’s a picture of Tennessee Williams out on his beloved Key West in 1980:

Make voyages. Attempt them. That’s all there is.

Tennessee Williams, “Camino Real”

(Excerpt from Camino Real here. “I’ve outlived the tenderness of my heart.”)

I realized things about myself – and my life – through working on Miss Alma in Summer and Smoke (excerpt here). My journal entries from that time are fascinating for me to look back on. I actually grew as a human being, while working on that play. It’s one of the only times that’s ever happened. Nobody can tell me that Alma is “just” a character in a play. She LIVES, she breathes. I certainly felt possessed by her.

A cord breaking.
1000 miles away.
Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking.

— Tennessee Williams, journal entry, Marcy 24, 1943 – after hearing about his sister’s lobotomy

He balked when reviewers would characterize all of his female characters as “desperate”. He said that he had never written a victim. He saw each and every one of them as survivors, even triumphant.

Here’s part of an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 1948 where he addresses the misunderstanding of his female characters:

All at once, I found myself hammed in by three women in basic black who had been to the Saturday matinee and had apparently thought of nothing since except the problems of Alma Winemiller, the heroine of “Summer and Smoke”. When you are eating, a great deal can be accomplished by having a mouth full of food and by making gutteral noises instead of speech when confronted with questions such as, What is the theme of your play? What happens to the characters after the play is over? What is your next play about and how do you happen to know so much about women? On that last one you can spit the food out if it really begins to choke you.

For a writer who is not intentionally obscure, and never, in his opinion, obscure at all, I do get asked a hell of a lot of questions which I can’t answer. I have never been able to say what was the theme of my play and I don’t think I have ever been conscious of writing with a theme in mind. I am always surprised when, after a play has opened, I read in the papers what the play is about, that it was about a decayed Southern belle trying to get a man for her crippled daughter, or that it was about a boozie floozie on the skids, or that a backwoods sheik in a losing battle with three village vamps.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful for these highly condensed and stimulating analyses, but it would never have occurred to me that that was the story I was trying to tell. Usually when asked about a theme I look vague and say, “It is a play about life.” What could be simpler, and yet more pretentious? You can easily extend that a little and say it is a tragedy of incomprehension. That also means life. Or you can say it is a tragedy of Puritanism. That is life in America. Or you can say that it is a play that considers the “problem of evil”. But why not just say “life”?

To return to the women in the alcove. On this particular occasion the question that floored me was, “Why do you always write about frustrated women?”

To say that floored me is to put it mildly, because I would say that frustrated is almost exactly what the women I write about are not. What was frustrated about Amanda Wingfield? Circumstances, yes! But spirit? See Helen Hayes in London’s “Glass Menagerie” if you still think Amanda was a frustrated spirit! No, there is nothing interesting about frustration, per se. I could not write a line about it for the simple reason that I can’t write a line about anything that bores me.

Was Blanche of “A Streetcar Named Desire” frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast of the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? What is frustrated about loving with such white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of the Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?

I came across this essay when I was working on Alma Winemiller – and I can’t tell you how much of an “A-ha!” moment it gave me. If I felt drawn towards portraying her as sexually FRUSTRATED, or emotionally FRUSTRATED … (and that is certainly a trap with Miss Alma) I remembered Tennessee’s words. Do not play the frustration. How boring. Play the OBJECTIVE, play the DESIRE, play what you WANT … Let the CIRCUMSTANCES of the play frustrate you … but never ever take your eye off your objective. And THAT is where the tragedy lies.

“Nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof – is there? Is there, baby?”

— from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

(Excerpt from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof here. That bit about Brick waiting for “the click” always gives me a chill. Such good writing, so insightful. Here’s a post about the the creation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)

A guy I know was the lead in Tennessee Williams’ last play – Something Cloudy Something Clear (excerpt here)- done here in NYC at Cocteau Rep in the early 80s. Williams died soon after the play went up. The play is a highly personal kind of dream-space, and reading it it is as though you can feel Williams getting ready to go into the dying of the light. It is the play of an old old man. A man getting ready. Craig shared with me his memories of working with Tennessee.

Everyone talks about his “laugh”. Actors and actresses who were in his plays talk about hearing his laugh from out in the audience. It was a generous laugh, a laugh full of joy, but it could also be an expression of shyness, discomfort – it wasn’t always appropriate, sometimes there was panic behind it.

Here, to me, is a quintessential Tennessee Williams statement.

An interviewer asked him: “What is your definition of happiness?”

He replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”

His sister Rose was institutionalized and lobotomized. This was something Tennessee never really recovered from. He was gay. He was a perpetual outsider. He was on the run from his past. He was able to “get out” of the past … his sister Rose was not. The guilt of that never left him. The guilt of being “the one” who was able to live in the real world dogged him at every turn. If one was “happy”, if one was able to manuever thru a world that lobotomized some of its most sensitive members, then “happiness” required some kind of a hard outer shell – a shell that Tennessee himself lacked, that other “sensitives” (his word) lacked. He did not begrudge people their happiness … he just didn’t understand it. He couldn’t get “in there”, ever.

I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.

Tennessee Williams

He WAS Blanche. He WAS Alma. He WAS Maggie. All of these people, these “sensitives”, trying to make their way through, trying to bear up under disappointments and cruelty … trying to SURVIVE.

Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you.

Tennessee Williams

The Blanche DuBois’, the Laura Wingfields, the Miss Almas … these are sensitive people, deeply wounded people, on the edge of shattering – just like his sister Rose did. Of course blatant casual “happiness” would be seen as insensitive through their eyes.

All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams is one of my own personal heroes, for more reasons than one, and I am aware (on a pretty much daily basis) of how grateful I am to him for his plays. In the same way that I am pretty much always conscious of being grateful that there was a Shakespeare, and that we have his works with us today.

Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself.

Tennessee Williams

Jessica Tandy, who originated Blanche on Broadway, was already a celebrated actress. Marlon Brando was practically unknown. Kazan noticed which way the wind was blowing during rehearsals, and it concerned him on many levels.

Basically what was happening was that Marlon Brando was acting Jessica Tandy off the stage. Without breaking a sweat, Brando stole the show right out from under her. Jessica Tandy fought to keep her ground (which, actually, is perfect for the theme of the show and for the character of Blanche Dubois), but Kazan’s main concern was that Blanche would turn into a laughable character and lose the sympathy of the audience. Kazan was worried that the audience, because of Brando’s undeniable stage presence, and the electricity of his acting, would completely side with Stanley, and not have any sympathy for Blanche at all. This, Kazan felt, would be a disaster. Stanley rapes Blanche. This event must be seen as horrifyingly wrong, not as Blanche getting what she deserves. But Brando’s power took over the play, it was a runaway train, it wasn’t a matter of him playing Stanley as sympathetic – he wasn’t. It was just that he was a force to be reckoned with, a powerhouse – you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Jessica Tandy barely registered, when she was beside him.

Here’s a photo from that production: Brando, Kim Hunter, and Tandy:

And so Kazan feared, as rehearsals went on, that the balance of the play was off.

Here’s what Kazan wrote about all of this in his marvelous autobiography.

It is Tennessee Williams’ “advice” to Kazan at the end that really packs a punch:

But what had been intimated in our final rehearsals in New York was happening. The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show? I didn’t bring up the problem, because I didn’t know the solution. I especially didn’t want the actors to know that I was concerned. What could I say to Brando? Be less good? Or to Jessie? Get better? …

Louis B. Mayer sought me out to congratulate me and assure me that we’d all make a fortune … He urged me to make the author do one critically important bit of rewriting to make sure that once that “awful woman” who’d come to break up that “fine young couple’s happy home” was packed off to an institution, the audience would believe that the young couple would live happily ever after. It never occurred to him that Tennessee’s primary sympathy was with Blanche, nor did I enlighten him … His misguided reaction added to my concern. I had to ask myself: Was I satisfied to have the performance belong to Marlon Brando? Was that what I’d intended? What did I intend? I looked to the author. He seemed satisfied. Only I — and perhaps Hume [Cronyn, Tandy’s husband] — knew that something was going wrong …

What astonished me was that the author wasn’t concerned about the audience’s favoring Marlon. That puzzled me because Tennessee was my final authority, the person I had to please. I still hadn’t brought up the problem, I was waiting for him to do it. I got my answer … because of something that happened in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the hall from my suite, where Tennessee and Pancho were staying. [Pancho was Tennessee’s boyfriend – or maybe it was more of a f*** buddy situation. Pancho was a huge presence in Tennessee’s life. They had a really volatile relationship.] One night I heard a fearsome commotion from across the hall, curses in Spanish, threats to kill, the sound of breaking china … and a crash … As I rushed out into the corridor, Tennessee burst through his door, looking terrified, and dashed into my room. Pancho followed, but when I blocked my door, he turned to the elevator still cursing, and was gone. Tennessee slept on the twin bed in my room that night. The next morning, Pancho had not returned.

I noticed that Wiilliams wasn’t angry at Pancho, not even disapproving — in fact, when he spoke about the incident, he admired Pancho for his outburst. At breakfast, I brought up my worry about Jessie and Marlon. “She’ll get better,” Tennessee said, and then we had our only discussion about the direction of his play. “Blanche is not an angel without a flaw,” he said, “and Stanley’s not evil. I know you’re used to clearly stated themes, but this play should not be loaded one way or the other. Don’t try to simplify things.” Then he added, “I was making fun of Pancho, and he blew up.” He laughed. I remembered the letter he’d written me before we started rehearsals, remembered how, in that letter, he’d cautioned me against tipping the moral scales against Stanley, that in the interests of fidelity I must not present Stanley as a “black-dyed villain”. “What should I do?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “Don’t take sides or try to present a moral. When you begin to arrange the action to make a thematic point, the fidelity to life will suffer. Go on working as you are. Marlon is a genius, but she’s a worker and she will get better. And better.”

