The first major production of a Tennessee Williams play, Battle of Angels (1940), was a complete failure and scandal. The play was poorly received; one critic compared watching the play to being “dunked in mire.” Boston City Council members called for the play to be censored, and it ran for less than two weeks there. As Williams biographer Robert Bray wrote, “the haphazard decision to move the opening from New Haven to Boston in December of 1940 left Williams faced with a priggish audience unprepared to entertain his juxtaposition of sexual and religious themes.”
At the production’s end, Williams left Boston with the intention of finding a quiet place to recuperate. In a letter to his friend, Joe Hazan, Williams writes that he is sickened by the failure of his play, laments that the audience could not recognize the “poetic tragedy” of his work, and calls the critics who reviewed the production second-string “prissy old maids.”
After its failed Boston debut, Williams continuously revised and rewrote Battle of Angels with the hope that the play would be reproduced. He confesses in an “Imaginary Interview” with himself, “there was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart, that never let go, and I kept re-writing the play, I guess I must have re-written it once every two or three years since 1940.” The play embodied a theme central to his writing—“a prayer for the Wild at Heart Kept in Cages.” The play eventually reemerged some 16 years later, transfigured as Orpheus Descending (1957).
In Williams’s tongue and cheek “Imaginary Interview” Williams, the interviewer, struggles to get a straight answer from Williams, the playwright, about the theme of Battle of Angles:
I still wish you would tel [sic] what it’s a prayer for, this play.”
Williams, playwright, finally answers Williams, interviewer, that the prayer is for “More tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”
Williams was the “primitive poet” of Battle; his prayer for the “Wild at Heart” was one against censorship and for artistic appreciation. He asserted that his work dealt with the “wild at heart kept in cages:” those who struggled against conventions, relationships, expectations, or prejudices that at the very least tamed them and at the worst crushed them beyond recognition.
In 1938, Tennessee Williams entered Candles to the Sun in a competition sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in New York City. Williams wrote Candles to the Sun, a play about striking coal miners and the powerlessness of the individual against the collective consciousness, at a time when his sister Rose’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. His work was singled out as having a “pronounced” individual style but was not selected for an award.
Williams was keen to present himself to the Guild as more poverty-stricken than he was. Worried that the Guild would investigate his family’s finances if they knew his real address, Williams asked his grandfather to mail the application letter from Memphis rather than St. Louis. The letter can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31 at the Ransom Center.
Williams’s relationship with his maternal grandparents, Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin and Rosina Otte Dakin, in many ways proved more stable and supportive than his relationship with his own parents. During the first years of his life, while his father traveled for business, Williams lived at his grandparents’ home in Mississippi. As a result of his father’s absence, his grandfather came to play the role of surrogate father, one that he would never really give up. Even after the family moved to St. Louis, Williams remained close to his grandparents, writing to and visiting them frequently. He grew to resent St. Louis and wished he could spend all his time in his grandparents’ happier home in Mississippi.
In 1940 the Guild awarded him $1,000, which allowed him to return to New York and attend a playwriting seminar taught by the renowned professor and critic John Gassner (1903–1967), whose archive is also at the Ransom Center.
In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibitionBecoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.
How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?
Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read AStreetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.
Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.
I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.
What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?
I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do TheGlass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.
In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.
What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?
I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.
How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?
Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.
I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.
As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.
I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.
Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?
I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.
Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.
You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?
I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.
One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.
Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.
John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”
Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.
I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.
What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?
I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.
I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which AStreetcarNamed Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.
Most people know Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as the least disguised and most deeply autobiographical of Williams’s plays, the positive reception of which elevated him to immediate celebrity. He was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his previous play Battle of Angels. Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”
Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater. Theater audiences of the 1940s, fed on a steady diet of “realism and prosaic dialogue,” eagerly embraced Williams’s presentation of a “plastic theatre” that employed multi-media elements suggesting an allusion of reality. Combined with Williams’s poetic prose, it offered up a novel voice that continues to transport audiences into a private world of the human condition.
After his disastrous experience with the 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams traveled around the country in near penury for two years before signing a promising but briefly held contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. As Williams recalled: “From a $17.00 a week job as a movie usher I was suddenly shipped off to Hollywood where MGM paid me $250.00 a week. I saved enough money out of my six months there to keep me while I wrote The Glass Menagerie.”
