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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

Blow Out Your Candles: An Elegy for Rose Williams

December 5, 2013 | by

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura Wingfield in the current revival of The Glass Menagerie.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura Wingfield in the current revival of The Glass Menagerie.

Some memory of Rose Williams underpins all of Tennessee Williams’s plays, but it was with the 1944 premiere of The Glass Menagerie that he both immortalized his sister and launched his Broadway career. Rose is the basis for Laura Wingfield, the withdrawn high school dropout who passes her days listening to old phonograph records and caring for her collection of glass animals while the world closes in around her. Williams based Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, on himself. The play depicts real events, up to a point; years before he wrote Menagerie, now in a successful run on Broadway, Williams left home to pursue his own writing ambitions. During that time, Rose descended into violent insanity. “To escape from a trap,” Williams wrote in Menagerie’s production notes about Tom Wingfield, “he has to act without pity.”

The Williams family moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918. Prior to that, Rose and Tom lived “agreeable children’s lives under garden hoses in the hot summer,” according to Williams’s 1975 Memoirs. Nine-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Tom danced in the living room to music playing on the Victrola. The records were gifts from Cornelius Williams, their itinerant father, who was, like Laura and Tom’s father in Menagerie, a traveling salesman.

When Edwina Williams, Tennessee’s mother, became pregnant with her third child, Dakin, Cornelius accepted an office job at International Shoe’s St. Louis branch. The family moved into a small house, not nearly as squalid as the tenement apartment the Wingfields occupy onstage, but the tension between Williams’ parents made the atmosphere even more explosive. Cornelius, like the character of Tom and Laura’s father, was restless, alcoholic, and abusive. After the family moved to St. Louis, he was, however, not absent. Edwina and Cornelius’s marriage reeked of dysfunction; she withheld sex to punish his infidelity and abrasive presence. Williams recalled hearing his mother’s screams, futile protestations as his father cornered her in their bedroom. Tom, Rose, and Dakin would run out of the house and to the neighbors’ to escape. Read More »

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Long Pregnant Summer: Kim, Kate, and Stella

August 13, 2013 | by

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“The subject of childbirth is an old and honorable one on the screen and on the stage,” wrote Tennessee Williams to Irene Selznick and Elia Kazan, his producer and director for the 1947 Broadway premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. “It has been treated so frequently that a good many well established conventions have sprung up about it, so that it can be treated realistically and without offence to good taste.”

Williams was not, of course, here to witness the 2013 summer of public pregnancies: the Kardashians, amply exposed in tabloids; and the royals, followed everywhere, including through The Daily Show’s segment, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix.” If he were, he could have also tracked my own experience, important not only to my friends and family but apparently also to old men passing on the sidewalk (“Talk about timing, you must be hotter’n hell!”), Whole Foods shoppers (“Did you read that piece last week about cord clamping?”), and a young female officer in a police buggy stopped at a light, noticing me under my umbrella at the crosswalk (“Is this your first? Are you nervous? Ooooh, it’s gonna huuuurt!”). Read More »

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Laughing in the Face of Death: A Vonnegut Roundtable

April 11, 2013 | by

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Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)

When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.

On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.

How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?

Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Carson, Hatterr, Fidel

February 8, 2013 | by

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If you’re going to judge a book by its endpapers, then I recommend Julie Morstad’s The Wayside. I’ve spent a fair amount of time imagining them on the walls of the drawing room I don’t have. It helps that the rest of the book—all new drawings by the Canadian illustrator—is equal parts charming and strange. There’s definitely an Edward Gorey–esque feel to her work, but I also see occasional hints of William Pène du Bois (in a troupe of women acrobats) and Amy Cutler (in the wonderful patterned textiles). I think my favorite drawing may be a double gatefold depicting groups of flatly rendered performing-arts kids doing their thing. It’s Attic form meets Fame. —Nicole Rudick

In the early fifties, a married Cuban socialite has an epistolary romance with a dashing political prisoner. They meet for one night, and the woman bears his child. Meanwhile the young man, freed from prison, seizes command of the struggle against Batista and becomes ruler of their country. It sounds (and reads) like a novel, but Havana Dreams, Wendy Gimbel’s 1998 portrait of Naty Revuelta and her daughter Alina, is a work of intimate reportage, and the relationship of these two women to Fidel Castro takes on an uncanny symbolic weight. The book invaded my own dreams. —Lorin Stein Read More »

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Gore Vidal’s Bully Republic

August 6, 2012 | by

A few years ago, fresh off a diet of Wilde, Maugham, and Saki, I was beginning to feel disappointed by the gay pantheon. Not the actual writing—no one could find fault with that. It was the example of their lives that depressed me, ending more often than not in loneliness and/or despair, if not complete exile.

