New Again: Tennessee Williams

Published June 4, 2014

This fall, from September 25 to 29, the ninth annual Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, entitled “Circle of Friends,” will explore themes of friendship and loss among lesser-known pieces in Williams’s catalogue, as well as works by some of his closest friends. The playwright’s hallmark searing social criticism stunned and delighted audiences across the East Coast throughout the ’50s and ’60s. A critical and popular darling, he—like his characters—battled internal darkness and struggled with addiction, all while earning two Pulitzer prizes and producing work that spawned a multitude of film adaptations with varying success. Just over 40 years ago, Williams spoke with Interview’s John Calendo about the 1950 version of The Glass Menagerie, spurning its artificial happy ending and calling out Elia Kazan for poor direction. The film was later remade with Paul Newman, and perhaps even worse received than its predecessor. The play continues to be produced even today. Earlier this year, Zachary Quinto starred as Tom Wingfield in a Broadway staging that earned seven Tony nominations.

In this 1973 interview, Williams candidly discusses his relationships with the film and theater community, and how his work will be perceived in “2000-and-something”—an interview that is complete with a frankness that could be rivaled only by his friend and fellow playwright Gore Vidal. —Katherine Cusumano

Tennessee Talks to John Calendo By John Calendo

JOHN CALENDO: You once said, “The power of a writer is closely related to his sexuality.” Will you elaborate?

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: I do believe sexual energy often goes into creative energy. Creative energy is not lost as rapidly as sexual energy. A man doesn’t often want to fuck more than twice a week or three times, but he continues to write every day. Usually a creative person is a highly sexed person. Too much sexual activity, though, can … Well, if you go to bed too often … A certain lassitude sets in!

CALENDO: Would you want to film Out Cry, the play you’re breaking in here in New Haven?

WILLIAMS: Oh yes, why not? I think Peter Glenville would film it if someone would back it. I don’t see a film sale for this play, but there might be. As a play I think Out Cry will work in New York. I think we’ll have it rough in Philadelphia, maybe even worse in New Haven. But I think when we get to Washington then it will hit a more sophisticated theater-wise audience, and in New York, of course, that’s where it will really find an audience … If it ever finds one. Critics, I don’t know. Gore Vidal said to me, “You’ll never get a good critical reception in America.” I said, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Because of your terrible personal publicity.” I said, “It’s no worse than yours!” [laughs]

CALENDO: It’s only recently that I’m beginning to understand that. I never knew that personal publicity could stop anyone who had reached such a peak…

WILLIAMS: Oh, I haven’t reached any peak. I hit the bottom in the ’60s. When a certain actress undertook the leading role in a recent play of mine, she referred to me as “that old derelict.” [laughs] Not to my face, but behind my back.

CALENDO: Well, she’ll disappear, but your plays will go on.

WILLIAMS: Oh, I hope she won’t disappear. I like the poor woman. She’s an Irish woman and has that kind of a tongue.

CALENDO: Yeah, but where is she going to be in 100 years!

WILLIAMS: Where am I going to be in 100 years!

CALENDO: Your plays will still be performed…

WILLIAMS: Maybe. Maybe there’ll be no place to perform them. I wrote a very funny piece in The New York Times. It was supposed to be written in the 2000-and-something. And Neil Simon was the playwright people remembered. The article was called “Who is Neil Simon?” They argued, like they do about Shakespeare, that no such character existed … That his plays were written by obscure, hardly noticed or remembered playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams! That could very well happen.

CALENDO: Well, history does play funny tricks, it’s true. But in the same way, history might consider your ’60s plays to be your major masterpieces.

WILLIAMS: My ’60s plays were as good as most of the other plays I’ve written … except I wasn’t in a condition to refine them, to help in the rehearsal, or do anything. I was hardly conscious of what was going on except during the hours of the day when I was actually writing … and that was with the aid of speed.

CALENDO: Did the speed take away from your discrimination?

WILLIAMS: No.

CALENDO: It didn’t make you over-evaluate…

WILLIAMS: In the first writing, yes. But then you go over and over and over and read it when you’re not under anything. I did some of my best work in the ’60s, baby.

CALENDO: You said recently that Out Cry would be your last major work. What do you mean by that?

