Tennessee

Mallon, Thomas

TENNESSEE: CRY OF THE HEART Dotson Rader/Doubleday/$ 16.95 THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: THE LIFE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Donald Spoto/Little, Brown/$19.95 Thomas Mallon When writing an umbrella...

...It is sometimes said that his great female characters are really just personal projections of homosexual fantasy...
...Spoto's book, like Williams's life, is not solely about doom...
...TENNESSEE: CRY OF THE HEART Dotson Rader/Doubleday/$ 16.95 THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: THE LIFE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Donald Spoto/Little, Brown/$19.95 Thomas Mallon When writing an umbrella review such as this, the reviewer often wants to dispose of the worse book first so that his essay can reach its climax while descanting upon the better book's virtues...
...She spots an emaciated girl and whispers to him, "Oh, Tennessee, look-anorexia nervosa...
...Did you know that a raised fist was "a symbol of resistance to oppression...
...They popped pills and boys from the same jars and jeans, and Rader now confesses his crocodile rue: "I could hear Tennessee's labored breathing...
...Shepard, for all his brilliance, likes to rob his characters of the last ten percent of real breath it would take to make us believe in them...
...He describes the Vietnam war as "a conflict that reached its apex the night we met...
...He likes to drop names (be they Jim Morrison's or Lillian Carter's) into crud, hoping they'll beam up and reflect himself...
...the fear of poverty wouldn't allow him to believe in the fortune he accumulated...
...The daughter she had lobotomized, Rose, survived as saint, muse, and martyr in her brother's mind...
...Hannah and Maggie drag Shannon and Brick home...
...The result is this supposedly tender offering, which is really a little ring of poisoned violets tossed on Williams's troubled remains...
...Williams's heir to preeminence in the American theater is probably Sam Shepard, but to compare Williams's creations to Shepard's is to compare humans to humanoids...
...He has them sweat it out and battle back...
...I thought of him as a kind of warrior in the dark heat of battle, and I was sentimental enough in the warmth of the room and alcohol to think that Tennessee did everyone, especially writers, great honor by his struggle and survival...
...The writing is unintentionally funny...
...As they say on "Family Feud": good answer...
...The literal meaning of perverted is "turned the wrong way...
...While he and Williams were friends, Rader kept, with the playwright's knowle'dge, "notes, letters, journals, and other papers" about their time together...
...He would have been better off if friends and colleagues had honestly told him-before critics got the chance-that the new work was no good, and that in playwrighting, just as in politics, there is honor in being an extinct volcano...
...and lots of lines that seem like purplish outtakes from Williams's worst plays ("Only he did not have a toothache, that being merely a ploy to procure a drug to deaden a more harrowing pain, that of the heart...
...Part of the reason for that decline lies too deep for tears or explanation, but some of it was brutally cultural: "Celebrity had made him [by 1959] a commodity, and the culture   was entering a time of such worship of novelty that no one person could satisfy for long...
...There are lo-cal intellectual cliches ("Writing and life were synonymous...
...There is neither in Williams...
...This is a thoughtful and well-proportioned book that celebrates Williams's "great period, 1944 to 1961" and attempts to explain the creative and personal slide that followed...
...There is finally a kind of heartlessness and perversity to much of what he writes...
...As "the South's other great writer" might put it: He endures.ght put it: He endures...
...To which he replies: "Oh, Sylvia, you know everybody...
...But every one of them, so extraordinarily exaggerated, so prone to takeoff and imitation, remains firmly believable...
...Big Daddy fools cancer and lets out "a sigh of relief almost as powerful as the Vicksburg tornado...
...It is a tale chiefly of hustlers and amphetamines, purgatorial wanderings between New York and Key West, and, finally, though Rader would not admit it, of betrayal...
...This Movement historian also recalls the May Day demonstrations, "protests that would paralyze [Washington, DC] and result in thirteen thousand arrests, my own among them," as having taken place in May 1973...
...Some of them make it...
...Donald Spoto did not win a reputation for gentlemanly restraint when he published his biography of Alfred Hitchcock (The Dark Side of Genius) a while back, which is why the general grace and judiciousness of The Kindness of Strangers may come as a surprise to some readers...
