‘Blow Out Your Candles, Laura’

D.J. Carlile, music critic, playwright and poet, has recently completed a new English translation of "Rimbaud: The Works," forthcoming from Xlibris in early spring

The very name Tennessee Williams, who would have been 90 on March 26, conjures up that fictional landscape we’ve conveniently labeled “Southern Gothic,” a world of tropical twilight imbued with violence, decay and danger, a world spread beneath such a tranquil indigo sky that we are momentarily lulled while we view the trauma, tragedy, madness and savage comedy that ensue. Despite his Southern roots, Williams was not a strictly regional writer, nor was he bound to any one genre, though his work in the theater has overshadowed all else. As a playwright, he was both social realist and lyric poet; he was also a sometime screenwriter, a master of the short story, a novelist, poet, memoirist and inveterate letter-writer.

The Library of America has published his essential “Plays”--33 of them--in two volumes totaling about 2,000 pages. Not every play is included here, but these two volumes constitute all the plays that matter, the works of a master of his craft, with all the author’s introductions, notes and pertinent essays. Also, New Directions (Williams’ longtime publisher) has brought out Volume 1 of “Selected Letters: 1920-1945,” which traces his childhood and years of obscurity, up to the huge success of “The Glass Menagerie.” This beautifully designed and finely bound book contains generous, clearly written notes, an index and many black-and-white photos from Williams’ early years. The dust jacket features a torn-sweater portrait of the young playwright by George Platt Lynes that wouldn’t be out of place on a GQ cover or an Armani billboard.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 25, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 25, 2001 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
The names of the editors for the plays and the selected letters of Tennessee Williams (Book Review, March 18) were inadvertently transposed. “Plays: 1937-1955” and “Plays: 1957-1980” (Library of America) were edited by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch. “Selected Letters: 1920-1945” (New Directions) was edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler.

The plays--and the movies made from them--have become a fixture in our national mythos. We see more than vivid characters in a Williams play; we encounter mythic figures: Big Daddy, Blanche, Maggie the Cat in her satin slip, Stanley and Stella, Baby Doll, the Princess Kos and Serafina. We recognize them the way we recognize Huck Finn, Lolita, Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett O’Hara. They are fictions who inhabit an intensified reality; they are larger than any single personality or impersonation can make them. And they are part of an astonishing body of work. In the decade and a half between 1944 and 1961, Williams produced 11 brilliant plays back to back: “The Glass Menagerie,” ’A Streetcar Named Desire,” ’Summer and Smoke,” ’Sweet Bird of Youth,” ’The Rose Tattoo,” ’Camino Real,” ’Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” ’Orpheus Descending,” ’Suddenly Last Summer,” ’Period of Adjustment” and “Night of the Iguana.” Indeed, these were Tennessee Williams’ golden years, glowing with a string of “hits” one after another.


To read or reacquaint oneself with these plays is to recognize their truth and transcendence. One can also, to a degree, get a sense of this from the movies made of these plays. Most of them are available on video, starring such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, John Malkovich, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Taylor and Joanne Woodward. These performances give an idea of how powerful the plays can be onstage, cinematically transformed by directors such as Elia Kazan, John Huston and--in the case of “The Glass Menagerie’--Paul Newman.

In his essay “The Timeless World of a Play,” Williams wrote: “Great sculpture often follows the lines of the human body: Yet the repose of great sculpture suddenly transmutes these human lines to something that has an absoluteness, a purity, a beauty which would not be possible in a living mobile form.

‘A play may be violent, full of motion: yet it has that special kind of repose which allows contemplation and produces the climate in which tragic importance is a possible thing.... In a play, time is arrested in the sense of being confined. By a sort of legerdemain, events are made to remain events, rather than being reduced so quickly to mere occurrences. The audience can sit back in a comforting dusk to watch a world which is flooded with light and in which emotion and action have a dimension and dignity that they would likewise have in real existence, if only the shattering intrusion of time could be locked out.”

Reading the plays is, of course, less immediate than seeing them onstage or onscreen, but it is an experience that allows one to savor the language and emotion more intimately. Away from the exigencies of the stage, the characters come to life on the printed page and Williams’ precise and evocative stage directions, put the reader into the scene.