Just prior to his arrival on the West Coast, his sister Rose was lobotomized. His anxiety and guilt over her fate may have impelled him to concentrate on completing The Glass Menagerie over other plays he was working on at the time.
On an early draft of The Glass Menagerie, then titled by a hesitant Williams, due to the negative reception of Battle of Angels, as The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play, are various doodles of flowers and faces. The central point of the title page is a poem of Williams’s:
“A witch and her daughter
received a caller
A gentleman caller was he!
He sprinkled the daughter
with holy water
and dandled the witch on his knee!”
Williams was perhaps daydreaming about the uncertainty of this “play in ruins.” In a letter to the Texas-born director and producer, Margo Jones, Williams, still gun shy from his traumatic experience with Battle of Angels, writes about Eddie Dowling’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie. Williams says he will keep his distance during rehearsals so “they won’t plague me so much about little changes that occur to them. . . You know how frightened I am of everybody! Especially people in the theatre.”
As we all know, the final product of The Glass Menagerie blasted Williams into stardom. He would later write masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Lyle Leverich writes in Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995) that “for the first thirty years of [Williams’s] life, he was living The Glass Menagerie, and it was from that traumatic experience that his masterpiece—this ‘little play,’ as Williams disdainfully called it—evolved.”
The 1950 screen version of The Glass Menagerie has been judged the “first and worst” adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Williams himself abhorred it as “the most awful travesty… horribly mangled,” lacking any vestige of the poetic techniques of the play. Although Williams helped to adapt the script, he was particularly upset by its characterization of Tom as a ridiculous philosophizer.
Williams’s copy of the screenplay includes his own note: “A horrible thing! Certified as such by Tennessee Williams.” The film’s manufactured happy ending is reinforced in the flyer for a promotional contest in which “Girls! Girls! Girls!” are invited to send in a letter describing how “I Married My First Gentleman Caller” with the chance to win a second honeymoon at the Sheraton Hotel (breakfast in bed Sunday morning!) and a 1951 Wilcox-Gay Portable 3-Speed phonograph recorder and 3-speed record player.
In a 1950 letter to Jack Warner after seeing the film, Williams outlines his major grievances with the adaptation, centered around his own understanding of Menagerie as a play full of dignity and poetry. Williams calls the inclusion of a flashback scene in which a young Amanda receives numerous gentleman callers and marriage proposals, “a bit of an MGM musical suddenly thrown into the middle of the picture.” He also takes issue with the script changes to Tom’s “drunk scenes,” which are treated in a comic manner that does “untold damage to the dignity of the picture as a whole.”
Williams’s greatest complaint, however, is that the producers have cut lines from Tom’s farewell to his sister Laura, allegedly in response to worries that the lines imply an incestuous relationship between the two. The outraged Williams writes: “I cannot understand acquiescence to this sort of foul-minded and utterly stupid tyranny, especially in the case of a film as totally clean and pure, as remarkably devoid of anything sexual or even sensual, as the ‘Menagerie,’ both as a play and a picture. The charge is insulting to me, to my family, and an effrontery to the entire motion-picture industry!”
The disastrous film adaption of The Glass Menagerie clashes with the play’s positive reception. The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago for its pre-Broadway run on December 26, 1944. Claudia Cassidy’s positive review in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, dated January 7, 1945, is widely credited with helping make The Glass Menagerie a box-office success in Chicago and ensuring its transfer to Broadway. The least disguised and most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’s plays, The Glass Menagerie elevated Williams to immediate celebrity where he was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his first play, Battle of Angels (1940). Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”
Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater.
Williams was not new to frustrating Hollywood experiences. While visiting Frieda Lawrence, the widow of the British novelist D. H. Lawrence, in Taos, New Mexico, a year before the great success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes to his agent, Audrey Wood, on a post card embossed with the image of an ear-clipped burro, “Picture = me after several adventures with cinema and stage!”
The marketing poster and burro postcard can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at the age of 79, has connections to the Ransom Center holdings, ranging from the Mel Gussow collection to the Ernest Lehman collection.
The former New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, who died in 2005, wrote Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary. His obituary, with updated contributions from other reporters, was posthumously published today in the New York Times.
