Tennessee Williams in Four Objects


Arts & Culture

Left: Tennessee Williams, Self-portrait, undated, oil on canvas. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Right: Autograph manuscript notebook, 1943 March 12 to September 26 and undated entry dated “Late Tuesday Night” [24 March 1943]. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. Tennessee Williams papers, 1932–1983, Ms Thr 397 (1355).

In the decade I spent editing and annotating the notebooks of Tennessee Williams, I learned that one cannot find nor, as my editor Jonathan Brent noted, tell the story of anyone’s life in a linear way, certainly not Williams’s. As I endeavored to track down individuals with only their first names as guide and find and identify unpublished manuscripts referred to only in the most generic ways, my efforts, at times, took more the form of a scavenger hunt, even a flea-market trawl. Along the way, I unearthed several lost notebooks and unknown manuscripts, including a one-act play. Encouraged by the British Museum’s ability to tell the history of the world across a span of two million years with one hundred objects, I have chosen, from Williams’s archives, four objects from four categories—an unpublished poem, a passage from a journal, an unknown one-act play, and a letter—to give insight into his ambition, his psyche, his creative process, and, finally, his sense of humanity.

The Poem

Williams had early ambitions to be a poet. In 1933, he sent Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine a poem accompanied by a letter in which he asked, “Will you do a total stranger the kindness of reading his verse?” He would amend this line many years later for Blanche’s exit in A Streetcar Named Desire. During the summer of 1936, he and two friends, including a future U.S. poet laureate, met regularly to discuss poetry and work on their poems. At the end of 1938, Williams, who had just completed his senior year at the University of Iowa at age twenty-seven, left his home in Saint Louis for New Orleans. Within two months, he was headed for the West Coast. While in Laguna Beach, he traveled to the San Francisco Art Fair, where he saw Bonnard’s Salle à manger à la campagne (1913), which moved him to write an ekphrastic poem titled “Garden Scene.”

In the poem, an unnamed narrator addresses a woman named Aida, who leans on a windowsill looking into a dining room. She is “waiting” and “dreaming,” and the narrator confesses, “quite against my will I failed to arrive / at the appointed time for supper,” and instead waits crouched at the farthest end of the garden. From an image of a woman leaning over a windowsill, Williams vested the painting with a dramatic, offstage element—the tortured narrator.

Williams’s affinity for and response to Bonnard hinted at his future as a playwright. Bonnard worked, at times, as a set designer, and many of his paintings, including the one that had enchanted Williams, often resemble set designs. More important, there is a correspondence between Williams and Bonnard in that they both tried to record an emotional and psychological response to reality. Bonnard’s ambition was to paint emotions and “to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden.” As Jean Clair noted, “The revolution in painting brought about by Bonnard was that, for the first time, a painter attempted to translate onto canvas the data of a vision that is physiologically ‘real.’ ” About Williams, Arthur Miller wrote, “The Glass Menagerie in one stroke lifted lyricism to its highest level in our theater’s history, but it broke new ground in another way. What was new in Tennessee Williams was his rhapsodic insistence that form serve his utterance rather than dominating and cramping it.” For both Bonnard and Williams, sheer sensibility was the driving force.

Williams’s minor early poem, moreover, contains the essence of his great Delta plays, specifically, the theme of waiting. He understood the Southern sensibility; he understood the seasonal rhythms of an agrarian society in which waiting is an integral part. He looked at Bonnard’s painting and imagined that this woman was waiting for someone to join her for supper. In The Glass Menagerie, Laura waits for gentleman callers who never come; in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche stays behind on the run-down plantation Belle Reve, waiting five years for her situation to improve; and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie waits for Brick to make love to her. “You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again—I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart.” The vast majority of Williams’s plays, including his three great ones, are about longing, not love, about women who want and wait for men who do not want them.


The Journal

While searching through the uncatalogued material acquired by Columbia University in its purchase of the contents of Williams’s house in Key West, I came across a 3½”-by-5½” flip-top notepad that turned out to be a small journal. It was in a box of what appeared to be the contents of a drawer that included used boarding passes, expired passports, sales receipts, and random photographs. “Keeping a journal,” Williams had written, “is a lonely man’s habit.” He would later add that his journals “may have some usefulness as a history of an individual’s fight for survival, emotional travail.” Williams kept a journal for most of his life. At the end of October 1941, Williams had taken the small notepad with him on a hitchhiking trip from New Orleans to Saint Petersburg, Florida. He recorded his thoughts, noting some of the dangers of hitchhiking, giving frequent updates on the status of his progress, offering reflections, making observations. Disqualified from service in World War II because of his poor eyesight, he dressed as a soldier to improve his chances getting rides. Left alone, he used his voice to keep himself company. 

