Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart

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'A Streetcar Named Desire' made Tennessee Williams a household name. But there is more to celebrate on the centenary of his birth. Revivals of neglected works show another side to a tortured figure, says Paul Taylor

Tennessee Williams – arguably the greatest of American dramatists – would have notched up his 100th birthday on 26 March. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister, his father, Cornelius, was a womanising and hard-drinking travelling salesman for a shoe company. History does not record how the birth went, though it is a fair bet that the occasion was more elevated than the master playwright's less than ideally dignified demise some 71 years later.

In February 1983 in a Manhattan hotel room, Williams choked to death from inhaling the plastic cap of a nasal spray dispenser. His gagging reflex had been impaired by drink and drugs. To his righteous detractors – who had long looked askance at this laureate of lost souls and champion of life's undesirables – it must have seemed like roundly retributive poetic justice. The assiduous substance-abuse of the author of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire was, by then, the stuff of legend. In his Memoirs (1972), Williams had characterised the 1960s as his "Stoned Age", while Tallulah Bankhead, chum and sometime leading lady, had once quipped, punningly: "Tennessee – you and I are the only constantly High Episcopalians I know."

It is not hard, however, to imagine the playwright's ghost snorting at the grotesque farce of this accidentally emblematic, cautionary ending. Richard Eyre has written of "the drollery [that] runs under all his work like a fast-flowing stream". His sense of humour could be disconcerting. There's the revealing story of the night he went to see Maggie Smith in Ingmar Bergman's 1970 production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Williams started cackling from the moment she came on and, to the bemusement of cast and audience, kept this up all the way through, climaxing with an enormous roar at the offstage shot in the head. When Smith asked him why, he replied in his Southern drawl, "That poor woman, she's so bored..." But, as Peter Hall has remarked of the event, this was an acutely perceptive laughing fit: "[Tennessee] saw comedy in the blackest things... I think Ibsen would have approved."

Williams had certainly needed this talent for extracting humour from depressing circumstances in the latter phases of his life. By the time of his death in 1983, the man who had bagged a couple of Pulitzer Prizes – for Streetcar in 1947 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 – had not had a major Broadway hit since Night of the Iguana in 1961. That play – set on the veranda of a bohemian hilltop hotel in Mexico – stages a kind of spiritual one-night stand between one of Williams's archetypal apostates (an end-of-the-tether ex-minister, defrocked for blasphemy and a taste for underage girls) and a New England spinster and itinerant artist who is the ethereal embodiment of "how to live beyond despair and still live".

The piece has the air of valedictory stock-taking and, as Nicholas Wright has written, in the hero's choosing to stay and share his life with the blowsy, wisecracking bacchante who runs the hotel, Williams was predicting his own last two decades of "hedonistic riot fringed with sexy boys". But though they were dogged by depression, drink, drugs and vindictive critics (a review in Time magazine was helpfully headlined "Mistah Williams – he dead), these were also years of unflagging productivity.

On the occasion of the playwright's centenary, it's worth pausing to reflect on a number of interrelated questions. How have attitudes towards his work changed during the years since his death? Has our sense of his artistic range expanded, given the discoveries that have been made at both ends of his career? And if the Bible is right to propose that "by their fruits ye shall know them", what do we learn about Williams from his spiritual legatees?

Reviewing Peter Hall's production of Orpheus Descending in 1988, Frank Rich, then theatre critic of the New York Times, wrote that: "In death, Tennessee Williams is more often regarded by the American theatre as a tragic icon than as a playwright worthy of further artistic investigation. The reverse is true in London when the Williams canon, neglected by the major companies during the writer's lifetime, is suddenly being rediscovered."

This was to be even truer in the years immediately following, as Richard Eyre masterminded three revelatory revivals at the National, including his own excellent productions of Night of the Iguana and Sweet Bird of Youth. Later, under Trevor Nunn and thanks to the intervention of Vanessa Redgrave, who had retrieved and pressed the claims of this unperformed 1938 script, the NT's premiere production of Not About Nightingales in 1998 showed us Williams, the youthful social protest writer. Sticking up for the solitary, sensitive outcast in a world full of redneck philistines had seemed to be the author's forte, not defending the rights of the abused mass of men, but this powerful drama – based on the real-life case of hunger-striking prisoners during the Depression who were cooked to death in a room full of steaming radiators – brought home how the poet and the protester in him were not at odds.

As Eyre's productions had already underlined and as director Harold Clurman, the most perceptive critic of Williams's work) had long forcefully argued, his Southern Gothic environments steam with social commentary as well as with sex, being distorted places where "lack of cultural nourishment produces bigotry, brutality, madness, and a persistent depression of the human personality".

Now, as the festivities for Williams's 100th birthday get underway, there's a dramatic new twist to the proposition that London takes the lead in the posthumous re-evaluation. At her stylish new venue, the Print Room in Bayswater, Lucy Bailey, who scored a huge hit with a sizzling stage adaptation of Baby Doll (the Williams-scripted movie denounced by Time as "just about the dirtiest American-made motion-picture that has ever been legally exhibited") is gearing up for a fresh assault on Kingdom of Earth, a play that bloodily bombed on Broadway in 1967 and hasn't been seen here in England since the mid-Eighties. Meanwhile, Kilburn's Cock Tavern Theatre, under the enterprising artistic directorship of Adam Spreadbury-Maher, has weighed in with a couple of coups. Tom Erhardt, the agent who is the playwright's literary executor in Europe, was so impressed by the recent Edward Bond play at this address that he has given them the right to present the world premiere of two late Williams plays, one of them such a rarity that it won't be published until the birthday.

I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, a Pirandello-esque play-within-a-play about the dramatist's rocky relationship with the American theatre industry, opened last week. At the end of the month, it will be followed by Gene David Kirk's production of A Cavalier for Milady, the most graphic and gob-smacking of all his snapshots of Rose, the schizophrenic sister whom their mother had lobotomised (behind his back) when she began to make sexual abuse charges against the father, Cornelius.

In various guises that betoken his feelings of guilt (and his fear of going mad himself), Rose haunts his oeuvre from the breakthrough play and his first Broadway hit, Glass Menagerie (1945), where she is incarnated as the crippled, painfully shy Laura Wingfield, who has withdrawn from her mother's heavy-handed match-making into the cocoon of tending her collection of fragile figurines.

There are other recurring personnel in the Williams world. To pick out just three: there is the sacrificial stud, such as Val Xavier, that guitar-playing cross between Christ and Elvis who threatens the rigid patriarchy of a Southern town in Orpheus Descending (1957); there's the woman liberated through the libido, aroused by a sexy hunk – comically so in the The Rose Tatoo (1950) where the explosive widow, Rosa delle Serafina drops her mourning weeds for an unconventionally attractive truck driver who is a Sicilian immigrant like the main love of Williams's life, Frank Merlo; and there is the devouring mother, quintessentially embodied in Violet Venable, the wealthy bird-of-prey dowager in Suddenly, Last Summer (1958) who, having used her social pulling power to procure sex for her son on their glamorous trips to Europe, wants to have her niece lobotomised when threatened with exposure.

In his autobiography, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal, who writes about close friends with what can only be described as Olympian attachment, is amusing about the frightful fates that tend to befall Williams's protagonists. Williams had complained that the fight at the end of The City and the Pillar, Vidal's groundbreaking gay novel, was too melodramatic: "That from Tennessee," Vidal writes, with poisoned-tipped poise, "whose heroes, when not castrated, are eaten alive by small boys in Amalfi, just below where I live. I should note that whenever Suddenly Last Summer appears on Italian television, the local boys find it irresistibly funny."

But, if a Puritan streak can be molten (as opposed to icy) this is what the hedonistic Williams had. The grandson of an Episcopalian minister, he saw himself, as his defrocked priest Shannon does, as "a man of God, on vacation". The tension between his characters enacts his own interior struggles; it's his ambivalence towards them that gives them the plays life – along (crucially) with the luxuriance of their leisurely, undulating Southern speech, which was once beautifully described on these pages by Rhoda Koenig. Reviewing the early rarity Spring Storm (1937/8), brilliantly directed by Laurie Sansom at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in 2009 and rightly imported by Nick Hytner's National Theatre the following year, she characterised Williams's dialogue as being full of "drawling music that slaps its penultimate syllable against your ear like lazy river water against a boat".

It's true that A Streetcar Named Desire climaxes in a monstrous act of rape and Harold Clurman – who felt that Marlon Brando, in the greatest soiled-vest part of all time, unbalanced the play and film by being too diabolically desirable – was, on one level, extremely shrewd in identifying what kind of social threat Stanley Kowalski represents. He is, Clurman wrote, the "unwitting anti-Christ of our time, the little man who will break the back of any attempt to create a more comprehensive world in which thought and conscience are expected to evolve from the old Adam. His mentality provides the soil for fascism, viewed not as a political movement but as a state of being."

But it's clear that Williams views him and Blanche Dubois, the faded Southern belle who clings to illusions of refinement and is the moth to brother-in-law Stanley's flame, with nearly the same mix of attraction and repulsion as they view one another. A production that gave no validity whatsoever to Stanley's avowal, on the brink of violating her, that: "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!", or denied the audience an unholy sense of corrupt catharsis when the storm breaks, would be untrue to the play.

