The way I most often describe Tennessee Williams’ memoirs to people is in emphasising the feeling that Williams just sat down one hot afternoon and decided to write. The Memoirs were first published in 1975 and it would be easy to cast them as an artefact of history, were it not for the scything vitality of Williams’s prose. The structure is loosely chronological, but meanders improvisationally throughout. Williams consistently interrupts stories which might be set in the 1950s or 60s, to talk about what he got up to the evening before this day’s writing. For the work of an artist, it feels wholly artless – as if Williams planned nothing about it, and wrote what happened to come to mind. I suspect the longer chapters are the result of Williams having a good month, rather than depicting any especially dense period of his life.
For all his rambling, Tennessee Williams writes with a luxurious power about him; he has the air of a person of interest who knows very well that you will listen to everything he has to say. Part of that power comes from the gaps of time these memoirs span. Williams was born in 1911 and published this autobiography in 1975. Between 1911, 1975, and the present, Williams’ life is read across a space of change. As Williams reads his own younger self, so we read him at 60, whilst reading back into the past ourselves. ‘Somehow I cannot adhere as I should to chronology,’ Williams says, and time itself is troubled by his achronic writing, and our reading.
Another observation I make of Memoirs is my difficulty in being able to tell if Williams’ language feels affected and camp to me because he is American, born in the 1910s, writing in the 1970s, or because it is deliberate. Williams knows very well the use of contrivance; he asks the reader, ‘Shall I attempt to entertain you, now, with my theatre or my life, assuming there is much difference between them?’ at a point where they are already over two-thirds of the way through the book. Remember, Williams seems to say, I am telling you stories – it is to your discretion how much you wish to believe in their truth.
Considering truth, it is significant to note that during his lifetime, Tennessee Williams’ plays were censored and prohibited from performance in the UK for acknowledging homosexuality. Upon their publication, his romantically frank Memoirs were reviewed by The New York Times: “The love that previously dared not speak its name has now grown hoarse from screaming it.” Is it any wonder, with such reception waiting, that Williams chooses to exert his own truth on the world? For all the power Williams clearly embodies, there is a curious embarrassment which recurs in his telling. Williams comes across as nervous, even bashful, when writing about previous lovers and crushes.
Williams rarely addresses homophobia directly. I don’t blame him; the context of Queer history is too often one of beautiful heads banging against a concrete wall. But his testament, of growing up homosexual in the 1920s and 30s, and living into the 70s, is as good as a roar against his homophobic age. Williams details his affairs with other men intimately and romantically, a revolt against an abstract shame which Williams did his best to shake off in his lifetime, which we would do well to keep shaking off today.
History is no dead thing. For all its quaint age, Memoirs writhes in the present. John Waters (director of Pink Flamingoes and Hairspray) is summoned for the introduction and to beatify the work as a still-holy text, ‘like having a few stiff drinks with Tennessee on one of his good nights as he tells you juicy stories.’ As Williams’ myth has grown over time, so has the ability of any small word from him to land large on the ear. Though Williams’ life is often blessed, his biography is also cast in traumas and isolations; many of his relationships are tumultuous and difficult – and Williams does not avoid portraying himself as erratic and drug-dependent. ‘Please remember at this point that I am quite capable of being unfair,’ we are reminded.
In the final pages, Williams tears open some of the deeper, fresher miseries to him at the time of writing. In 1969, Williams was committed, for ‘mild disturbance’, first in the Queen’s Division, then in the ‘violent ward’ of Friggins Division of Barnacle Hospital. He writes about this period in significant detail and the experience is clearly one of great trauma. It seems as though he is anticipating the end from here onwards; the remaining recollections are soft, brief and dreamy, and converge on the subject of his sister, herself living in care after undergoing a lobotomy in 1943. Tennessee Williams, as a man who managed some surviving in his time, ends his telling in regretting little about his own life, save his sister’s treatment. His final words are, of her, ‘After all, high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.’
Tennessee Williams finally , which speaks to me of a knowledge that trauma sticks, but when lived through reminds us of the dignity we have kept. We have a choice when we read anyone. Do we change our minds, or galvanise our existing opinion? Williams, I feel, would rather we thought him a foolish, if gifted, old man. Perhaps I agree, though our estimates of those gifts might differ.
James Varney is a writer and theatre maker based in Manchester. He has had work presented at Derby Theatre, the Royal Exchange Theatre, and Camden People’s Theatre. He tweets @mrjvarney and maintains a blog of cultural criticism at www.jamesvarney.uk