Tennessee Williams: Mutilations
By, Tony Narducci
For Tennessee Williams (TW), success was his calling card, that is until his welcome wore off in the mid-sixties after Frank died. His later work is, in general, somewhat abstract and difficult to comprehend for some people. This is partly the reason audience interest and critic reviews were disappointing by then. Those works that dealt openly with homosexuality were rewritten to meet standards of the day. “They destroyed my poetry,” he would say. Sensors were the hardest pill to swallow. He would be told he’d have to entirely re-write some characters and themes in order to see the play performed on stage. TW referred to their required edits as “mutilations” of his poetry. The mutilations made him feel isolated from the world.
He never liked to talk about his work; his later plays are seldom performed. I have read and seen some of that later work, and it’s good. It wouldn’t be as controversial if performed today. I recently saw a production of The Mutilated (an ironic title). The language was exquisite, like fine lace. It intricately weaves two characters into one entity of women living alone after their prime. It was compelling and filled with TW’s poetry.
TW was massively depressed by the late 60’s and probably had been since Frank died in 1963. With no psychotropic drugs available, he had to rely on sedatives and alcohol to calm his anxiety. As his body became resistant to the drugs he would drink more white wine until he would become a somnambulist walking through life only half alive.
Often he’d burst into tears for no apparent reason, but might add a comment, “it’s all my mother’s fault.” At times I was embarrassed for him, and at times I would want to comfort him, like a mother would a child—but like a child, he would manipulate to get what he wanted. He once told me he had a slight stroke, something Violet Venable would say to cover up the truth, just before we were to leave for Italy. Another time he insisted we leave a party thrown in his honor shortly after we arrived, but for no apparent reason. He would ask to change seats with me if there were an attractive man he could sit next to. Always unpredictable, but always intriguing.
TW was xenophobic. People frightened him and he didn’t trust them. He often thought there were conspiracies surrounding him, and he’d be afraid to go out in fear of being kidnapped or killed. His genius didn’t insulate him from the onslaught of a cruel world. After his mother, he hated critics most. He felt they fed off him and when finished tossed away the carcass.
Suddenly Last Summer deals with this theme head on. Sebastian gets eaten alive by a tribe of predatory children he had “played with.” Everyone wants a piece of Shannon, the defrocked minister in Night of the Iguana. He’s consumed by society. Predatory creatures devour both Sebastian and Shannon. TW was also paranoid of death.
In Night of the Iguana, Grandpa has spent the last year of his life writing his last poem before he dies. The last stanza of his poem:
Oh courage could you not as well
Find a second place to dwell,
Not only in the golden tree,
But in the frightened heart of me.
I took the last line of the poem for the title of my book, In The Frightened Heart of Me: Tennessee Williams’s Last Year. TW was a paradox, able to dissect human nature with the precision of a surgeon to understand how it works and, at the same time, be vulnerable to its vicissitudes. Loveless, frightened by a devouring world and alone, he still forged on, writing every day.
I met TW in a bar. He was intoxicated, but drank more; he was in despair, but had a smiling face; jealous and easily angered, but also kind and generous. He was 71, I was 33. He wanted me to love him; I wanted to know him. He was paranoid, afraid of dying alone, unloved. He argued with Eugene O’Neil in his sleep over who was the greater playwright, and I believe he was in love with me, at least he wrote those words to me, but he never said them. I had great admiration for him, but I wasn’t in love with him.
Tragically, his greatest fear came true . . . he died alone and with no loved one beside him.
The hardest thing for me was my angst over not being able to give him what he wanted and needed – to love and be loved in return. It should have come easily for him to have that which he most desired, after all, he was Tennessee Williams, the poet who interpreted all the ways love could be expressed. He told me Frank never said the words; “I love you” to him, but perhaps he never said them to Frank either. In the end, I was like the others whom he wanted to love him; however, he never heard those words from me as well. Sometimes great genius brings great tragedy.