Tennessee Williams


Notes from a Biographer

March 26, marked the centennial of Tennessee Williams’s birth. The Paris Review celebrates with an appreciation by Sam Stephenson, through the eyes of W. Eugene Smith.

Tennessee Williams at the New Orleans Athletic Club, 1948. © W. Eugene Smith. Compliments of A Gallery For Fine Photography.

In December 1966 or January 1967, W. Eugene Smith was in his fifth floor loft space at 821 Sixth Avenue. Forty-eight years old, he was down and out. He drank a fifth of scotch and ate countless amphetamines every day. His live-in girlfriend of seven years, Carole Thomas, was loyal but growing weary. He maintained grand, alluring ambitions, but nobody would hire him for fear of igniting an impossible odyssey. The underworld jazz scene in the building had fizzled out two years earlier. The neighborhood had a daytime retail life, but otherwise the place was desolate: hot dog wrappers and paper cups blowing down the street.

Nothing in particular was happening on this winter evening, but Smith rolled his tape recorder for seven hours anyway. He caught WBAI radio news stories on Vietnam, atomic-bomb fears and backyard shelters, civil rights, and urban drug problems. There was a literary program on Hemingway in Cuba, something about Kafka, and a reading of a Katherine Anne Porter short story. Smith was walking around the loft wearing an eyeball-shaped crystal on a chain around his neck. The following bit of conversation was caught on tape:


Where did you buy that perceptual eye? I want one.


From a gypsy. She was wearing it around her neck.


Would you get me one?

I have to find a gypsy first. Actually, it was the eye of her daughter. It had a tear in it. It took a year and a half for her to build a tear. When she had an emotion, which wasn’t often, she would take this eye and she would squeeze it. And one tear would drop out, and because it was so rare, so precious in this callous little witch, it became like a precious stone, a jewel of a tear. And kings fought mighty battles and killed millions to gain this precious stone.

Is this another one of your stories?

[laughs] Well, no. Let’s say I stole it from Tennessee Williams, his great play Camino Real, in which—in one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen on stage—she, the gypsy’s daughter, kneels alone on the stage and suddenly she says, “Look, Mama, a tear.” And it seemed, beyond the whole idea of all existence, that somehow, she, the conniving rotten little mother-taught daughter, produced a real honest to goodness, glittering tear. It was a very beautiful moment. As a matter of fact, I think some day somebody’s gonna revive that play and they’re going to learn that it’s one of the greatest plays of American theater. It certainly was one of the most exciting evenings that I ever spent in the theater.

That’s saying a lot. Smith spent many evenings in the theater, for fun and for work. In 1939, at age twenty, after moving to New York from Wichita, he attended sixty-three consecutive performances of a Broadway revue called “Mexicana,” having fallen in love, from his seat, with a flamenco dancer in the show. (He later named his first daughter after that dancer.) In 1947, he followed Williams around and photographed the rehearsals and premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire for Life magazine. He tape-recorded TV and radio performances of several Williams plays, including The Fugitive Kind, The Yellow Bird, and a 1960 performance of Camino Real. He even taped a 1960 Edward R. Murrow program featuring Williams and the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in conversation. It was Williams’s blend of documentary naturalism and elements of fantasy and his mix of tenderness and destruction, vitality and despair that Smith tried to emulate in his photography.

Not many people, even theater professionals, have seen a production of Camino Real, not to mention a good one, and few feel as strongly about it as Smith did. He saw the play’s 1953 debut, directed by Elia Kazan, which was drubbed by critics. It hasn’t been revived on Broadway since 1970. A New Directions paperback of the script, with a powerful introduction by John Guare, reprints the original Playbill notes, in which Williams states the play “is not words on paper.” “Of all the works I have written,” he argues, “this one was meant most for the vulgarity of performance.”

In an effort to learn what Smith saw in Camino Real, I called Ethan Hawke, who took on the role of the play’s protagonist, Kilroy, in a revival at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 1999, a production mentioned in the theater world as perhaps the definitive treatment of that play. Hope Davis played the gypsy’s daughter. Hawke was eager to discuss it:

I can see why Smith liked it. The play is almost impossible to get right—it’s a balancing act of tones—but it can be done. It can shatter people. In many interpretations of it, Kilroy has died of a fever, and the play is his dream before death, an imagined purgatory, a place where everything we thought was important (class, poetry, money, sex, politics, violence) is a crass joke. The place is hot and sweaty, and everything is dirty and dilapidated. Images are all that matters. They streak across the stage one after another, like a comet blazing across the atmosphere. It’s like T. S. Eliot wrapped in a vaudeville act. There is something terribly sophisticated happening simultaneously with something ridiculously sexy and silly. Imagine Prufrock in a strip club, with naked women wrapped around silver poles while drunk fat men claw at their wallets. The scene with Kilroy and the gypsy’s daughter is the most electric minutes I’ve ever spent on stage. Hope Davis was tremendous, like Judy Holliday with a streak of wisdom. The scene’s like a live sex show, with no clothes coming off, if a live sex show could make you laugh and cry. It’s a lightning bolt. I do not hyperbolize. It’s Tennessee at the full reach of his powers.

The way Hawke talks about Camino Real is not unlike the way I’ve spent years talking about Smith and the Jazz Loft Project: feverish, dreamlike, hot, sweaty, dirty, dilapidated, sexy, silly, electric, comic, tragic, a balancing act of tones. The play is about derelicts, misfits, outcasts, and romantic dreamers who are struggling to avoid the street cleaners (literally) of the conventional, educated world. These are the same people that were hanging out in Smith’s flower-district loft. Some of them played piano, drums, or saxophone; others helped him organize his mess.

Camino Real is usually depicted as a flight of fantasy for Williams, a departure from the natural realism of Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I called the Target Margin Theater’s artistic director, David Herskovits, to ask him about it. He’s studied the play for years, including correspondence between Williams and Kazan and their stage notes, and he’s produced and directed Williams’s one-act version, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, and a new play, The Really Big Once, based on the Williams–Kazan collaboration on the original. “I don’t see Camino Real as a departure for Williams at all,” Herskovits said. “He was constantly experimenting. There is a poetic, dreamlike quality underneath the surface of everything he did, even pieces like Streetcar and Menagerie. It does buck the trends of its time, though. After the war the naturalistic methods swept the field of American theater for a while. Camino Real’s dramatic language is more musical than narrative. The image itself is eloquent. The image grabs your attention in an associative, unconsoled, and mysterious way, not a narrative way. That play influenced a lot of important people in 1953. I know Sidney Lumet saw it and was still talking about it a half century later.”

W. Eugene Smith, Dream Street, 1955. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona ©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

In a 1957 letter to a friend, Gene Smith referred to himself as “Tennessee O’Neill.” At the time, he was in the throes of a four-year saga to create a multilayered portrait of the city of Pittsburgh. There was no audience or outlet for what he had in mind; the project was doomed. In Camino Real, the mythical character of the poet Lord Byron makes an appearance and delivers a soliloquy in which he says, “For what is the heart but a sort of—a sort of—instrument—that translates noise into music, chaos into order—a mysterious order. That was my vocation once upon a time, before it was obscured by vulgar plaudits! Little by little it was lost among gondolas and palazzos!” Then he declares, “Make voyages! Attempt them! There’s nothing else …”

My first project based on Smith’s work was an effort to pick up the pieces of his failed Pittsburgh project. I called the resulting book and exhibition Dream Street, after one of his photographs. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned about his affinity for Camino Real. When he made the photo of the sign for a street in Pittsburgh named Dream, I bet he was thinking of Williams.

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.