WILLIAMS: What I meant by that is that I’m tired and it’s taking an increasing amount out of me, more than I have to give physically. And that’s why I want to move to Sicily and buy that little farm and raise a flock of goats and geese. I find it peaceful … and it would be a nice way to end life.

CALENDO: But you’re not going to stop writing!

WILLIAMS: Oh, no.

CALENDO: Oh, so then you’ll just write minor works!

WILLIAMS: [laughs] Minor works, yes. I may be writing minor works already. There’s nothing wrong with minor works.

CALENDO: Of course not. What’s the difference!

WILLIAMS: For a creative person there’s just as much pleasure in writing an eight-line poem as there is in writing a blockbuster play … of the old ’50s type.

CALENDO: I don’t think a poem is a minor form. I don’t think there are minor forms, only minor efforts.

WILLIAMS: I don’t imagine Neil Simon is a very happy man. He’s still in that awful period of competing with himself … thinking everything he writes has to be as good if not better than what he’s written before. That doesn’t make for human happiness. It’s a false world, a world of false values that I was in myself for a while. Something like Camino Real was put down in its initial exposure to the critics. Then, I thought it was the end of the world. I couldn’t face people publicly. I went into this dreadful depression. The depression didn’t hit until long after that. I continued to fight it off until the death of someone very close to me. Then the depression lasted through the ’60s. But I judge several pieces of work in the ’60s will be taken as seriously as anything of mine is taken. Kingdom of Earth is as good as a lot of my hits.

CALENDO: Why do you think your ’60s plays weren’t received well?

WILLIAMS: Because people saw me in public in this stupefied condition. And all those rumors about my being an addict. I became an image of decadence. People began openly declaring me a homosexual. You know, that sort of shit … none of which is relevant to a writer. It’s to a writer’s advantage to contain within himself elements of each sex, or any sex. It’s to his advantage because it makes him able to write from the female point of view as well as the male. In some cases, of course, you will find some homosexual writers who can only write from a f—–‘s point of view. But I don’t regard myself as a f—–! [laughs] Some people may. Also audiences wanted escapism. They don’t like too much protest or criticism of their way of life.

CALENDO: But wasn’t Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a criticism not only of a way of life, but of existence itself?

WILLIAMS: Oh, it was one of the most bitter social criticisms I’ve written.

CALENDO: Yet a great success.

WILLIAMS: Yet a great success. I think partly because the ending, which I was influenced to give it partly obscured the scathingness of the criticism.

CALENDO: I thought “Maggie the Cat” was wonderful. Her will to survive was so strong and…

WILLIAMS: I’ve always admired her. People don’t have to be all good to be admirable.

CALENDO: Since you feel Out Cry is your final major work did you play it as your last word to the theater, a summation?

WILLIAMS: Out Cry is a synthesis of the shattering disorientation that I experienced in the late ’60s.

CALENDO: Your nervous breakdown.

WILLIAMS: Yes… which culminated in my confinement for a period of only three months, thank God. I got out.

CALENDO: Did Out Cry reflect your recovery?

WILLIAMS: Out Cry has nothing to do with my recovery [laughs] … except for my ability to rewrite it.

CALENDO: The characters talk about their fear of being insane, and fear of being locked up. Are you claustrophobic?

WILLIAMS: Very. And that’s the problem with [he mentions a famous playwright of the ’50s whose name he will later request be deleted from the interview]. He commits himself to sanitariums, but he has this terrible claustrophobia. So he releases himself two days later so he can’t be treated properly for his addiction. I was put in by my mother and brother and I couldn’t get out. I told [this playwright’s] sister that if he’s on a direct suicide course, then you’ve got to put him in. Make sure he has no convulsions. Since he has claustrophobia, make sure he has a spacious room. But you have got to put him in! She said, “Well, I’ll phone you as soon as I do.” I haven’t heard from her. It’s been two weeks. That man will die! I would have died too … but at one point I decided I wanted to live and get out.

CALENDO: And yet, there is no hope in this play.

WILLIAMS: Oh yes, there is! There is the love of the two characters. If the love of one person for another is not hope, then there is no hope … My statement there is that they are together, trapped in the theater, and they will share the same fate at the same time. I think that’s an amelioration of the fate. But there is no happy death. Death is the eclipse of everything.

