During much of Tennessee Williams’s playwriting career, including the extraordinarily prolific period from The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944) through The Night of the Iguana (pr. 1961) when he wrote almost a dozen enduring works for the stage that established his reputation as one of America’s foremost dramatists, he kept a series of private journals as well. Unlike what might be expected, these journals, now finally in print under the collective title Notebooks, almost never contain working ideas or plot outlines for his fiction or character sketches or fragments of dialogue for his plays. Rather, they tell a personal story, even generally more revealing than the one found in his Memoirs (1975). While that admittedly commercial publishing venture arrived with great public fanfare, Williams was ambivalent over whether these Notebooks should ever be read by others, sometimes indicating that they were for his eyes only as a potentially therapeutic confessional. Indeed, when he later goes back and rereads them and sometimes even reacts to them, his second thoughts about his earlier entries, reproduced here in his own handwriting, assume a startlingly poignant immediacy.
The preponderance of the Notebooks cover two periods: what might be called his apprenticeship period, the eight years from November, 1936, through November, 1943, that saw the disastrous Boston tryout of what was to have been Williams’s first Broadway play, Battle of Angels (pr. 1940), but also the writing of the prison drama Night About Nightingales, composed in 1939 but only very belatedly produced by the National Theatre in London and New York to posthumous praise sixty years later; and the two years from June, 1953, through September, 1955, the first of which witnessed the Broadway failure of his expressionistic Camino Real, while the second saw the triumphant success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The lengthiest gap, on the other hand, is the twenty-year period from 1958 to 1979, for which no journals seem to existalthough Williams suggests in one of his retrospective annotations that his life during those years was substantially “similar” to that recorded elsewhere.
In fact, the leitmotifs that will recur over and again in these journals are already well-established in the first several years: his insecurity and anxiety; his lack of confidence and sense of failure; his self-pity and self-absorption; his loneliness and restless wandering; his fear of death and of time’s destruction of physical prowess and creative energy; his emotional problems and multiple physical ailments. He was prey to what he called, as early as 1943, his “blue devils” or “neuroses,” a “Williams family trait tak[ing] the form of interior storms that show remarkably little from the outside but which create a deep chasm between myself and all other people.” Every day was undoubtedly a battle to keep going on; and yet write he did, virtually every single morning. In fact, “En Avant!” which first appears in entries for 1942, became his lifelong motto. The composite portrait that emerges is of an enormously conflicted and yet compelling human person, as complex as the best characters he created, with all the “mystery” and unknowability that he found essential marks of truth. Thus, Williams cautions his putative readers, “these notebooks despite their attempt at merciless candor about my life fall short, give very little, perhaps really distort unfavorably for I seem inclined to note only the seedier things.” As Elia Kazan, the director of several of Williams’s most lasting plays, warned Margaret Bradham Thornton, the independent scholar responsible for editing these Notebooks, “Williams was one of the most secret people he had ever known. ‘Latch onto that word,’ he instructed.”
Two tensions that exerted an immeasurable impact on his development as an artist are his relationship with his sister Rose, with whom he shared an inordinately strong emotional...
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