“The straight realistic play with its genuine frigidare and authentic ice-cubes ... has the same virtue of a photographic likeness,” wrote Williams in the notes to “The Glass Menagerie.” ’Everyone should know ... that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.” In the opening stage directions he is more specific: “The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart ....”


But “The Glass Menagerie” and the other plays didn’t just happen overnight. Williams began expressing himself in writing at an early age. Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Columbus, Miss., he was the second child of C.C. Williams, a traveling salesman and abusive drunk, and Edwina Dakin, daughter of an Episcopal minister. At age 5, he contracted diphtheria, followed by Bright’s disease, which confined him to the house, unable to walk, for a year and a half. During his recovery, his mother would read to him at length from Dickens and Shakespeare. This period of enforced immobility and extended story time may have affected the shape of his future life--both as a writer, a teller of tales, and in his restless, globe-trotting lifestyle, his never settling in one place for long.


The family eventually moved to St. Louis and, at age 8, when his mother became ill, young Tom was sent to stay with “Grand” and “Grandfody,” his beloved maternal grandparents, in Clarksdale, Miss. During that long visit, his letters home from the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal mark the beginning of his life as a writer. These are the first six entries in Volume 1 of the “Selected Letters,” and they show an eye for the moment as well as a sense of narrative: “... tell dady Grandfody said not to send my bicycle. I found a nice soft ball up in the attic.... Our peach trees are blomming. And the flowers are up in the yard I tried to make a garden in the back yard but the chickens ate all the seeds up excuse my writting but because I am writting fast Grandfody chopped up a barrol an to rats ran out.”

In 1925, during his high school years, a poem of his appeared in the school yearbook. He continued to compose stories and poems, getting a couple of them published in “Smart Set” and “Weird Tales.” When he was 18, he traveled to Europe with his Grandfather Dakin and a church group from Mississippi. He began writing plays for amateur companies in 1930. By 1937, he was writing for the Mummers, a critically acclaimed amateur group, in St. Louis. “Most of them worked at other jobs besides theatre,” he later recalled. “They had to, because the Mummers were not a paying proposition. There were laborers. There were clerks. There were waitresses. There were students. There were whores and tramps and there was even a post-debutante who was a member of the Junior League of St. Louis. Many of them were fine actors. Many were not ... but what they lacked in ability ... [they made up] with in the way of enthusiasm. I guess it was all run by a kind of beautiful witchcraft! It was like a definition of what I think theatre is. Something wild, something exciting, something that you are not used to. Offbeat is the word.”

He first used the name Tennessee Williams in 1938, when he entered his prison-drama “Not About Nightingales” in a Group Theatre contest. At the same time, he shaved two years off his age to meet the contest’s age requirements. This play, which lay unproduced for 60 years, was based on a much-publicized scandal of the era: Inmates of a state prison on a hunger strike against rotten food were tortured to death in a steam room called “The Klondike.” Vanessa Redgrave rescued the play from oblivion and produced it at the National Theatre in London in 1998. It is a strong piece of work, notable for its juxtaposition of social realism, lyric fantasy and Brechtian dialectic. The love story (between the warden’s new secretary and a trustee) seems to develop abruptly, but the dialogue is especially frank and colloquial for a play of its time. There is no bogus street lingo; it all rings true. Minor characters such as Queen, the effeminate inmate, and Ollie, the stoical black prisoner, are given dignity and substance.

For the contest he also submitted “Spring Storm,” his first full-length play, and “Battle of Angels,” which he would later rewrite as “Orpheus Descending.” He mailed his packet from Memphis and then moved to New Orleans, where the Federal Writers’ Project was ongoing. He lived in the French Quarter, supporting himself briefly as a waiter. The following year, he won a cash award from the Group Theatre and signed with Audrey Wood as his agent when she sent him an encouraging letter. She saw his potential and secured him a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the attention of serious producers. The Theatre Guild offered to produce “Battle of Angels” because of her efforts on his behalf.

In Provincetown, Mass., during preparations for the premiere of “Battle of Angels,” he met and fell in love with Kip Kiernan, a dancer who claimed to be Canadian but was probably born in Texas and whose real name was Bernard Dubowski. Kip broke off the relationship and later married, but Williams wrote in “Memoirs” that “nobody ever loved me before so completely.” Kip died in 1944 of “an apparent brain tumor.” In an autobiographical play, written decades later, “Something Cloudy, Something Clear,” a character Kip appears “invested with an apparitional beauty and pathos, ... while TW reexamine[s] the exploitative nature of his sexual desire,” according to the editors of “Selected Letters.”

