Although Tennessee Williams—arguably the most enduring American dramatist of the post-World War II generation—died in 1983, Five O’Clock Angel is only the second collection of his correspondence to appear. Like the first, Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965 (1977), it brings together letters addressed almost exclusively to one person: Maria Britneva, the Lady St. Just and executrix of Williams’ estate. In the opening words of his preface to this volume, Elia Kazan, the famous director of the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire—a work that Williams himself justifiably deemed “the American Play of the Twentieth Century”—on both stage and screen, asks “Who is Maria?”
Descended from White Russian grandparents who fled to England during the Revolution, Maria Britneva’s mother later emigrated to London with her daughter, leaving behind their husband and father, an eminent surgeon who was shot to death by the Soviets. As a young girl, Maria trained as a ballerina and danced for three seasons with the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo at Covent Garden. She then studied acting under Michel Saint-Denis at the Old Vie and performed with John Gielgud’s company, for whom her mother translated plays by Anton Chekhov. It was at a party given by Gielgud that she first met Williams, in London for the opening there of the 1944 play The Glass Menagerie. The playwright would come to cast himself unsuccessfully, in the role of matchmaker between Maria and James Laughlin, a poet and his longtime publisher at New Directions, hoping that she would be able, like the heroines in some of his plays, to give Laughlin (to whom she dedicates this volume) the necessary faith in himself as a writer. Her eventual marriage to a friend from childhood, Peter Grenfell, the Lord St. Just, made her mistress of Wilbury Park, the first Palladian house built in England; it was there that Williams began writing his frankly confessionalMemoirs (1975), which later occasioned Maria to tear up a set of page proofs in disapproval and distaste.
What was it about Maria, who played Blanche DuBois in an Off-Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire in the mid-1950’s and Perla in a Viennese production of The Red Devil Battery Sign in the late 1970’s, that endeared her to Williams and helped sustain their friendship for thirty-five years? The characteristics that consistently emerge are her sensitivity, her candor, her humor, and mostly her loyalty; disloyalty joins “deliberate cruelty” and unkindness as the unforgivable sins in Williams’ system of morality. Ultimately, he will describe their love for each other in terms echoing those of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Transcending carnal attachment, even protracted periods of absence cannot alter their bond with each other. Less explicitly and more subtly, Williams appears to find in Maria a substitute for the companionship he could never fully share with his beloved sister Rose, who, institutionalized after a lobotomy in the early 1940’s, could not reciprocate what was the strongest emotional attachment throughout her brother’s life. Interestingly enough, Maria appears near the beginning of the film version of the 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer in the minor role of the first woman patient to undergo a lobotomy; more tellingly, Williams concludes one of his missives to “darling Maria” with “Many loves, all to you,” and then adds revealingly in handwriting “and Miss Rose.”
The nearly two hundred letters preserved in this book span the dramatist’s career following A Streetcar named Desire, from the surprisingly harsh critical reaction to the London premiere of the classicThe Glass Menagerie through the last plays, which, ironically, tended to be more congenially received in Europe than on an increasingly commercial Broadway that Williams found inhospitable, even closed off to him as both man and artist. The years covered here saw the...
(The entire section is 1,764 words.)