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.