My first immersion came at the Morgan Library in midtown New York City which is holding an exhibit of photos, letters and journals from Williams’ life.
The journals, often penciled in plain brown notebooks, moved me most, the record of his torment as an enormously gifted writer who had to struggle against the blindness of his age. His first play, Battle of Angels, caused what he called a “hullabaloo,” the audience revolting against its raw depiction of sexuality and violence in the post-war repression that seemed, at that time, the permanent mood of the U.S. It would be disrupted and dismissed by the sixties only a few years later.
In the meantime, Williams, heartbroken by the failure of his play, retreated to work on what became Summer and Smoke, sharing a place with Carson McCullers, which perhaps caused the long-lasting rumor that he, not she, wrote The Member of the Wedding, a rumor reflecting not the fact of authorship but the long-lived distrust of women of genius.
Williams despaired of Summer and Smoke, which also had a troubled theatrical history before the overwhelming success of The Glass Menagerie. The production I saw at Classic Stage Company showed why the play had its share of troubles. The central character, Miss Alma (Alma is Spanish for “soul”) is too easily dismissed as a vaporous mystic—especially since, in this production and probably all others, she is costumed in a nightgown and has streaming blond hair, even directed, at one moment of despair, to collapse on the floor.
The reality of this character as Williams wrote her seems to me quite different. Immensely courageous, with the recklessness that tinges all acts of courage, Alma sets out from childhood to form her male counterpart, Dr. Johnny, into a man worthy of her love.
Of course she fails. How many self-help books and programs have attempted to cure us of this particular crusade?
But—she is right. She takes the material of an immature, selfish, and emotionally destructive young man and attempts to shape it into something finer.
A different production might have made more of her courage—but it would have to get her out of that nightgown.
The times, thank God, have changed to some degree, although not to the extent that we might wish in terms of the contests we women set ourselves to seeing the potential in men who will never allow us to “bring it out.”
And why should they?
And why should we keep on trying?
An example of the way this particular “journey” has developed means seeing the remarkable movie, Lean on Pete. The abandoned boy who breaks his heart over a horse is saved, literally, by his father’s cast-off girlfriend, who takes him in.
So we go on saving. Perhaps in the case of a sterling teenaged boy who has never been given a chance, we are justified.
Beyond this issue is the great courage and endurance of a writer as gifted and tormented as Tennessee Williams. In many ways he was also blessed, not least in learning early on that for him, as for me and so many other writers, there is “no refuge but in writing.”