The 1940 Theatre Guild production of “Battle of Angels” starring Miriam Hopkins closed after a two-week run in Boston, and Williams received a $500 advance to rewrite it. For the next four years he worked a series of odd jobs--cashier, teletype operator, elevator operator, movie theater usher and bellhop--until Wood got him a job at MGM writing scripts for Lana Turner at $250 a week.


Williams wrote to Wood from Culver City: “I think it is one of the funniest but most embarrassing things that ever happened to me, that I should be expected to produce a suitable vehicle for this actress. Poor thing, she is now having a baby and at the same time, her next picture is supposed to be written by me! ... They want me to give it ‘freshness and vitality’ but at the same time keep it a ‘Lana Turner sort of thing.’ I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver. A bad comparison, as the beaver is a practical little animal who would never get herself into such a situation.”

While in Hollywood, having been taken off the Turner project, Williams tinkered with adapting one of his stories as a screenplay called “The Gentleman Caller.” MGM wasn’t interested, but when it was rewritten for the stage and retitled “The Glass Menagerie,” it proved a hit in Chicago and New York and has retained its “freshness and vitality” for more than half a century. And it’s been filmed twice.

In January 1943, Williams’ elder sister Rose, who had earlier been found to have schizophrenia and confined to a mental institution, underwent a prefrontal lobotomy. When he was informed of what had taken place, he was devastated. As noted in “Selected Letters,” he wrote in his journal: “1,000 miles away. Rose. Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain. Me. Here. Smoking.” Rose’s girlhood shyness and sensitivity are touchstones of Laura’s character in “The Glass Menagerie.” His mother’s blinkered morality and genteel social pretensions are likewise intensified in the character of the mother Amanda, and Williams himself is sketched in the character of Tom, the brother, son and poet who narrates the play. “Menagerie’s” most famous line, “Blow out your candles, Laura,” intimates how the play was a kind of exorcism of the haunting shadows that his mother and sister had become. “Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it,” comments Gore Vidal in his memoir “Palimpsest.” ’... [He] seldom read a book, and the only history he knew was his own ... he depended, finally, on a romantic genius to get him through life. Above all, he was a survivor.”

The success of “The Glass Menagerie” gave him financial independence. He assigned half the royalties to his mother, as he would do with “Summer and Smoke” for Rose. In his 1948 essay “The Catastrophe of Success” (reprinted in Volume 1 of the “Plays’), he recalled how that first Broadway production changed his life. “I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth, the cornerstone of the film industry if not of the Democracy itself.... No, my experience was not exceptional, but neither was it quite ordinary.... I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people.... Conversations all sounded as if they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable.... I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you any more. I choked on the words and turned rudely away.”

He remembered how he had had to struggle in the past and concludes: “Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were or intended to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about--What good is it?

Vidal, who knew Williams as well if not better than most, recalled that “... his frantic lifelong pursuit of--and involvement in--play production was not just ambition or a need to be busy; it was the only way he ever had of being entirely alive.... ‘For love I make characters in plays,’ he wrote; and did.”


Williams heavily revised his plays during and after production, sometimes going so far as to wholly rewrite the text and assign a new title. Hence we have “Battle of Angels” and “Orpheus Descending,” ’Summer and Smoke” and “Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and “The Two-Character Play” and “Out Cry’; in each, a pair of different plays with different scenes, different dialogue but the same characters and plot situations. In the case of “Out Cry,” he revised the work a third time, reverting to the original title but creating a new text for the actors--who play a brother and sister or who play actors who are brother and sister who are trapped in a locked-up theater or their house, abandoned by their company of actors, attempting to “finish the play.” The Library of America edition organizes and presents these doubled texts in authoritative versions. The compact two-volume format allows the reader to handily compare two versions of the “same” play.

Archetypical figures abound, whatever version, whatever play. There is the monstrous mother, the feral man, the delicate waif or the nymph on the make, the outcast, the flighty girl, the stranger, the fool. Often, the outcast is The Wounded Wonderboy (as Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) or The Haunted Hustler (Chance in “Sweet Bird of Youth’), and they are usually paired with a Predatory Woman (Maggie the Cat or Princess Kos) and are in conflict with a Patriarch (Big Daddy or Boss Finley) who is either at death’s door or corrupt or both. Archetypes such as Orpheus descend (so different from Jean Cocteau’s treatment of the myth) or stay with us rather, and reconsecrate the world, as in Blanche returning to some “Belle Rve,” of childhood, where strangers are kind and, strangely, kind of familiar.

