February is all about Mardi Gras on Book And A View and there is no one I would rather sip a sazerac on a Bourbon St balcony with than the King of Southern Gothic, Tennessee Williams.
My life changed when my English teacher handed us a copy of his collected works in the sixth year and I met Laura, Blanche and Maggie the Cat. It was one of those rare moments when you feel like the vibrations of the world all magically align and play beautiful music. I was obsessed. Here was a playwright that, on the surface, I had nothing in common with and yet what he wrote resonated deeply with me. My love affair with Williams’ plays has endured far beyond any other. I know that I will love them until my dying day.
Williams was born in 1911 and produced some of the world’s most acclaimed drama in the 40s and 50s, pioneering a new, poetic style of theatre. A homosexual with alcohol and drug dependency issues, Williams poured his unhappiness, loneliness and response to a dysfunctional, violent early family life into his writing.
Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life
– Elia Kazan
His close relationship with his sister Rose, who was the inspiration behind The Glass Menagerie‘s Laura, further fuelled his tendency towards depression, especially when Rose’s life long battle with schizophrenia culminated in a frontal lobotomy. It is no coincidence that his characters are often tortured by their struggles with mental health issues and the sensitivity and poignancy with which he addresses these issues makes his writing as relevant today as it was groundbreaking when it was first published.
His plays deal with loneliness, ageing, the desperation to connect, sex and addiction. All things that he struggled with himself and that no one else was writing about. The poetry of his writing gives these difficult themes a fragile, decaying beauty – much like the Southern settings his characters inhabit.
I try to work every day because you have no refuge but writing.
– Tennessee Williams
Starting this month, New York’s Morgan Library has a new Williams exhibition – No Refuge But Writing, exploring Williams’ writing process and offering unprecedented access to his drafts, notebooks and letters. They are also showing several of the many film adaptations of his work including A Streetcar Named Desire, the Elia Kazan directed film that launched the stars of Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh into the stratosphere, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The exhibition runs through until 13th May.
And whilst I’m in New Orleans later this month, I will be sure to raise a glass to my favourite playwright, after all, as Williams said…
“America has three cities – New York, San Francisco and New Orleans… Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
Photo credits: LIFE magazine and The Morgan Library.