Tag archive for Tennessee Williams

Understanding Tennessee: how he projected his “wound”

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Greg Barrios (who has written two plays about Tennessee Williams and Williams' two great loves, Frank Merlo and Pancho Rodriguez) interviews John Lahr, who just published last year an award-winning biography of Tennessee Williams called Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

It's absolutely fascinating, "literary detection" as The Guardian says. What I like about it is that without condemnation it unearths the psychological mechanism by which Williams created his characters out of himself and projected on to others (his characters). It's not exactly pretty, but it's powerful. Lahr admires Williams' work passionately, but can dissect his method dispassionately.

What [Williams] was, as he said, was a hysteric. And performance is part of what a hysteric does. They perform their wound and project it onto other people. And there is that brilliant line in Sweet Bird of Youth where the Princess says, “I have this thing like a sculpture almost heroic that I can unveil.” And that’s it. That is what the negotiation is, both as an artist and as an ordinary citizen if you’re a hysteric. You are projecting your inner life into others and watching and enjoying their response, and controlling their response with your act. So the performative thing was always a part of Williams’s life.

Remember that essay he wrote about the sidewalk histrionics of a little girl? Dressing up, saying, “look at me, look at me.” I think he calls it “Sidewalk Theatrics” [actually, “Person-to-Person”]. It’s in his collected essays. And that in a cartoonish way is what a performer does. He is drawing attention to himself. He has a need for that attention. That’s part of the DNA of an entertainer.

Speaking of wounds, here's a pic of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, a character based on Pancho Rodriguez, a wounded man in his own right. Would love to see those Barrios' plays —


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How to make classic movies not sexist: McSweeney’s

This was one of the top ten columns on McSweeney's often hilarious Internet Tendencies site in 2014.

Classic Movies changed to not be sexist

My faves:

Gone With The Wind

Rhett kisses and grabs at Scarlett against her will. Scarlett informs Rhett that though they are married, she still has autonomy over her body and has the right to refuse sex. The pair ascend the staircase in thoughtful conversation, and Rhett wakes up the next morning glowing with newfound feminist awareness.


A Streetcar Named Desire

Stanley has spent the film waging psychological warfare against Blanche, who has called him a brute and an animal. In the film’s climax, he tells her how insulted and objectified he has felt and firmly asks her to leave his house.

As the comedians often say — it's funny because it's true! How could classic movies deal with romance if we didn't see men who violently kiss women, and women who respond? Hard to imagine, isn't it? 

Speaking of…earlier this year, the New York Review of Books published a mediation on The Outsider Art of Tennessee Williams that included a darling picture of him and Marlon Brando: It's too good to forget.


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2014 Poem of the Year: “A Moment in a Room”

Of course yours truly "achange" has not read a thousandth of the poems published this year, and this poem I submit below as poem of the year doesn't even come from 2014.

But it's great, it's by Tennessee Williams, and it's never been published before, I don't believe. It comes from a magisterial biography of this great writer with an absurdly dramatic life. (The book's by the great critic John Lahr and it's called Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrammage of the Flesh.) 

Most important, the poem's a beaut, about the love of Williams' life, Frank Merlo. From l952:

A Moment in a Room

Coarse fabrics are the ones
for common wear,
the tender ones are those
we fold away.

And so I watch you quietly
comb your hair.
Intimate the silence,
dim and warm.

I could but do not break
a thing so still,
in which almost a whisper
would be shrill…

For time's not cheated by
a moment's quiet,
the heart beats echo to
eternal riot…

But while it waits, I speak not
false to you,
something unspoken in 
this room is true,

And still it goes as though
it longed to stay,
this tender moment we
must fold away. 


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Nature in a can: Tenn Williams and Thom Pynchon

In Night of the Iguana, a play first performed in 1961, but evolved out of a short story over a period of about fifteen years, Tennessee Williams expressed anger at our species for ruining our planet.  

In the movie of 1962, starring Richard Burton as a disgraced priest, his character, at the end of his rope, spits out his frustration at "Man's Inhumanity to God."

The pain that we caused Him. We poisoned his atmosphere, slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We've even taken His noblest creation, man himself, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, not God's. Packed, stacked, and canned.