Here is the review of the premiere of Streetcar Named Desire, in New York City, December 3, 1947.

December 4, 1947


Tennessee Williams has brought us a superb drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was acted at the Ethel Barrymore last evening. And Jessica Tandy gives a superb performance as a rueful heroine whose misery Mr. Williams is tenderly recording. This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting. For the acting and playwriting are perfectly blended in a limpid performance, and it is impossible to tell where Miss Tandy begins to give form and warmth to the mood Mr. Williams has created.

Like “The Glass Menagerie,” the new play is a quietly woven study of intangibles. But to this observer it shows deeper insight and represents a great step forward toward clarity. And it reveals Mr. Williams as a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is history of a gently reared Mississippi young woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. She comes to live with her sister, who is married to a rough-and-ready mechanic and inhabits two dreary rooms in a squalid neighborhood. Blanche – for that is her name – has delusions of grandeur, talks like an intellectual snob, buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, covers things that are dingy with things that are bright and flees reality.

To her brother-in-law she is an unforgiveable liar. But it is soon apparent to the theatregoer that in Mr. Williams’ eyes she is one of the dispossessed whose experience has unfitted her for reality; and although his attitude toward her is merciful, he does not spare her or the playgoer. For the events of “Streetcar” lead to a painful conclusion which he does not try to avoid. Although Blanche cannot face the truth, Mr. Williams does in the most imaginative and perceptive play he has written.

Since he is no literal dramatist and writes in none of the conventional forms, he presents theatre with many problems. Under Elia Kazan’s sensitive but concrete direction, the theatre solved them admirably. Jo Mielziner has provided a beautifully lighted single setting that lightly sketches the house and the neighborhood. In this shadowy environment the performance is a work of great beauty.

Miss Tandy has a remarkably long part to play. She is hardly ever off the stage, and when she is on stage she is almost constantly talking — chattering, dreaming aloud, wondering, building enchantments out of words. Miss Tandy is a trim, agile actress with a lovely voice and quick intelligence. Her performance is almost incredibly true. For it does seem almost incredible that she can convey it with so many shades and impulses that are accurate, revealing and true.

The rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic; Karl Malden as a stupid but wondering suitor; Kim Hunter as the patient though troubled sister — all act not only with color and style but with insight.

By the usual Broadway standards, “Streetcar Named Desire” is too long; not all those words are essential. But Mr. Williams is entitled to his own independence. For he has not forgotten that human beings are the basic subject of art. Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion he has spun a poignant and luminous story.

We are lucky in this country that we have produced such a playwright. We are lucky to have all of his plays in the canon. I can’t imagine my life without them.

Happy birthday, Tom.

Tennessee Williams said the following, in a 1981 interview – only a couple of years before he passed away:

“I’m very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don’t permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got. And O’Neill — he had to die to make ‘Moon’ successful. And to me it has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity — my sister Rose did not manage this. So I keep writing. I am sometimes pleased with what I do — for me, that’s enough.”

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4 Responses to Today in history: March 26, 1914

  1. regina Bartkoff says:

    Thank you so much for this Sheila, and for putting up those posts on Laurette Taylor, your feelings and experiences on being Alma, (I was in tears reading this, and then also just laughing at, “It was just fucking awful.”) Rose, and so much more. Even that simple quote from Camino Real knocks me out. I just sent it to my daughter who is trying her hand at acting out in L.A. and questioning and doubting her vagabonding ways. I remember Craig too! (he might remember me) I remember him as just a sweetheart of a man and an actor with seemingly no ego at all.
    Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams, indeed. Regina

  2. red says:

    I love Camino Real so much – it just knocks me flat!

    Craig’s a great guy – I was in a show with him, and also have performed my one-woman show at fundraisers for his theatre company. He’s a lovely guy, with a great wife, a bunch of great kids – and I just loved the story he told me of reading Rilke in the emerald-green room.

  3. regina Bartkoff says:

    I’d pay good money to see that One Woman Show! (or anything you have to say) If you ever need a venue, I have a small dump of an place, art gallery/theatre on the LES, haha! anytime! Regina

  4. Herb Krill says:

    Just discovered your website. Enjoying your entries on T.W. But he was born in 1911, not 1914. Next year will be his 100th. I am working on a documentary film about him, for German Public TV.

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