The gorgeous monsters and self-styled studs are not confined to the Deep South. In “Small Craft Warnings” (1972), the action takes place in a bar along the California coast (‘in one of those coastal towns between Los Angeles and San Diego’) and the cast of characters is eerily reminiscent of the folk one might see on TV’s “Jerry Springer.” Studly Bill (who calls his penis “Junior’) and big Leona (a retired hairdresser and tough old broad) live in the trailer park near the beach; she has picked him up hitchhiking and is getting ready to throw him out. Violet, a low-rent Blanche with most of her marbles missing, lives “... like an animal in a room with no bath that’s directly over the amusement arcade at the foot of the pier, yeah, right over the billiards, the pinball games, and the bowling alleys....” Doc, who’s lost his license “for performing operations when he was so loaded he couldn’t tell the appendix from the gizzard,” drops in for a regular drink before making his house calls. Quentin, the Hollywood screenwriter-queen, and Bobby, the Iowa chicken caught crossing the road, drop in briefly, post coitus. And Monk, the voice of reason, runs the bar and lives alone in a small apartment upstairs. This is but a partial snapshot of the cast. Women brawl violently; there is much name-calling and more of sexual jealousy; the police are involved, and Doc has to take it on the lam because of a botched childbirth in the trailer park. These are the “small craft,” who are all at sea in heavy weather.

This bitter comedy is not the kind of play one usually associates with Tennessee Williams’ name and fame. Nor is “Camino Real,” that other neglected masterpiece of irony and illusion. An epic, fantastical theater piece with musicians, gypsy dancers, death squads and figures out of literature and history, “Camino Real” is perhaps his least-known great play. In mood and texture, it is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” Like them, it is a magical tale of romance, identity and tangled destinies. It was a commercial disaster and critical flop when it opened in 1953, condemned for being unlike his other plays, for being “unrealistic” and “poetical.” It has since been reevaluated in more positive terms. The sheer luxuriance of its theatricality is intoxicating. It’s a banana republic, hotel-splendide, midsummer-nightmare-vacation kind of play, with young Kilroy, the “ex-champ,” as Punchinello, his Golden Gloves around his neck and Lord Byron as a visiting celebrity, whose luggage is a collection of birdcages, with Casanova and Camille as haunted lovers, she trying to escape her past.

It has been said that there was a falling-off in the quality of Williams’ work in the last two decades, when pills and liquor and psychoanalysis did much to addle his muse. “I have a touch of schizophrenia,” he once said, “and in order to avoid madness, I have to work.... I have period neuroses. I call them ‘blue-devils.’ It’s like having wildcats under my skin ... inner storms that show remarkably little from the outside, but create a deep chasm between myself and other people, even deeper than the ordinary ones of homosexuality and being an artist.” When it looked like he was coming seriously unglued, his brother Dakin had him temporarily hospitalized. While institutionalized, he suffered three convulsions and two heart attacks. He suffered and survived.

He was, in fact, adrift in a sea of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, attempting to find a more experimental style while contending with his own legendary reputation--as well as the voices of a new generation of writers and actors. Time and Life magazines had said that he was “washed up.” And his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, parted ways with him over his drug and alcohol problems. His late plays explore some dark territory. The trailer-trash tragicomedy of “Small Craft Warnings,” for example, may at first seem heavily grotesque, but it grows lighter as it goes, and it glows with hope, even ridiculous hope. In the later plays, comedy and pathos take on a much bleaker edge and the two are balanced so skillfully that one is suspended mercilessly between laughter and tears. There is precedent for this, even in a play like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where the dynamic is more subtle.


Elia Kazan, director of “Streetcar” on both stage and film, has often been called the Stanislavski to Williams’ Chekhov. When Williams or the Russian writer intended comic emphasis or a light touch, both directors would insist on heavy drama or passionate tears. During the last scene of the play as staged by Kazan, when Blanche is led away, poignantly redolence have always depended upon the kindness of strangers,” audiences were in tears. Except when the author was in attendance, as Gore Vidal tells us, when his “whoop of laughter would echo in the snuffling theatre and he would say, loudly, ‘Now she’s off to the bughouse!’ ”

This might seem a slightly crackpot response from the author of the play, but he just may have had a different kind of finale in mind.