Fascinating that Williams chose that metaphor to describe our destructive actions. Occurs that this is one industrial practice that has become a word in our language. "Canned" refers not just to fish, but to music, too, and thought — the fact has become a verb. Become a past tense. 

Thought of this when just yesterday I came across a passage in Thomas Pynchon's pretty hilarious recent novel, Inherent Vice, on pretty much the same theme, in a completely different style:

Let me set it up. Our anti-hero is a mediocre long-haired private eye named Doc living in Southern California in the l970's. He isn't afraid and might have Sam Spade potential if he would just stop smoking so much weed. He like Spade of course is after a complicated woman who might have a thing for him but is trouble. But she's hard to find, and meanwhile he's hanging out with an attorney friend who happens to like a particular soap opera. An ad for a brand of canned tuna comes on the televison. Our anti-hero's buddy, Sauncho, who's a little obessive but not stupid, kind of flips out. Doc happens to be in the bathroom pissing. He hears Sauncho screaming and comes out. 

"Everything cool?" [Doc says]

"Ahh…" [Sauncho] collapses on the couch. "Charlie the fucking Tuna, man." 


"It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he's got good tase, except he's also dyslexic so he gets "good taste" mixed up with "taste good," but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumper capitalism, they won't be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it…"

"Saunch, wow, that's…"

"It's been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea, but no Tuna of the Farm?" 

Might help to see the character from the commercial:


Pynchon's novel, by far his funniest in my experience of his work, will be on a few movie screens this year, in a film directed by P.T. Anderson, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, who might deliver the rant above. Could be fun. 

Inherent-Vice-Del Toro

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Why gay men like Marilyn Monroe: Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan, the writer, has a lot of nerve, and the arrogance can grate on a reader. (And maybe grated on her editors at The New Yorker too, which might explain why she's not there anymore.) A writer who reviewed her most recent book went on air with her and Tom Ashbrook a year ago and wrote eloquently in Salon about "creepy condescension" of Flanagan, not to mention her "Michele Bachmann-esque disregard for the facts." 

Yet and still, Flanagan can hit a nerve. Be curious to hear what others think of this recent idea of hers, in a review of a couple of recent biographies in the Atlantic, that the legend of Marilyn Monroe was more or less the product of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's 70's classic pop song Candle in the Wind. (Which is when Monroe became a star for my generation, really, before the over-the-top Norman Mailer hagiography, the picture books, the unpublished nudes, etc.)

To wit: 

The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers
of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching
ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured
woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the
often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a
coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of
Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody
else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements
goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone
who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s
the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a
dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth
of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Swept away by this idea, I start to imagine (if Monroe had not died young) a somewhat older and harder-working actress taking the stage in "A Streetcar named Desire," bringing her beauty and her suffering to the role of Blanche DuBois. An appealing thought, no? And allegedly Williams himself saw her in the role of Baby Doll, so not completely crazy. But Tennessee set me right, in a harsh appraisal:

wanted to love Marilyn: I fall for myths, too. She was fragile and she
was beautiful and she was silly. She was the lost kitten in the rain, or
the kittens who were born on Carson McCullers' bed in Nantucket–you
wonder who will take care of them, because you know that you cannot, and
you cry like the child you were who saw the dog run over and the town
move on, uncaring and serious about getting their needs attended.

was also annoying and cloying and demanding. She knew her power and she
abused it, but in the demonstration of it she degraded herself and she
knew this, so the spiral of destruction deepened and intensified. Do not
think for a moment that I do not see this in my own behavior and that
of others: I am only offering a sobering lesson.
But maybe it's that "sobering" — like the harsh glare of a white spot light on a black stage — that gives Monroe her power. Without the suffering, what is the point of her beauty? Just another dumb blonde. 
Norma Jean in Griffith Park, before she became famous, from a Time collection.


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What Obama has in common w/JFK…and Kurt Cobain

In a recent interview with Franklin Foer of The New Republic, Barack Obama said he liked to shoot:

FF: Have you ever fired a gun? 

BO: Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.

FF: The whole family?

BO: Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there.

