The national media was far too busy picking over the bones of Elizabeth Taylor two weeks ago to be bothered with noting the centennial of Tennessee Williams' birth on March 26. That's understandable. Why take note of someone who never went away? In the 28 years since Williams' death in 1983, there's a sense that Ole Tenn never even got buried. We're told that he's under the earth in Calvary Cemetery, yet he remains as ubiquitous as the man who came to dinner. The Internet Broadway Database reports that sixteen of Williams’ fifty Broadway productions have been staged since his death. (Fifty, by the way, is a staggering figure. Neil Simon, deemed to be the most commercially successful playwright ever, has had forty-three Broadway productions.)
If it's parochial of the St. Louis theater community to want to remember a hometown boy who became America's most eloquent dramatist, it's the most admirable kind of parochialism. True, there are the constant reports that Tennessee disliked our town, but they're not to be taken personally. "My mother likes St. Louis" — (he pronounced it "Louise") — Williams acknowledged when we spoke in 1975, "and my brother loves it. I'm the only one who ever complained. But nearly all the really dreadful experiences of my life have occurred there, such as my sister's mental breakdown. St. Louis was such a radical change from my youth in Mississippi. Had we moved to Detroit or Cleveland, anyplace, it would have been the same, I suppose."
Williams was lucky he lived here. The Glass Menagerie wouldn't be the same play if it were set in Detroit or Cleveland.
This weekend a celebration, A Centennial Tribute to Tennessee Williams, will take place over three nights (each performance benefiting a different nonprofit group) at the Gaslight Theater, just a few blocks from where Candles to the Sun, Williams' first full-length play, was staged in March 1937 — two years before he adopted the moniker "Tennessee." Williams wasn't very happy with his first notices. "I have just read the [St. Louis Star-Times] review," he complained in a letter to the play's director, Willard Holland, "and I think it rather nasty and completely unjust. The play — while not hilarious — was an artistic triumph."
That letter is but one of nearly seven hundred that are included in two volumes of Williams' selected letters. Volume One spans 1920-45; Volume Two continues through 1957. Obviously Williams' plays are the truest reflection of their author's artistic imagination, but the letters reveal the man as no fiction can. They are a constant revelation. It is stunning, for instance, to detect throughout the 1940s his lack of interest in World War II (“The war has ruined things here, virtually broken up all gaiety,” he writes from New Orleans ten days after Pearl Harbor). It is equally intriguing to discover his consuming obsession over every residual and royalty payment he is owed.
The final letter in volume two, dated April 3, 1957, is addressed to Elia Kazan, who, as the director of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was the person most responsible for Williams' commercial success. In the letter Williams recounts having told writer Budd Schulberg that Kazan "knows me better than anyone in the world." The letter continues, "I think you do. I think we know each other, despite the huge differences in our natures, so well that we can't hurt each other.... We are both obsessed by the same thing. Work. Saying. Speaking out our hearts, and though we bear in our different ways a great burden of guilt, I believe we have atoned for most of it in our devotion to honest creative work."
Kazan did understand Williams better than anyone else, and of all the untold words that have been uttered and written about him, the most insightful account of Tennessee is to be found in Kazan's epic 1988 memoir, A Life. "Our union," Kazan wrote, "immediate on first encounter, was close but unarticulated; it endured for the rest of his life. How did it happen? Possibly because we were both freaks." Kazan refused to attend Williams' funeral for fear that "it would be a lachrymose affair" with "a lot of people...showing off their grief." But he wrote a statement to be read. As usual, it evinced Kazan's acute understanding. Here is part of what it said:
"Ever since Tennessee Williams died, I've been hearing nothing but how unhappy his life was and how particularly wretched his last years. Of course, his powers declined as he went through his sixties; that's true of all men. Tennessee was poet enough to accept that. But don't feel sorry for him. The man lived a life full of the most profound pleasures, and he lived it precisely as he chose. Who in our time was ever more universally admired? We should not be gathering to mourn this man. We should celebrate his life. It was a triumph! There's nothing left for us to do except admire the race for having produced such a man."