The Twilight of Tennessee Williams: a Portrait of the Playwright in the Last Stage of a Great Career

UPDATED 03/14/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/14/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

Tennessee Williams arrived for lunch with ink stains on his hands. Although he had attended an opening night party in his honor the previous evening, he had arisen and resumed writing at 4 a.m. The date was July 2, 1982, and the playwright had traveled from his Key West, Fla. home to Massachusetts, where the Williamstown Theatre Festival was mounting a two-part, six-hour collage of scenes from his work. In connection with that tribute, Williams agreed to discuss his career. As it turned out, the interview was one of his last.

When Williams died at 71 in a Manhattan hotel on Feb. 25, he was rightly celebrated for his tales of lyrical losers and wounded romantics. But throughout his remarkable career, he had demonstrated a resiliency that none of his stage characters enjoyed. In the face of private tragedies and public embarrassments, he persevered.

Although he won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), he was criticized when he traded the poetic realism of those plays for the impressionistic narratives of Vieux Carré (1977) and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). In fact, during the 1981 Off-Off-Broadway run of his last New York show, Something Cloudy, Something Clear, the audience on a Saturday night sometimes numbered less than three dozen.

Personal misfortunes punctuated the last two decades of his life. Following the 1963 death of his longtime lover, Frank Merlo, and a streak of critical disfavor, Williams had an emotional breakdown. In 1969 his younger brother, Dakin, brought him to a St. Louis asylum, an act that resulted in permanent estrangement between the two men.

Now, over a sandwich lunch, Williams looked back on his life as an artist with characteristic irony. In gravelly Southern cadences, he discussed both his past and future with surprising good humor. Excerpts from his conversation:

ON HIS LATER PLAYS:

I'm a very restless man. I like to keep trying different things. I couldn't go on doing the same type of play. I think I'm freed from realism. I feel as if I've found a territory in which I can move to the extent that time permits me.

I don't have the great pent-up energy that I had when I was just coming into prominence as a writer, with years of emotion under wraps that had no public expression. I think my work in the vein expected of me lasted for about 15 years. That's quite enough. Success and security are death for a writer if he lives just for them.

ON BAD REVIEWS:

They still compare the work I do now with my earlier successes, which isn't quite fair. The plays are not aiming for the same thing. I hope they will at least be tolerant of my experiments. Some of the new plays are beginning to catch on. I've always believed that artistic merit survives anything.

ON HIS THEMES:

I like to deal with subject matter that hasn't been explored much. I haven't been frightened by any subject matter. The only thing that really frightens me is bestiality.

I deal with the decadence of the South. I don't ever deal with the decadence of the North. It's too disgusting. But I'm writing about a South that is fast becoming a memory.

ON MOVIE VERSIONS OF HIS PLAYS:

I am rarely happy with them. I advise people to leave before the last five minutes. In the days most of them were made, there was heavy censorship. Usually, the last five minutes contradict entirely the rest of the story. I think Streetcar must be done again. It's much too noisy. In the delicate moments, you don't want all that hubbub.

ON HIS 1969 BREAKDOWN:

Someone I loved very dearly and who really created a life for me had died. I plunged into a profound depression. It went on for several years. I only went out after dark, and then just to the deli to get a box of spaghetti, which I boiled. I wouldn't even have sauce on it. I don't know why I bothered.

Then one of my publishers said something had to be done. He took me to Dr. Max Jacobson. His intention was very benign. I don't think he knew that Dr. Max was going to give me so much speed, enormous amounts of speed. I would get into a taxi to go home, and I would feel as if my heart was going to stop before I reached home. I would plunge right to the typewriter, and I would lose myself. The shots so accelerated my writing, I would get to the point of a sentence and then stop and leave the character in midair. That's the way people talk anyway.

Gradually the mind began to become disoriented and wounded to a degree. Not permanently, I trust. I was committed to a snake pit. It really was a snake pit. My brother's excuse was that it was the only mental hospital close to where he lived. It was rough coming out of it.

To come down from speed, I had to take powerful medication. It induced the most marvelous hypnosis. I would see Our Lady next to my bed. She would occupy a rocker next to my bed. I would drift off to sleep with her rocking. I was never sure I was going to wake up the next morning. Now I don't worry about that much.

ON SEX AND PLAYWRIGHTING:

I used to be very jealous when I looked at actors' sex lives and looked at my own. Now, my sex life is really minimal and parenthetical. At most. For instance, it's been eight months since I've had an orgasm. I can adjust very well to celibacy. An artist can put it in his work. After you've had a reasonably full experience with sex, you don't want to go on repeating it all your life. You want to concentrate your energies on your work.

ON HIS COLLEAGUES:

Harold Pinter is my favorite contemporary playwright. I like Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson. But I would go out of my way to miss Sam Shepard.

ON THE THEATRICAL COMMUNITY:

They think I'm very elderly now—71. And they'll just sit around and wait until I'm dead. Then my work will increase in value, and they can produce it on their own terms. And I won't be there to interfere, to say, "No, we don't want Raquel Welch" when they say, "But she's a name, she'll draw."

ON OLD AGE:

One cannot pretend that one still has all the energy of youth. I certainly don't. I don't look forward to the 1980s. A lot of my longevity comes from the toughness of the Williamses. My mother died at the age of 94. My grandfather was a month short of 98 when he died. But they were not writers. It makes a difference.

ON HIS CAREER:

I would not do anything differently. I never had any choice but to do what I did. I tried many other things. I never lasted at anything else more than a week or two. Writing was the only thing.

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