The Lehman collection, consisting of more than 2500 items, spans the forty year career of the screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, journalist, motion picture producer and director. Included in the collection are scripts, correspondence, photographs and other material from the production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Lehman wrote the screen adaption and produced. The 1966 release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Elizabeth Taylor her second Academy Award for her performance as a bitter faculty wife, Martha.
As a part of the Ransom Center’s Tennessee Williams Film Series, the Ransom Center will show Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie “the Cat” on Thursday, June 23 at 7 p.m. Included in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams is an unidentified magazine clipping titled, Liz Plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Though Taylor did not fit Williams’s own idea of Maggie the Cat, Taylor is praised in the article for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”
Among the material in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, is a picture of Tennessee Williams holding a photograph of Elia Kazan. Kazan was an American film and theater director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of the influential Actors Studio. In his theatrical career, Kazan became one of the most visible members of the New York elite, directing highly acclaimed plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder, among others. As a film director, he won two Academy Awards for best director and elicited award-winning performances from such actors as Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, and James Dean.
Kazan is infamous for the testimony he gave to the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. In his testimony he identified colleagues from the theater and film industries as members of the Communist party and was ostracized by many in the theater community as a result. Tennessee Williams continued to work closely with Kazan throughout the 1950s in spite of the controversy.
In response to the Cold War and HUAC hearings, Williams was alternately enervated and energized. In a letter to his mother, Williams writes in reference to Baby Doll, “Kazan and Audrey [Wood] continually pressing me, like a pair of Furies, to get a movie script done. I did it. Then Kazan gets exposed as an ex-Commie and the whole thing is put off. Now he seems to have cleared himself—with everybody except the American Legion—and they now want to go ahead with the picture. . . All quite boring and fatiguing.”
As collaborators, Tennessee Williams and Kazan had a complex working relationship. Williams sent early drafts of his plays to Kazan who would suggest adding or deleting scenes, emphasizing thematic elements, or changing aspects of characterization to improve the dramatic impact of the story. Throughout the rehearsal process Williams often changed or added dialogue as the play evolved under their shared creative vision. Kazan’s influence is most clearly seen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1956), during which he and Williams had clashed repeatedly over the story’s structure; Kazan demanded the re-write in which Big Daddy serves as the catalyst for what seems like a reconciliation between Maggie and Brick. Although Williams wrote every word in the published scripts, the plays on which he worked with Kazan were clearly a collaborative effort.
In an exchange of letters between Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams about the script for Baby Doll, the strain between Williams and Kazan is clearly visible. In Kazan’s undated letter, he suggests a new “early O’Neill” ending in which Silva Vacarro and Archie Lee bond when Vacarro saves Archie Lee’s life by sucking the poison out of a snake bite, to which Williams blisteringly balks, “I . . . suspect you are disappointed with what I have done so far and are telling me to start over from scratch. This I can’t do.”
When Kazan suggests Williams portray Baby Doll as an ultimately fulfilled woman, Williams counters, “Baby Doll is as deep as cat’s pee. Fulfillment means only one thing, self-knowledge, integration, and how could this comically witless creature, as I’ve created her, achieve such a thing?”
After its release in 1956, Baby Doll met with heated controversy. Although the Motion Picture Authority of America and the New York State Board of censors had approved the film, Cardinal Francis Spellman, speaking for the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, attacked it as “evil in concept,” charging that it would exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who would see it. Catholics were expected to boycott the film “under pain of sin.” Spellman’s condemnation of the film also hinted that it was unpatriotic, drawing on the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s to call the film one of the “dangers which confront us at home.” Though Williams and Kazan frequently butted heads during their collaborations, when faced with this controversy, both attempted to defend the film as “the personal story of four small pitiable people.”
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
Becoming Tennessee Williams can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours to 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.
“Wild at Heart,” the opening party for the spring exhibitions, is just one of the many exciting events that the Ransom Center has planned for members. View full calendar featuring a curator tour, mixology class, Magnum Photos presentation, and more. We invite you to join, upgrade, or renew today to experience all that the Ransom Center has to offer. Below, view the new membership video, featuring members speaking about what they enjoy most about their involvement with the Harry Ransom Center.