Under the spotlight

Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25; Demythologising Tennessee Williams. By Peter Parker

In December 1938, Thomas Lanier Williams III entered a play contest organised by New York's prestigious Group Theatre. Since the $500 prize was on offer for writers under 25, Williams knocked a couple of years off his age, claiming that he was born in 1914 rather than 1911. At the same time, he adopted the geographically inaccurate pseudonym of Tennessee Williams. He won an award, and it might be said that he never looked back - not, at any rate, without substantially mythologising what had gone before.

The son of catastrophically mismatched parents, Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, but brought up in St Louis. During his youth he was caught between his hard-drinking, poker-playing, bullying salesman father and his genteel, religious, puritanical mother. The personality of his older sister, Rose, disintegrated under the pressure of family tensions, but Williams sought refuge in writing; if he never found a great deal of happiness, he at least managed to stay out of the madhouse. The history of the Williams family as offered in Lyle Leverich's new biography is the most detailed we are likely to get - too detailed in places, with the most trivial of letters and diary entries quoted at unnecessary length. That said, he has managed to cut through the fanciful thicket of legend that sprang up around Williams, much of it promoted by Williams himself, either directly in interviews and his highly unreliable volume of Memoirs, or indirectly in his plays, which frequently dramatise aspects of his own life and personality. Leverich refers politely to Williams's "inclination to re-create his life in keeping with remembered emotions", and his assiduous research has led him to uncover a rather more prosaic truth.

The mental instability and eventual incarceration of Rose had a profound effect on her brother. Williams liked to suggest that her problems arose largely from her mother's inability to accept that a mature daughter might have sexual feelings. This led to Rose undergoing a leucotomy, a story "confirmed" as it were in Williams's most lurid play, Suddenly Last Summer, which ends with the shrieking, devouring mother figure of Mrs Venable being wheeled off stage, demanding that a "hideous story" (of unspeakable sexual appetites) should be "cut" out of her niece's brain. Although sexual repression undoubtedly played a part in Rose's decline, Leverich shows that the sheer aimlessness of her life was equally deleterious. "Unbalanced minds are so much more interesting than our dreary sanity is," Williams wrote, "there is so much honesty, and poetry among them." Rose's schizophrenic ravings, frequently peppered with obscenities, show scant evidence of this, and at the time they clearly disgusted Williams almost as much as they did his mother.

Williams himself suffered some form of breakdown, brought on largely by having to do a tedious and tiring job with the shoe company that employed his father. Leverich makes much of Williams's journals, suggesting that they show a struggle "against the threat of madness". In fact, they seem little different from the self-obsessed ramblings of many frustrated adolescents who believe they have a gift for writing. What is significant is that they were started when Williams was in his mid-twenties rather than in his teens.

This capacity for self-dramatisation is, of course, at the root of Williams's work. The director of his first staged play commented: "There was this amazing thing about Tom: he could sit down at a typewriter and write a characterisation and dialogue for a character that wasn't part of any play ... You could take a page or pages of dialogue he wrote, give them to an actor, and just put a spotlight on him, and anyone who just happened to walk into the theatre couldn't turn away from the strength of it." Williams has always been regarded as the major poet of the American stage, but the heightened language of his plays owes less to actual poetry than to the delirious rapture of self-absorption. Williams did in fact write poetry, much of which was published and most of which - judging from the examples given here - is unremarkable. It was only when he channelled his lyric gifts, using the conduit of (usually female) dramatic characters, that he found his true voice.

It is also probably true to say that Williams only properly matured as a writer when he finally acknowledged his homosexuality, which until the crucial year of 1938 had been strenuously repressed. It was in December of that year that he first went to live in New Orleans where he took ahedonistic plunge into the city's French Quarter. "I am a deeper and warmer and kinder man for my deviation," he claimed,"more conscious of need in others, and what power I have to express the human heart must be in large part due to this circumstance."

There is not, sadly, much evidence of depth, warmth or kindness in the youthful Williams as depicted here. Not that Leverich is an unsympathetic biographer: indeed, his patience almost matches that of Williams's saintly agent, Audrey Wood, who emerges as the true hero of the book. Like Wood, Leverich believes in Williams's genius; but he also believes that geniuses live in a different world from the rest of us. Of Williams's maniacal laugh, which embarrassed or irritated all who heard it, he writes: "In a sense, the laugh could be taken as a trait of the artist: a different perspective, as though from his Olympian post he could enjoy a privilege of the gods, seeing humour in the folly, even the tragedy, of mortals." This sort of guff occasionally infects Leverich's otherwise illuminating remarks about the evolution of the playwright.

Leverich was authorised by Williams himself to write a biography, but after the playwright's death he was blocked at every turn by the late Maria St Just, a vainglorious would-be actress whom Williams had imprudently appointed to oversee his estate. Leverich's tenacity and industry are positively heroic, and he has uncovered numerous important influences, from literary mentors and lovers to those, such as a certain Stanley Kowalski, whose names and characters Williams later appropriated; but the book is in need of a firmer editorial hand. At almost 600 pages (excluding notes and index), it is undoubtedly far too long - especially since it covers only the first half of Williams's life, ending with the triumphant Broadway premiere of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Although the book provides much that is new, important and fascinating, the emerging pattern of Tennessee Williams's development is too often obscured by great clots of marginally relevant detail.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea