Memoirs, the autobiography of Thomas Lanier Williams – otherwise known as Tennessee – is almost written in his own blood, chronicling his creative and personal journey. He did not just make emotional, thought-provoking and entertaining drama, he lived it, while writing some of the most iconic pieces of 20th Century theatre, among them The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo.
Work!!-the loveliest of all four letter words, surpassing even the importance of love, most times.
Flirtatious, tragic, witty, annoying, all adjectives that can be applied to his character, Blanche DuBois, from the brutally raw triumph, A Streetcar Named Desire. Equally though, these very terms can also be applied to Tennessee, the creator of this tragic heroine. Behind every monster there is a Dr. Frankenstein working on the creation’s wiring, circuitry and emotive feeling. If we are totally honest, we all have a little bit of Blanche in us; deep in the recesses of the human soul, there is that vulnerability, confusion and desperation. In the character of Blanche, Tennessee predicted how his own life would eventually play out, he inevitably almost became her.
The musing on his life in Memoirs is a frank, to the point, tale. He is dangerously self-aware.
I was a writer, and consequently a kook.
Memoirs is a welcome read at this particular period in the publishing calendar, when traditionally, the book market will be awash with many a self-penned or ghostwritten reveal. This week has Morrissey’s simply titled Autobiography, Alex Ferguson’s imaginatively titled, My Autobiography and One Direction’s Where We Are, all in the Top Ten sales charts. To open the proceedings of his own life dramas, the celebrated playwright does not try to disguise the reason he has decided to put ink to paper in writing his Memoirs: he is solely in it for the money.
With his plays and controversial short stories, The Inventory of Fontana Bella and Desire and the Black Masseur, he had always used the fictions to curtain his real life shenanigans. Now he does not just drop the mask, he peels it off. The form he chooses to narrate his anecdotes is free association. Time is blended, present and past entwined in the pages of this work. The enfant terrible of British theatre, Steven Berkoff, also used this structure in his excellent Free Association.
Life is made up of moment to moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions and, try as you may, you can’t commit them to the actualities of your own history.
The journey set out in Memoirs is decadent and depraved, taking in his childhood in Mississippi, to St Louis and New York. One thing that leaves the reader after being at this autopsy of Williams’ life is the ingenious way he poeticises the everyday. I finished the work before 7 a.m., awaiting a bus, sometimes known as a ‘tramp chariot’ in these here parts. I immediately found myself seeing things with a more poetic perspective. A hovering black raven over grass became a black piece of floating silk over a sea of shining green emeralds. The sky scape over the council houses now looked like a canvas of purple pink candy floss clouds.
Read this autobiography for the wit alone, for the poetry, while wondering if we really need the shock tactics and graphic hints at his fookery.
Sexuality is an emanation, as much in the human being as the animal. Animals have seasons for it. But for me it was a round the calendar thing.
On the other hand it must be remembered, society has become a great deal more open and liberal in the last thirty years. That is in some countries, places like Russia need to really get with the programme. As Stonewall fantastically put it, some people are gay, get over it. Flashback to 1977, to be overtly talking about same-sex relations and a battle with drugs and liquor takes some courage. Alas, his sad descent that can physically be seen in his writing style in these pages is quite unsettling. He yearns for a companion as he is sick of promiscuous fast food sex; his friend suggests he picks someone up to which he honestly replies,
There’s nothing emptier, nothing more embarrassing…. each time a little bit of your heart is chipped off and thrown into a gutter.
Mr. T.W’s Argentinian tango with Mr. Alcohol and Mr. Narcotics is revealed in the somewhat rambling and self-pitying final act of the book. It can be difficult to follow and at times he is like a sizzled Uncle at a wedding, he goes on and on, unpredictable, all around the park with his explanations sometimes not linked, only to then slap the reader with a treasure in his last phrase, or a gem of wit. He is at his most amusing when he is being catty without realising it,
She was a voluptuous piece and he was voluptuous too, and when you say a man, a bridegroom is voluptuous; it’s not a compliment to him.
By the time Tennessee was rewarded with fame and credibility for his craft, he had managed for years to keep running from the dogs of depression, they may have been consistently nipping at his ankles, but when he did start to slow down, they took a chunk out of his inner core, then the self-doubt and the lack of confidence managed to invade him. Other creatives do manage to either realise the dogs can be tamed – or in the drastic cases put down – but unfortunately Tennessee Williams was a little blinded by the poisons discussed, so instead the hounds were empowered. Sometimes I wonder if it is healthy for a writer to use their own emotional stock in his or her work. For I guess every time a play is performed, or story read out, the plaster is ripped off and the wound becomes more intense creating a deeper scar.
The tale told in Memoirs is entertaining, both comic and tragic with a cast of glittering stars, including Andy Warhol, Tallulah Bankhead, Brando, Bette Davis……. on and on the list goes, just like an anecdote from Tennessee himself.
Author photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons