History on a Hot Tin Roof

Culture Watch
tags: Tennessee Williams



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

"(We need) more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and is so often forced to repress.”

- Tennessee Williams on theater


In 1948, the editors of Time Magazine put playwright Tennessee Williams on the magazine’s cover and said he was America’s greatest living writer. Williams is gone, but he still might be the nation’s best writer.

You would have to think that after walking through Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing, the impressive new exhibit on his life and work that just opened at the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Avenue, in New York. The exhibit focuses on the playwright’s life from 1939 to 1957 and highlights his work on The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Williams wrote over 40 plays and won two Pulitzer Prizes. In the exhibit, the backdrop to his stage work is the story about his stormy love affairs with several men in his life and his relationships to producers, directors, critics and other writers during his turbulent career. Much attention is paid to his childhood and the lives of members of his family, some of whose lives were tragic. “It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of Tennessee Williams on theatre as we know it,” said Colin B. Bailey, Director of the Morgan Library and Museum. “His plays are so acclaimed and so well known that one can conjure up unforgettable characters and their immortal lines almost at will. Yet behind these great works is an artist who struggled mightily – sometimes publicly – with a host of personal demons…writing was his refuge.”

Williams grew up in an emotionally troubled household. His father derided him and called him “Miss Nancy.” His sister Rose, whom he loved deeply, had schizophrenia and underwent a lobotomy. His plays reflected that turmoil and the dysfunctional life that he sometimes led.

The exhibit’s curators have done a fine job of providing visitors with a nice balance of Williams the writer and the man. They also did a superb of showing you how Williams created his plays. He was a genius, but never just sat down and typed out his plays in one draft. He re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote all of the plays that chronicled so much of American history. The exhibit shows you various drafts of his work, with changes here and there and in some places huge paragraph deletions. Williams wrote for four hours every day of his adult life. There are showcases that contain numerous notebooks in which he wrote detailed descriptions of characters in his plays. With these notes he created the characters of his stories and then put them into the plays.

The museum does not shy away form his homosexuality and even quotes him in the late 1930s as bragging about his “appalling promiscuity.” He was a hellion, too, and in the exhibit is a letter from the manager of the Shelton Hotel in New York in 1945 berating him for his “considerable entertaining” and defiance of the hotel’s midnight noise curfew. Stories of his affairs with Kip Kiernan, Pancho Rodriguez, Frank Merlo and others and not brushed aside, but highlighted, with lots of pictures.

Williams was a great playwright, but he was also lucky. In the exhibit, you learn that the heralded star of The Glass Menagerie, Laurette Taylor, was an alcoholic and caused havoc during rehearsals for the play and one night was found out cold, dead drunk, sprawled on the floor of her dressing room. Williams was terrified. The result? When the play opened, she was brilliant.

The playwright’s view of critics was strange. He often deplored them. He told friend Horton Foote in 1943 that “a new theater is coming after the war, with completely new criticism, thank God.” But then he turned around and solicited their approval, writing thank you notes to those who enjoyed his work. His original names for his plays were odd, too. The original title of A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the great titles in theater history, was The Primary Colors and then that was changed to The Poker Game. He told all that he just loved the theater and made it a habit of sending congratulatory telegrams to cast members after shows opened, but in 1945 he wrote a letter to a New York Times writer in which he said that he was “disillusioned” with the theater. Ten years later he considered himself a literary catastrophe, and then breathed a sigh of relief when Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened to rave reviews. It was “a success when I had given up thought of anything but failure,” he told director Elia Kazan.

Playwright Williams was an egomaniac. He painted a self-portrait of himself and bragged to friends that it was “very flattering.”

He earned a lot of money in his career, but had so little in his early years that a landlady once stole his typewriter as payment for his bills (it is in the exhibit).

He cherished unusual things. Some people collect stamps and some baseball cards, but Williams maintained a large collection of hotel room keys. He was overly sensitive. As an example, he fired his agent of 32 years, Audrey Wood, in 1971 because of a supposed slight on her part during a play run in Chicago.

Williams did not write all of his plays as brand-new originals, but took older one act pays and combined them with new, written notes to make a whole two-hour play. He sometimes took old plays that did not work that well and, years later, re-invented them with slightly new plots or added characters.

He recognized talent right away. In the 1940s, he met actor Marlon Brando, then 23, for the first time. Brando had hitch hiked all the way to Provincetown, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to audition for A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams and his friends were thunderstruck by his talents. The playwright said that he had never seen “such raw talent in an individual.” Gore Vidal wrote of Brando’s performance in the play that “when Marlon Brando appears on stage in a torn, sweaty t-shirt there was an earthquake.”) The Brando story is an example of the dozens of marvelous and different aspects of Williams’ life that visitors can gain from a trip to the museum.

The exhibit is enthralling, but I have two complaints. First, there are no extensive videos of Williams himself and there are no videos from his plays or films. Play clips are hard to obtain, but the museum should have been able to get some clips from his films and string them together in a video of some kind. While many people have seen his plays, tens of millions have seen the movies based on them and a more extensive movie look would have helped. Second, the exhibit needs bigness. They might have added more and larger color play posters or a bigger collection of movie posters.

Tied to the exhibit are a series of movies and lectures connected to Williams. On February 23, the museum’s associate curator, Carolyn Vega, will deliver a lecture on Williams, “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing.” On April 11, Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith will discuss the letters between Williams and magazine editor James Laughlin, a longtime friend. On February 28 and March 7, writer Annette Saddick will lead a group in readings from The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The Williams films to be screened are: The Rose Tattoo, April 20, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 4. The film series kicked off with a showing of A Streetcar Named Desire on Feb. 2.

This is a delightful exhibit about a unique writer with whom the whole world fell in love.

The Morgan Library is at 225 Madison Avenue at E. 36th Street, in Manhattan (212-685-0008). The exhibit runs through May 13.


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