...There is something so powerfully living in Blanche and Amanda and Big Daddy and Maggie and Maxine that they can force belief from us even when they're set walking on the stages of a local dinner theater or community college...
...Laura breaks like glass...
...Those demonstrations of course took place in 1971...
...His crazy Southern mother Edwina lived to be 95, kept prosperous with royalties from The Glass Menagerie, of which she was certain Amanda was the heroine...
...and there is anecdotal glee: Williams is walking in London with the actress Sylvia Miles...
...His most famous words concerned the kindness of strangers, but his imagination lived on the ghosts of family-the grandfather, parents, and sister who tenanted his mind and walked his plays...
...His hypochondria made him proclaim that each new play would be his last...
...I felt great love for him...
...Dispose"-as in garbage disposal-seems particularly apt in the case of Dotson Rader's Tennessee: Cry of the Heart, a sexual and pharmacological memoir of Tennessee Williams's last, lost decade...
...What finally happens to Blanche is questionable...
...He conspired against himself in every possible way...
...Rader highlights his solicitude toward Williams, but the book really shows him to have been not so much the older man's protector as his binge buddy...
...Or that William Faulkner is "the South's other great writer...
...The Streetcars no longer ran from his head...
...There is intermittent amusement (what could be more amusing than knowing that Mary Martin and Gregory Peck were once mentioned as possibilities for Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski...
...He is just enough sobered up to recognize the irony of "babbling of revolution amidst wine and pot and hustler and other indulgences of the privileged class," but his attempt to depict Tennessee Williams as "a politically committed man of the left" is generally hilarious...
...T. Lawrence Shannon are...
...Williams sends all of them, the men and women, toward clammy second-act hells...
...Thomas Mallon teaches English at Vassar College and is the author of A Book of One's Own (Ticknor & Fields...
...What finally saves this book-what saved this life-from gloom and futility is not the odd anecdote or amusement, of course, but the work...
...What they are, as Maggie the Cat shrieks, is alive...
...It is perhaps the word most frequently applied-and most inappropriate-to this gifted and harrowed man, who in fact looked right at real human beings and came back with extraordinary news...
...Perhaps "The Big Dot," as Williams called him, slept through the Paris peace accords...
...He distrusted the devotion of the one man who loved him fully and calmly, Frank Merlo, and in a late paranoid rage dismissed his agent Audrey Wood, putting an end to "one of the most lengthy, remarkable, loving and finally tragic creative relationships in American theatre history...
...Even so, much of what he wrote was, in fact, uninteresting...
...Rader has more ability and desire to dramatize himself than to evoke Williams...
...The lovers, who he believed never really loved him, became ghosts, too, imaginative retainers, understudies who might be called to go on in one or another of the plays he kept desperately fashioning and revising, right up until the end, which came on the night of February 24, 1983, when he choked to death on a bottle cap he'd been using as a spoon for Seconal capsules...
...This book can tell you those things...
...If Spoto has committed any superfluity, it's in giving plot summaries of plays like Streetcar and Glass Menagerie, works that any remotely literate American mind now carries as part of its stock...
...Rader, who says he was never Williams's lover, presents some confusing fragments of the playwright's earlier biography, but mostly this is a book about Williams's tormented decline in health and critical reputation: a squalid potion of anecdotes slimed together with a rotting pestle...
...then I wonder what Brick and Stanley and the Rev...
...Rader, whose writings about the "Movement" enjoyed some small fame in the late sixties and early seventies (a time when fame was at a discount), refers to that period as "the rancid years," but he isn't very clear-minded about whether he prefers the current morning after to the excesses he recounts with a certain glazed nostalgia...
...Not new, therefore not interesting' was becoming the standard...
...In one of his attempts at character analysis, Rader says that Williams "liked to slum...
...He doesn't explain this, but he likes to explain other things...
...He would bring her down from the sanitarium in Ossining and take her to lunch at the Plaza: "She was in all respects a lady of great dignity, and she very often greeted passersby with a Windsor wave of her right hand, whispering that it was her duty as queen of England to greet all her children...
...He surrounded himself with jerks (see above), and "his Key West social circle enclosed nothing...

Vol. 18 • September 1985 • No. 9


 
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