Tennessee Williams

Hayman discovered the subtitle for his new biography in Truman Capote’s unfinished novel, ANSWERED PRAYERS, which features a playwright—evidently based closely on Tennessee Williams—who is so self-obsessed, self-deceptive, and self-pitying that he is left totally estranged in a friendless world. Capote’s fictionalized portrait seems to have colored, to a perhaps unfortunate degree, Hayman’s factual rendition of Williams as a perpetually dislocated and depressed writer. Hayman, in fact, appears somewhat to dislike Williams because of his personal life of “predatory homosexuality” and eventual addiction to drink and drugs, so much so that the last quarter of his study increasingly descends to the level of a gossipy tabloid.

The heart of Hayman’s argument is that Williams, an intensely autobiographical writer, was ambivalent toward his own homosexuality, so that the self-criticism of the moralist and the self-hatred of the masochist combined to propel his creativity. When Williams punishes his characters through violence, sometimes of the most sensational kind, he vicariously is flailing his guilty self for continuing to stay alive. Despite this rather limiting perspective, Hayman does usefully trace out most of Williams’ recurrent themes: sensitivity crushed by cruelty; fear of time passing and death; the need for gallantry in the face of despair; imagination and art as potentially redeeming human incompletion. Furthermore, he aptly analyzes the centrality of Williams’ deep emotional attachment to his sister Rose and of her mental decline for such plays as THE GLASS MENAGERIE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Although a prestigious university press has published this work, it would be wrong to assume that Hayman’s generously illustrated book is in any way a definitive critical biography; except for some three dozen letters whose location is left unspecified, the research depends largely on secondary sources. By attributing so much of the content of the plays to autobiography, disguised or otherwise, Hayman seriously downplays the imaginative act, and thus much of Williams’ genius as a creative artist.