Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr

Book: Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Lahr
Tags: Literary, Biography & Autobiography
will burn one for you and for me . . . a
ten-cent one
!” he wrote to a friend. “We will be purified and redeemed!—I work hard these days. For me there is either success or destruction sooner or not so sooner & so I
work.

    Williams re-created himself on the grandiose plan of Artist, a “Homo Emancipatus—the Completely Free Man.” “The poet, the dreamer . . . fights a solitary battle against the world’s dullness—the others, conscious of no such enemy in the field think him a mad man who is struggling with phantoms,” Williams wrote inside his volume of Hart Crane. But there was a price to be paid along the way to his hard-won freedom, a price in torment and loneliness. “When will the cool white time of healing arrive?” he prayed in his 1940s diary. “When will the fingers of peace be laid on my forehead? Oh, days ahead—give me a sign! Give me a candle to walk by! Oh it’s so bewildering, uncertain where I stand. Courage, my lad—en avant.” The heaven he sought was his own individuality. “Am I still looking for God? No, just for my self,” he said.
    In
The Glass Menagerie
, Amanda’s first full sentence is about grace. “We can’t say grace until you come to the table,” she calls to Tom. Grace is again invoked as the Gentleman Caller sits down to break bread with Laura and the rest of the family. “I think we may—have grace—now,” Amanda says. But grace is granted at the finale only to the Narrator, Tom Wingfield. Haunted, restless, guilt-ridden, searching for a truth that keeps him in perpetual motion, he is released by the luck of talent into the world, no longer earthbound but airborne by his imagination. Through his literary ability—as the interior pantomime of Amanda and Laura at the finale demonstrates—Williams’s storytelling is the act of grace, redeeming his life and the lives of others with a meaning and a beauty that feels like blessing.
    With the success of
The Glass Menagerie
, that long-delayed something that Williams lived for—“the time when I would first catch and hold an audience’s attention”—had arrived. He recognized it now for what it was: a simulacrum of the child’s longing to be held. “We come to each other, gradually, but with love,” Williams wrote in the play’s introduction. “It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.”
    The hubbub of Williams’s new life began almost immediately. He was photographed by
Vogue
in broody profile with a raincoat over his shoulder; he was interviewed in
The
New Yorker
’s Talk of the Town section; within a week—with his royalties estimated at a thousand dollars a week—he was complaining to the
Times
about the burdens of the American tax system. “I guess I’m getting spoiled,” he told the reporter. “That’s the second time in my life I’ve ordered room service.” Embossed invitations went out, inviting Williams’s newfound society to meet “Mrs. Edwina Williams, Miss Laurette Taylor, and The Reverend Walter Dakin” over “tea and cocktails” at Sherry’s. “This is the twilight of an era in the theatre,” Williams had written a friend in 1943. “God knows what’s coming next.” The answer, as it turned out, was him.
    CHAPTER 2
    The Heart Can’t Wait
     
     
     
    What do I want? I want love and creative power!—
    Eh bien!
     
    Get it!
    —TENNESSEE WILLIAMS,
    Notebooks
    , 1938
    “May God be merciful to me and open some door, some avenue of escape,” Williams had prayed in an early diary; now, with the success of
The Glass Menagerie
, mercy rained down on him. The play won every major theatrical prize except the Pulitzer. In September 1945, Williams’s romantic comedy
You Touched Me!
—“a last, desperate throw of the literary dice in the direction of Broadway” is how he described it in 1942—opened at the Booth Theatre, with Montgomery Clift in the lead. Williams’s

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