Is Tennessee Williams’ Memoirs an important contribution to the art of autobiography—one of the most interesting but least artful genres in the history of world literature—or is it simply another readable account of a life? The answer lies somewhere between. The uncannily conversational phrasing and tone of its style, with ingratiating, self-conscious, direct comment to the reader, and its deliberate anti-chronological structure, set Williams’ memoirs off artistically among a few notable American autobiographies of recent decades. But the style, the structure, and the elements of Williams’ life and times do not cohere effectively enough to make the book a work of art. Williams is not an important poet, and, while his short stories are almost as unusual and distinctive as Dylan Thomas’, he is not a major contributor to the genre. But his plays are the work of a highly gifted artist. His few comments on his own plays and on writing in general suggest that he is a natural writer, a Dionysian who writes out of personal torments transformed into charged theatrical images. In his Memoirs, the Williams we have known sublimated, transmuted through imagined characters, mostly female, speaks directly to us, artlessly. The achievement is both more than we have come to expect from autobiographies, even those by imaginative writers, and less than we might have hoped from a man so deeply involved in theater for more than four decades.
No voice in American literature is more distinctly audible and alive on the printed page than Williams’ in the Memoirs. He tells us about his early life, about his most intimate personal adventures and spiritual experiences, his travels, his writings, his friends, the agents, producers, directors, and actors with whom he has worked over the years, and the writers he has known. He tells us all the things we want to hear because Williams is preeminently an interesting person, a celebrity whose life has always promised to be as fascinating as those of his bizarre, tormented, unpredictable, doomed characters. But one also hopes and expects to hear insights about his life and about the people he has known and the craft of playwriting that he would seem uniquely able to offer. He seems to sense readers are waiting for such insights, and he delivers a few in response, rather routinely, on a level not much higher than Rex Reed’s. He quite deliberately begs off talking about the mysteries of his craft. But there, as in other areas, readers may suspect he does not have anything of much depth to say anyway. One of the freedoms he allowed himself at the outset was the dubious freedom to tell his story effortlessly.
Williams’ life before he earned sudden fame as the young author of the autobiographical, lyrical, innovative The Glass Menagerie was not as bizarre as one’s knowledge of his characters might lead one to expect. The first eight years of his childhood in Mississippi were “the most joyously innocent” of his life. He was physically robust and energetic, and his Dakin grandparents provided him and his sister Rose (Laura in The Glass Menagerie) with an Edenic environment. The abrupt removal to St. Louis was a trauma from which in many ways neither Williams nor his sister recovered. For both, social humiliations and estrangement and physical and mental deterioration began there. His father, a boozing, woman-chasing shoe salesman, gave Williams’ mother cause to suffer as only a Southern belle with obsessive pretensions can suffer. His soulful-looking sister made brave attempts to dress and live like a Southern debutante. He hardly mentions his brother. During his high school years, Williams spent most of his time with Rose. His first love was a girl named Hazel who was his best friend for many years. Williams’ anecdotes and character sketches of his Dakin grandparents, of his mother and father, and of Hazel are the most moving in the book. And he tells us how each of them figures in many of his poems, stories, and plays. Throughout the book, the reader—or listener—is aware of the stark contrast between the life of the famous playwright, rich in experiences, and the plight of his sister, institutionalized most of her life. While they never experienced even a casual physical intimacy, “our love was, and is, the deepest in our lives.”
Williams’ attempts to show and to comment on the way events and people during his childhood, adolescence, and college years shaped his life and affected his writings are disappointingly halfhearted, but the events and the people themselves are interesting. Williams gives us material with which we may imagine the things that stimulated him to become a writer, but he merely tells us what he wrote, where, and when, and in the midst of what relationships. His life at the University of Missouri, where he was, unpredictably, a member of a fraternity, was rather routine. There he became more clearly aware of his homosexual tendencies, but he was also attracted to an oversexed young woman. The first and only sexual experience he had with a woman occurred later at the University of Iowa—a sexual marathon that lasted over a month. But when he met Kip in Cape Cod, he realized he would always love “boys,” and throughout the book, he often apologizes for his compulsive attempt to describe each encounter (there were literally hundreds) graphically. Except for Frank Merlo, his companion for fourteen years, most of the affairs blur into one rather mechanical procession, despite his attempts to assure us that each was beautiful, memorable, though ineffable. Elsewhere, he has said that the only woman he would have considered marrying was Anna Magnani, herself a heterosexual dynamo. Wonderfully lustful, mischievous, depraved, insatiable, Williams has lived his fantasies.
Despite a shyness that during one period of his youth made him blush violently when his eyes met those of any person male or female, and the excruciating loneliness that has plagued him all his life, Williams has known, lived with, traveled with, and worked with legions of men and women. Although he is probably one of the most disciplined, energetic, and diligent workers at his craft—starting always with a swim and Balzacian black coffee—he seems to be in constant motion. We move with him to Mexico, Italy, Sicily, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Germany, England, Morocco, Thailand; he has lived in Mississippi, St. Louis (which he dreads to revisit), Knoxville, Tennessee in the summers of his childhood, Key West, New Orleans, and New York City. There is a certain theatrical aura and desperation about the globe-trotting of a shy, lonely, usually intoxicated or doped-up, ill celebrity, with his morose withdrawals and social and professional rages and tantrums, sulks, and paranoia. One senses that he has never had a fully committed lover or an unconditional friend in his life, that all his relationships have been on the level of theatrical affections and affectations, which, after all, generate their own intense reality. “Love ... is nearly always present on-stage when the play is imperiled.”
One imagines this short, tidily built, pleasant-looking man, with his resonant drawl, the grace of a swimmer in his loping walk, moving about America and the world, pursuing business and bodily appetites and his relationships with lovers, friends, agents, producers, directors, and actors, always on the...
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