CALENDO: But the play ends on such a dark note … when they realize what they are. At one point the sister says, we’re just images within images within images…

WILLIAMS: “Glass reflecting glass reflecting glass reflecting glass.” Ad infinitum!

CALENDO: So there, don’t your characters come to the conclusion that they are hollow, just zeros?

WILLIAMS: No, they don’t feel they are zeros. They still have pride. This play requires a night’s reflection, don’t you think? And maybe even a second viewing. The second time you see something you get more nuances, you remember more key lines.

CALENDO: When Flaubert was asked who was Madame Bovary, he answered that it was himself. Do you fell that way toward any of your heroines?

WILLIAMS: I think I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created. Now some people are persistently claiming that Blanche DuBois is a transvestite! This is ridiculous. All psychiatry that’s worth a shit knows that we’re part male and part female … some of use are merely neuter, I presume. Blanche, you know, is certainly an aspect of my own personality. But if I wanted to write about a drag queen, god damn it, I would have written about a drag queen. This interpretation of Blanche is absurd. I’m not a drag queen. I’ve never put on drag in my life! Blanche is pure feminine just as this interior woman, this, what do you call it, Doppelgänger … the other self … There is within me, I seriously believe, a female Doppelgänger and that is why I create female characters. But that Doppelgänger, despite my physical appearance … the coarseness of it … I’m not macho like Norman Mailer, thank God … is soft and beautiful.

CALENDO: Jungian analysis, I believe, teaches that when a male writer puts a woman in his work as the central character, she’s a spiritualized conception of himself. All the best and all the worst qualities condensed.

WILLIAMS: I don’t euphemize the ladies. They’re often very obnoxious. Take old Flora Goforth, what a bitch!

CALENDO: Oh, well, I met her for the first time in the movie, so I think of her in terms of Liz Taylor. I like Liz. There’s something very sympathetic about her, even when she is bitchy.

WILLIAMS: Boom is a picture that will some day be recognized as an important film … despite Liz’s inability to act. She over-extended herself that time through Joe Losey’s direction. I like her very much, but she can’t act, poor doll. Facts are facts, Sylvia Miles is a great actress but Liz Taylor can’t act.

CALENDO: I’m sorry, but I must disagree. I like Liz on screen.

WILLIAMS: I’m not talking about “like”! I’m sure Richard Burton will admit that poor Liz can act within a certain limited range. Besides, she wasn’t old enough to play Goforth. She was far too sexy. This is a travesty about a late middle-aged coquette, and a dominatrix at that.

CALENDO: But, certainly, Liz in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is perfection.

WILLIAMS: Yes … that didn’t tax her limits … They sweetened that film up so it was hardly recognizable.

CALENDO: I know that they took out the direct references to homosexuality…

WILLIAMS: They sure as hell did! They took out everything that was direct, everything that was strong social criticism. I would have liked it to end the way it did originally … and not that hoked up ending they performed in the play.

CALENDO: You mean Kazan’s ending?

WILLIAMS: Mr. Kazan simply believed the girl could save the boy from his latent homosexuality … which she could not. And I made that clear, practically clear in the original ending. You know he consents to go to bed with her and when she gets into the bed, she says, “I do love you, Brick. And he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny … if that were true.” That’s the true ending. The change shocked me terribly.

CALENDO: You once said you felt very close to Alma from Summer and Smoke.

WILLIAMS: Yes. I was a terrible puritan like Miss Alma was and I remained a puritan until my late ’20s and then I came … OUT … with a bang. I was a virgin with either sex until the age of 26.

CALENDO: So Alma, when she loosens up at the end of the play, in a sense represents your own blossoming.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

CALENDO: How do you feel about Alexandra Del Lago from Sweet Bird of Youth?

WILLIAMS: Oh she was a thoroughly emancipated woman! I don’t think she had many inhibitions left. But she was tortured at heart so somewhere lurking in her must have been a puritan … a lacerated puritan.

CALENDO: Do you identify with her?

WILLIAMS: Oh yes … yes.

CALENDO: Your own disillusionment with Broadway and Hollywood?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I was projecting my difficulties with certain people I was living with.