I got from N.O. to Mobile in one hitch with a “contact man” for a cigar co.—one of those cordial, personality men. Talked me to pieces. My main objection to hitchhiking is the necessity of keeping up a conversation with drivers who give you a lift because they want someone to talk with.

Later—Somewhere beyond Pensacola about noon … now in front of a wilderness gas station run by a bearded ex-wrestler called Daniel Boone Savage …

Most of the cars are headed west. well, here comes another—Look bright, son!—Nope …

My life is very unsatisfactory but surprisingly endurable. Through my skill at evading pain and cultivated detachment …

May not make Tallahassee tonight … Big lovely rooster strutting in yard. Ruddy orange and gleaming blue-black. An old tire swing. Nice for stage. Here comes a soldier hitchhiking damn—I’m sunk. Already got a ride. Good! Pretend to be writing. I guess my military disguise is only moderately convincing …

It is about 8:20 … I stand in the red glare of a neon by a filling station—cool—pleasant enough … Not likely to get out of here tonight—about 2–1 improbability. World news improved with Germans pushed back at Rostov and Libya. Gay music from radio in station.

Williams’s natural ability made it almost impossible for him to write anything that wasn’t dramatic. With a voice full of melodrama and modulation, his jottings can be read as a minimal one-act play.

Williams used his voice for comfort and companionship, but he also used it as a form of protest. A few months after his seventh birthday, he and his family moved from Columbus, Mississippi, to Saint Louis, Missouri, where their status changed dramatically. They went from being the prominent family of the minister in a small Southern town to being an undistinguished, middle-class family in an unfashionable Saint Louis suburb. Despite spending so few of his formative years in the South, Williams would always cling to his identity as a Southerner, never trying to fit in by softening or minimizing his accent. Voice was very much his form of protest to write about the world he had been forced to leave, a society based on “grace” and “elegance,” not money. He would return to the Deep South as the subject and setting for the majority of his plays.


The Play

Williams wrote compulsively, revised constantly, and rarely discarded anything. There are over two thousand manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts dispersed in archives across the country. When his writing stalled, he changed location, and organization was not his strong suit. As a result, random fragments—some forgotten, others left behind—turn up from time to time. Such was the case with the unknown one-act play The Drums, an early character study of Blanche, written, mostly likely, in the early 1940s, just after Williams had met Paul and Jane Bowles in Acapulco. The play begins with Belle Wingfield Bowles, an attractive but nervous thirty-five-year-old who “in the dusk … looks ten years younger.” She has come to rest and wait for her husband at a summer resort in the mountains of East Tennessee. It ends with her seduction of a young musician. While notable as an example of how Williams often worked like a visual artist, creating studies in the short form before attempting the larger work, it is also important as an indication of how intertwined initially The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were. In this one-act play, aspects of Laura and Blanche are merged in Belle Wingfield Bowles.

Other examples, specifically several early fragments, combine elements of both plays. In 1942, Williams recorded in his notebook that he had “just finished writing The Spinning Song a play suggested by my sister’s tragedy.” He referred to his sister Rose’s diagnosis in 1937 of dementia praecox, an early term for schizophrenia. No complete manuscript of The Spinning Song is known to survive. A number of minimal fragments of different drafts, some with the alternative title The Paper Lantern, do exist, however. These fragments combine embryonic elements of both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. For example, in one, a woman lives on Belle Reve plantation with her two children and is estranged from her husband, who lives in New Orleans—Amanda Wingfield’s circumstances, Blanche DuBois’s property. In another fragment, titled The Paper Lantern (A Dance Play for Martha Graham) there are direct references to Williams’s mentally ill sister. A young girl, Ariadne, is diagnosed with dementia praecox, and her mother discusses with the doctor whether or not the young girl can stay at their plantation, Belle Reve. Williams had been writing about Rose as early as 1938 in his short story “The 4-Leaf Clover,” but by 1942, he was attempting to write a play with more complexity and ambition. Several variants even include a third element, one of miscegenation and murder, very likely borrowed from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