I remember having a conversation with my father about it. I told him what I’d really have liked to find, in my exhaustive search of the canon, was a gay superhero. You know: fucking dudes, saving the world. Never mind the fact that superheroes, with their notoriously contour-hugging apparel, are usually assumed gay by default. I wanted something that had existed, something from history. My father considered my criteria.

“I think what you want is Gore Vidal.”

I think it took me all of one day to read Myra Breckinridge in full and possibly a month to process it. The cartoon version of gender deviance it put forth was one that, against all odds, enraptured me. From its famous opening (“I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess”) to Myra’s core, radical aim in life (“the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes…”), to the lengthy rape scene three quarters through, wherein Myra rapes a guy with a strap-on, comparing herself to an Amazon and making him say thank you afterward, the message was clear. She was the ultimate queer bully, taking no prisoners and getting a comeuppance so ridiculous that Vidal gives the reader no choice but to discount any kind of moral implications it might have otherwise had.Read More »

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Staff Picks: Biennial Cataloguing, Southern Gothic Horror

March 30, 2012 | by

For the first time in its eighty-year history, the Whitney Biennial gives substantial space—an entire floor of the museum, in fact—to dance and performance. The catalogue, typically a by-the-book affair (no pun intended), has matched the show’s experiential adventure, allotting each of the roughy fifty artists six pages for original contributions that extend, rather than merely reflect, the work in the museum. Among others entries, I love Vincent Fecteau’s use of a quote from Dennis Cooper to accompany his sculptures, while Cooper’s Last Spring project appears a few pages back; and Nick Mauss’s description of room he built in a dream: “just like that Claus Oldenburg installation with the plush and the zebra, except that the bed is covered in a grid of baguettes standing en point beneath a poster of the cover of Triste Tropiques.” —Nicole Rudick

It feels redundant to recommend something as canonical as Shoah, but until this past weekend, when I devoted a day to it at BAM, I’d never actually seen Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary all the way through. I must admit, I entered into the nine-hour experience with something of a sense of obligation. But it’s okay. Entertaining is the wrong word—wholly engrossing. I’ll leave it to others to discuss its cinematic and historical import; all I know is that it stays with you. —Sadie Stein

This week New Orleans held its annual Tennessee Williams Festival, featuring copious mint juleps and a Stella shouting contest. I celebrated the occasion with Sweet Bird of Youth, the 1962 film adaptation of Williams’s play. When tweaking and fame-hungry Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) returns to his Florida hometown to win back his sweetheart with big Hollywood promises, as always with dear Tennessee, heartbreak and histrionics ensue. Geraldine Page as Alexandra del Lago, a boozy, washed-up film star, steals the show. —Allison Bulger

Gothic thrillers are my guilty pleasure, but it’s hard to find a really good one. John Harwood’s The Séance is one of the best I’ve come across lately, a creepy page-turner that manager to capture the flavor of nineteenth-century horror conventions without feeling mannered. —S.S.

William K. Everson was the head of the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, which put on weekly retrospective film series in New York City from the fifties into the eighties. These screenings were attended by such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick and Susan Sontag. Everson wrote extensive notes for each show, and these legendary writings—idiosyncratic as they are erudite—are now available online through NYU. —Josh Anderson

Cultural narratives often contain the most distilled and revealing identifiers of a people and their imagination. The Met exhibition “Storytelling in Japanese Art” is a beautiful instance of narrative revelation, a window into the world of Japanese storytelling from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. This collection of various media—hand scrolls, folding screens, playing cards, textiles—pairs narrative text and intricate illustration to showcase the rich and fascinating history of Japanese people, their spirt and their stories. —Elizabeth Nelson

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