CALENDO: But was Sweet Bird of Youth directed at the theater? Alexandra is a woman almost eaten up by Hollywood.

WILLIAMS: Oh yes, I felt I was already finished in the theater as she thought she was finished, that her comeback was a failure. Do you remember the play well?

CALENDO: It’s one of my favorites.

WILLIAMS: I thought Geraldine Page was so brilliant in that. And at the first reading of it, I had Paul Newman there and Geraldine Page and Madeline Sherwood, Rip Torn … and Pat Hingle. This great line-up of artists were there. After they read through the play I went into a hysteric’s condition. I said, “Stop, Stop! This production cannot continue! It’s overwritten!” And I fled to my apartment at East 56th Street and … it was several hours later that Kazan and his wife came to the door. They rapped a long while before I admitted them. And then they talked to me very quietly and soothingly. They were gentling me like a horse. Finally they convinced me we had to go on with it. And, as it turned out, it was a hit and it made a great movie.

CALENDO: Are there any movie stars, as opposed to stage actors, who project the qualities of the Tennessee Williams heroine?

WILLIAMS: Greta Garbo would have been ideal, but unfortunately she never played in anything of mine.

CALENDO: Do you see her as Blanche?

WILLIAMS: Oh she would have made a great Blanche.

CALENDO: Alma, perhaps more.

WILLIAMS: Oh yes, if only she didn’t have that accent. But her voice was so beautiful, it wouldn’t matter too much … nevertheless you can’t escape from the fact that she was a foreigner.

CALENDO: Well suppose she could put on a convincing American accent the way, say, Vanessa Redgrave did in Isadora.

WILLIAMS: Oh well then she’d be superb as Alma.

CALENDO: Hemingway always said that he wanted Ava Gardner to play his women.

WILLIAMS: I always liked her as a person. I never cared for her acting. I was surprised just how good Kim Novak was. I saw her recently in Jean Eagles on TV. She was surprisingly good in that as well as Paddy Chayefsky’s play Middle of the Night. Do you like Kim Novak?

CALENDO: Please, don’t let me get started on Kim Novak!

WILLIAMS: Candy Darling uses Kim Novak as a model, you know. There is some resemblance between them.

CALENDO: What movies of your plays do like?

WILLIAMS: Street Car was beautifully played with Vivien Leigh and Brando. It didn’t depart too seriously from my film script. And Roman Spring of Miss Stone I though was very poetically done. Boom I wrote the screenplay for; I still like that one. I wrote the screenplay for Baby Doll.

CALENDO: What movies of your plays do you particularly hate?

WILLIAMS: Oh, The Glass Menagerie was the most awful travesty of the play I’ve ever seen. I hope to God it’s never released again. I hope it will be made again, though, as a new film. But it was horribly mangled by the people who did the film script. Gertrude Lawrence couldn’t play the part. She tried, poor thing. She’s talented but she didn’t have the adequate direction. I didn’t like Night of the Iguana at all. I loathed Suddenly Last Summer. That was an allegorical play that had turned into a literal film, which made it absolutely unbelievable … and rather distasteful, I thought. Katharine Hepburn was fabulous in it, though. She’s a very patrician woman.

CALENDO: Exactly just what are “those scandalous innuendos about Hemingway” you alluded to in Bazaar?

WILLIAMS: I wouldn’t mention them.

CALENDO: What plays would you consider your major works?

WILLIAMS: Cat … in its original form. Streetcar, Menagerie, I think this one Out Cry optimistically. I think even Kingdom of Earth could be counted among them.

CALENDO: How have current events affected you as a writer?

WILLIAMS: I’m much more conscious of historical events since the ’60s. In the ’60s, I was insulated by my own addictions, my own lifestyle, from what was going on in the world. After I recovered I was amazed at certain people who had died. I hadn’t noticed that they had gone. Not friends … I’m talking about public figures who had passed away. Since ’69 when I had the crack-up and since my release from my period of hospitalization, I have been very aware of what was going on in the world. I have never joined anything. I’m not in sympathy with Communism except for populations which are in a state of peasantry, actually hungry and starving. The ideal state for me is some form of Socialism, which doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, which doesn’t repress the arts, or any race. Consequently I’m not a political person … except that I’m a revolutionary.

THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 1973 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW. 

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