What is clear from these fragments is that Williams had the idea of both plays and was trying to write them as one, but the material was too unwieldy. It was only when he pulled the two stories apart that they could work. News from home would provide the catalyst. At the beginning of 1943, his mother had written to him of his sister’s “head operation.” He wrote back asking for more information, and when he got it, he was devastated. He wrote a few lines in his journal: “Rose. Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain.” His sister had undergone a prefrontal lobotomy. A month later, he was writing with “tigerish fury” on The Gentleman Caller, a forerunner to The Glass Menagerie. He returned exclusively to his sister’s story and did what he could to transform his love and despair into an elegiac memory play. The Faulknerian elements were forgotten, and the setting of the plantation Belle Reve was dropped and not taken up until 1945, when he started working on the manuscript that eventually became A Streetcar Named Desire.

These fragments show not only how his sister’s situation affected him creatively—Williams based characters on Rose in a number of his significant plays, short stories, and poems—but they also hint at the long gestation period for his plays. I would suggest that one of the reasons Williams was able to create so many iconic characters is because he had lived with them for such long stretches of time that he knew them intimately. Many of the full-length plays were developed from one-act plays or short stories written anywhere from four to seventeen years before the full-length play.


The Letter

Williams developed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) from an earlier short story, “Three Players of a Summer Game,” published in 1951, but the inspiration for Brick came much earlier, in the summer of 1942, when Williams was invited to Macon, Georgia, by his friend Jordan Massee. Williams found the model for Big Daddy in the form of Jordan Massee’s father, who owned and operated a large brick manufacturing company. (Williams did not have to look far for a name for Big Daddy’s alcoholic son.) Careful understanding of Macon’s closed and conservative society strongly suggests that Williams’s experience in this small Southern town influenced his writing not only of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but also of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams joined the private world of young gay men in Macon who lived a secret existence from their families. Several of these young men went on to marry, but the marriages ended in divorce with lives ruined by alcohol and unhappiness. In both plays, Williams created men who had had unusually close relationships with other men, who marry and then have conflicts over their relationships. Williams was fascinated by this complicated, cross-currented world, and Brick, I believe, was, in part, based on these young men.

Williams’s correspondence with Kazan reveals that Kazan pushed him to be more specific about Brick’s sexuality and the nature of his attachment to Skipper. Williams resisted as much as he could. In a letter dated November 31, 1954, he wrote to Kazan: 

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Brick did love Skipper, “the one great good thing in his life which was true.” He identified Skipper with sports, the romantic world of adolescence which he couldn’t go past. Further: to reverse my original (somewhat tentative) premise, I now believe that, in the deeper sense, not the literal sense, Brick is homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment: a thing I’ve suspected of several others, such as Brando, for instance … He’s the nearest thing to Brick that we both know. Their innocense [sic], their blindness, makes them very, very touching, very beautiful and sad … But if a mask is ripped off … that’s quite enough to blast the whole Mechanism … knock the world out from under their feet, and leave them no alternative but—owning up to the truth or retreat into something like liquor.

Williams believed, as he noted in his journal, “Things are not always explained. Situations are not always resolved. Characters don’t always ‘progress.’ ” On a fragment of a manuscript, he had noted, “I don’t know [Brick] any better than I know my closest relative or dearest friend which isn’t well at all: the only people we think we know well are those who mean little to us.” Williams understood that individuals are complex and mysterious not only to others but, more significantly, to themselves. He even said, “If you write a character that isn’t ambiguous you are writing a false character, not a true one.”

Museums rest, as Neil MacGregor noted, “on the hope—the belief—that the study of things can lead to a truer understanding of the world.” Williams left a trove of artifacts that give a truer understanding of all aspects of his creative being. A romantic in an unromantic, postwar world, he attempted to re-create the South he remembered as a “dark, wide, open world that you can breathe in.” His work, and, most significantly, his characters, share an affinity with all great works of art, specifically, that they appear to have been here all along and were just waiting for him to find them.


Margaret Bradham Thornton is the editor of Tennessee Williams’s Notebooks and is the author of the novels Charleston and A Theory of Love, which is forthcoming in May.

The essay is excerpted from the Morgan Library and Museums’s catalogue accompanying the exhibition “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing,” on view through May 13.