Let us follow Vidal’s memoir on this point. Years later, in London, when Claire Bloom was preparing to play Blanche, she met with Williams and Vidal. Offered a cigarette, she nervously snapped, “I don’t smoke!” taking the smoke and inhaling deeply when Williams lit it for her. He inquired if she had any questions. She asked him what happened after the final curtain. Surprised that no actress had asked him this before, Williams thought for a moment (with eyes closed) and then replied: “She will enjoy her time in the bin. She will seduce one or two of the more comely young doctors. Then she will be let free to open an attractive boutique in the French Quarter....”

“She wins?” Bloom queried.

“Oh yes,” Williams assured her, “Blanche wins.”

Vidal goes on to say: “The result was splendid. Claire gained greater and greater strength as the play proceeded and, at the end, she leaves for the bin as for a coronation. Audiences cheered, not knowing how one psychological adjustment, made in the smoke of one cigarette at dusk, had changed the nature of a famous play.” And his other plays lend themselves to rich and various interpretation.

In these 33 plays, we observe the contemplative ritual of our deepest emotions, our desires, fears, triumphs and defeats. They play in the imaginary space that we build out of the poetry in the stage directions. Many of the stage directions--which an audience in the theater will never hear--contain some of Williams’ best writing. The opening scene description in “Streetcar” is an example: “The exterior of a two-story corner building on a street in New Orleans.... It is first dark of an evening early in May. The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolence of bananas and coffee. A corresponding air is evoked by the music of Negro entertainers at a barroom around the corner. In this part of New Orleans you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers.... “

And in Act Two of “Night of the Iguana’: “There is a windy sound in the rain forest and a flicker of gold light like a silent scattering of gold coins on the verandah; then the sound of shouting voices. The Mexican Boys appear with a wildly agitated creature--a captive iguana tied up in a shirt. They crouch down by the cactus clumps that are growing below the verandah and hitch the iguana to a post with a piece of rope....”


These are not merely stage directions but miniature prose-poems that strike vivid images, setting the scene with mood, sound and light. And as these plays unfold, as the monstrous secret is set alongside the delicate truth, and cannibalism alongside rape and castration, the represented emotions often reach fever pitch--yet these stories are full of sympathy and nuance. A human heart beats at the core, compassion its theme.

“Our theatre has to cry out to be heard at all..., “ he wrote in 1981. And theater historian Allean Hale has commented: “He had Chekhov’s same feeling for human isolation and the impossibility of people understanding each other. Like Chekhov, Williams was as much poet as playwright.” Indeed, Williams kept a framed photograph of the Russian above his desk, and his very last play was a labor of love, “The Notebook of Trigorin,” his free adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” which he continued to revise until his death in 1983. It eventually premiered in 1996, starring Lynn Redgrave, at the Cincinnati Playhouse.

Headed for Mexico in August 1940, Williams wrote to dancer Joe Hazan: “Somehow I feel very sure of a great power in me these last few days and I know it is only waiting--waiting a little while--to emerge in something constructive. A great dammed up emotional energy which cannot be entirely dissipated by little things.... “

The “Selected Letters” read like an oblique yet intimate autobiography. We read of hopes and dreams, love affairs and liaisons, of the struggle to say or write “something constructive.” In the two volumes of “Plays,” we can read what that “something” is. Of his place in American literature and the history of the theater, there can be no doubt. He explored the heights and depths of human passion with empathy and honesty.

In the homophobic world of the 1950s and beyond, he was famously “out of the closet,” a beacon of candor and some wit, writing tenderly of outcasts and lost souls and hustlers and divas. David Mamet has called Williams’ plays “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language.” Too, he is like the great Jacobean playwrights of yore, like Webster, Ford and Whiting--even late Shakespeare--for, as Ethan Fischer, editor of Antietam Review, has noted, “He wants his lines to sing as they cut throats or transplant the hearts of audience and cast.” He is our Shaw, our Ibsen and Pirandello all rolled into one. He is our Llorca, our Chekhov. He is our Tennessee Williams.