In this Obama is much like past presidents, including John F. Kennedy Jr., who in this picture, taken at Camp David before his inauguration, went skeet shooting with Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. JFK, Gore Vidal, and Tenn Williams

Or, in the words of Kurt CobainLoad up on guns and bring your friends

[pic via BeschlossDC

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Marlon Brando ambles insolently onstage: Paglia

Camille Paglia describes a familiar scene, and makes it new:

Marlon Brando, carrying a “red-stained package” from the butcher and
sporting blue-denim work clothes as the lordly, proletarian Stanley
Kowalski, ambles insolently onstage at the opening of Tennessee
Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “Bellowing” for his adoring
yet tart-tongued wife, Stanley is the strutting male animal in his
sexual prime. The setting is a seedy tenement in the multiracial French
Quarter of New Orleans, whose picturesque verandas open to the humid
air. Street sounds and sultry, insinuating jazz riffs float in and out. 



The exotic location, boisterous energy, and eruptions of violence in A Streetcar Named Desire were a startling contrast to the tightly wound gentility of Williams’s prior hit play, The Glass Menagerie (1944), whose fractured family is cloistered in a stuffy St. Louis flat. Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals. At the end of its premiere, the audience sat numb and then went wild, applauding for thirty minutes.

From A New Literary History of America, ed. by Greil Marcus, among others.

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Tennessee Williams: I’m not a typical homosexual

(In case there was any doubt)…from an interview with Tennessee Williams:

Williams_tennessee-19660428008F.2_gif_300x420_q85"I'm not a typical homosexual. I can identify completely with Blanche — we are both hysterics — with Alma [Winehouse], and even with Stanley, though I did have trouble with some of the butch characters. If you understand schizophrenics, I'm not really a dual creature, but I can understand the tenderness of women and the lust and libido of the male, which are, unfortunately, too seldom combined in women." 

Playboy interview, 1973

[caricature from the late great David Levine]

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Disaster lurks behind every moment: Suddenly Last Summer

Nate Sinnott, who comes from the world of stage production, and has not directed before at this level, wrote his master's thesis on Suddenly Last Summer. Currently he has on a brilliant production of this play by Tennessee Williams at California Lutheran's Black Box Theater.

It’s shocking, symbolic — unlike most of Williams’ plays — and masterfully brought to life in Sinnott’s “experimental” staging. He points out that Williams wrote that the stage design “could be as unrealistic as a lyric ballet,” and chooses to put us inside the asylum with the cast. The grimy floor of black and white tiles angles down a muddy slope toward us. Broken pieces of asphalt lie about and it feels as if we’re inside a madness. Stark black and white images of strange natural phenomena on high screens add to the ominous mood. Behind the bars around the back of the stage, a phalanx of attendants dressed all in white stares coldly at Violet and Catherine as they battle desperately with their words. Disaster lurks behind every moment.


My full review here


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Now with the forecast tonight, our new weatherman — Tennessee Williams!

True story: In an attempt to stir up interest in Small Craft Warnings, one of his best late plays, in the l970's Tennessee Williams not only resorted to playing a character on stage, but made appearances around the New York, to attract attention and spread the word. 

This didn't always go well. 

[From Dotson Rader's deeply loving Tennessee: Cry of the Heart]:

[Williams] had taken the role of Doc in Small Craft Warnings. He had taken on the part because the box office had slumped and he thought people who wouldn’t come to see the play would come to see him. He was right. It was also during the run of Small Craft Warnings that he did a stint as a local television weatherman as a way to drum up publicity for the play. It was one of the most humiliating of his public appearances. On the news he was introduced as the station’s new weatherman. He stood, looking furious, beside a weather chart with its temperatures, storm fronts, and the rest. Holding a long pointed in his hand, he proceeded to read the weather forecast. However, he couldn’t see the cue cards, was blinded by the studio lights, and so spent a minute or two trying to fake the weather report, banging the pointer at the chart in a futile attempt to demonstrate professional authority. Finally, he said to hell with this, and declared that he was an artist and not a performing seal! He then tried to walk off the set with as much dignity as possible only to get his feet tanglied in the floor cables and nearly topple on his face, his humiliation bring peals of laughter from the television anchor people and crew.


It was not a happy time for him. 

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