Tennessee's Original Family DramaDate: 1 October 2001
With his tragedies about Southern families, Tennessee Williams transformed the American stage in the years after World War II. A volume of Williams' personal letters reveals how his own family played a part in his work. Editor Albert J Devlin explains.
First Words Set the Tone
Tennessee Williams's first known letter would establish patterns for the next two decades of correspondence. Written in 1920 from the rectory of St George's Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, the letter is addressed to Edwina, Tom's mother, by an eight-year-old traveller who has already felt the rigors of the road: "I was awfully tired when I got on the train."
Edwina had wisely arranged the first of her son's many escapes from the dreaded "City of St Pollution" to which the family moved in 1918. Tom's brief return to Clarksdale set the pattern for later travel to the bohemia of New Orleans and to a succession of seaside havens, where he seemed to answer a question that he would pose rhetorically in The Glass Menagerie. "You know," Tom Wingfield says of Malvolio the Magician, "it don't take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed up coffin. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?"
His early letters form a manual of survival, of deft and repeated escape from "two-by-four situations." None was more complicated than Tom's "Life with Mother and Father, with Rose and Dakin," a long-running domestic tragedy that supplied the playwright with the essentials of speech, gesture, and a pervasive undertone of apprehension and defeat.
A Family Focus
Of the letters collected in this first volume, more than a third were written by Williams to members of his immediate and extended family. His maternal grandparents received a weary visitor in 1920 and then again in 1935 in Memphis, when clerical work at the Continental Shoe Company led to physical and nervous collapse. Williams's correspondence with the Dakins is tonally distinctive and bespeaks the aura of calmness and reserve within which they apparently lived.
To "Grand", Rosina Otte Dakin, he wrote on Mother's Day in 1936 with a tenderness that is rarely found in the 50-odd letters written to Edwina. To "Grandfody", the Reverend Walter E Dakin, Tom wrote as a schoolboy so anxious to please his scholarly grandfather that he obscured his academic failures, beginning with his delayed graduation from high school in 1929. If there is tension to be found in the Dakin household, it can be read in references to the economic sacrifice and self-denial of Grand, mute testimony to her parched and burdensome role as the wife of an Episcopal priest in the South.
Conflict in the Williams household in St Louis was closer to the surface and far less dignified. Edwina's fine profile was marred in a door-slamming episode with Cornelius, who also enraged (Rose) and terrified (Tom) his two older children, while lavishing favor upon the third (Dakin). Cornelius elicits from Tom carefully phrased accounts of money spent and money required, of grades hopefully foreseen, with only traces of humour. Cast as the ogre of the household, Cornelius is often evoked in correspondence by coded references to his health and periodic hospitalisation, a chronic drinker's signature, and to his periodic absence on business travel, a respite for the weary family.
Mother Knows Best?
For the prude and the social climber in Edwina, Tom crafted letters that bespoke a choirboy's innocence and that claimed acceptance by leading families and literary figures encountered on his travels. The many letters written to Edwina are complicated rhetorically by her unfailing support of her son's literary adventure and by the mixture of ignorance and intolerance with which she apprehended his goals. Neither Edwina nor Rose, Tom complained to the Dakins in 1936, could appreciate the "modern" humour of "Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton", a story of seduction that Edwina forbade her son to send "to anybody."
Several years later, Tom assured his agent, Audrey Wood, that "I have always gotten along rather well with female ogres" (30 July 30 1939). The ogre in question was Frieda Lawrence, but Edwina had surely been good preparation for Williams's handling of DH Lawrence's formidable widow, as well as of such volatile actresses as Miriam Hopkins and Laurette Taylor. The result in correspondence with Edwina are filial letters curiously flat and devoid of emotion but informed by a deep regard for the binding effect of family relations.
It was with Rose Williams that the family chronicle gave the most profound evidence of its literary potential. Hints of Rose's instability abound in letters written in 1926 from All Saints' College in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she felt "nervous as a cat" and banished from family and friends. During the next decade her condition worsened, until she was institutionalised in 1937 and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Superbly revealing is a letter that Tom wrote to his sister in 1927 at the time of her informal, and unproductive, debut in Knoxville. "We miss greatly the clatter of kettles, hissing of steam, and splash of water which signify your presence in the house. Except when Dakin is hammering or my typewriter clicking, everything is deathly still. We are all very sensible to your absence."
Rose Williams's abortive courting in a southern city and the "frivolities" (19 November 19 1927) of her bath and boudoir anticipate with uncanny precision both the argument and the intimate feminine imagery of A Streetcar Named Desire. Her "absence", made final at the time of her lobotomy in 1943, is not close to the surface of the letters, nor does her presence at Farmington State Hospital draw Tom frequently upon his visits to the so-called "parental roof" in St Louis. And yet the typewriter never stopped "clicking". "Homage to Ophelia", written in 1944 as a foreword to the play You Touched Me!, is a moving apostrophe to Rose, "luminous and delicate", as was her legendary antecedent in verse.
The family letters, while giving evidence of a sad, unvarying domestic history, preserve a lyrical core of memory that sustained Williams during his prolonged apprenticeship and maturity as a writer.
In The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume One (Oberon, priced £19.99), the editors have collected 330 letters written to 70-odd correspondents between 1920 and 1945. Volume One culminates with Williams's first Broadway success with The Glass Menagerie. His many other classic plays include A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which has just opened in the West End, starring Hollywood's Brendan Fraser.