The two most gifted current beneficiaries of the Williams spirit are, to my mind, Tony Kushner (in whose plays, such as Angels in America, Williams and Brecht seem to mate to rampant and rigorous effect) and the songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The latter seems to me to have the same knack of being simultaneously self-dramatising and drolly self-mocking; in his recklessly cruising, crystal-meth-addict days, he had a comparable urge to render himself not only open to experience but dangerously vulnerable to it. And he remains magnanimously arch and witty about the horror he has been through. Take his allusion to the frightening temporary blindness he suffered as a result of crystal meth in the song "Sanssouci": "Who will be at Sanssouci tonight?/The boys that made me lose the blues and then my eyesight". The humorous non-recriminatory balance of that (and stunning use of zeugma) sound like a miraculous out-of-time collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Alexander Pope.

There is, though, something odd and a little dispiriting in the way Time Out chose to honour the Williams centenary principally in its "Gay and Lesbian" section. He is, honourably and admirably, a gay icon but that is not the only thing he is. His work speaks to the outcast and the drag queen in all of us, not least black writers – from Lorraine Hansberry to August Wilson – who have found inspiration in the way his work champions the underdog, sometime with explicit reference to racial bigotry. This point is taken up by Lucy Bailey who describes Kingdom of Earth, which is set in a farmhouse in the Mississippi Delta during the flooding season, as a "poem on loneliness", bringing together a trio of mismatched misfits – the effete, dying Lot who likes dressing up as his mother (without shades of Psycho); his nominal wife, Myrtle, who once had career in showbiz and is one of Williams's sexed-up life-givers; and Lot's mixed-race malcontent brother, Chicken, who is out to usurp him. The relationship between the two brothers carries echoes of that between Blanche and Stanley with the crucial, complicating difference that Chicken is partly the production of racial prejudice as he recounts in eloquent reminiscences.

Besides, there was always one implication that Williams hated: "People who say I create transvestite women are full of shit. Frankly. Just full of shit. Personally I like women more than men."

This remark gives you some measure of the outrageously funny revenge he took on his mother, Edwina, in A Cavalier for Milady. Directed by Gene David Kirk, it will be the second of the late, as-yet-unperformed rarities at the Cock Theatre. Williams never forgave his mother for lobotomising Rose, which he regarded as an extreme act of censorship on his sister's wayward sexual nature. He gets his own back on both the repressed Edwina and his critics in Cavalier by turning her into a Park Lane society lady who has, essentially, the appetites and habits of a Seventies gay New Yorker. She isn't, but she might as well be a drag act. At the start, we see her leaving the infantilised Rose-figure with a babysitter while she and her cronies go out cruising in Central Park with studs hired from the eponymous escort agency. Left alone, the masturbating Rose-figure conjures up an apparition of the great ballet dancer Nijinsky who dances for her but, with problems of his own, frustrates her desire for touch in their conversational pas de deux. The ending is breathtaking in its audacious self-reference to the earlier oeuvre. Surreptitiously, the daughter phones the agency and is left; holding a candle on the threshold, like a mutinous Laura Wingfield in Glass Menagerie who may get a gentleman caller.

There will be splashy events later in the year (Nicole Kidman and James Franco will appear in Suddenly Next Summer on Broadway in the autumn). But in keeping with London's traditional role of setting the pace in the re-evaluation of Williams, it would be good if the centenary established that the routinely derided later work is sometimes in genuinely imaginative cross-fertilisation with the earlier classics (sending up back to them freshly sensitised) rather than merely parasitic upon them and that his scrutiny of abiding preoccupations through the Absurdist lens of Ionesco and Beckett could bring hidden things to light. It's an encouraging sign that the Cock Tavern Theatre is well into negotiations for bringing the two unperformed rarities into a West End house in the summer.

A review of Memoirs notoriously claimed that the author may not have opened his heart, but he had certainly opened his fly. Williams knew better than most dramatists the hotline between the groin and the higher seat of the emotions. His productivity right to the end of his life, exemplified in the celebrations here, offers the heartening spectacle of a man who, even when hardly able to stand upright through excess, could still, in Gene David Kirk's lovely description, "sit at the typewriter each morning and unzip his heart".

'I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays' and 'A Cavalier for Milady', Cock Tavern, Kilburn, London; Booking 020 7478 0165 or www.cocktaverntheatre.com. 'Kingdom of Earth', Print Room, London; Booking 08444 77 1000 or www.the-print-room.org

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