The Literary Factory of Tennessee Williams

Jacqueline O'Connor

January 2018

Each of us on a kitchen chair, your typewriter fluent as automatic gunfire,

as you sketched gestures and intonation, dialogue, behavior,

and I with index finger, pecked and brooded,

weighing the sound or color of a word.

­­­­—Clark Mills, unpublished poetic memoir

In the summer of 1937, Clark Mills McBurney and Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams) set up a “literary factory” in the basement of the McBurney family home. Huddled in the corner by the coal furnace and the washing machine, the factory consisted of two tables, two hard chairs, two typewriters, a bookcase, and a beat-up sofa. The aspiring young writers had been driven underground by unsatisfactory conditions above: the McBurney home was all glass, affording little privacy, and the summer heat had made the attic where Williams usually wrote in his own home unbearable. The basement offered cool quiet and creative camaraderie. At twenty-six, Williams was eight years away from his first successful play, The Glass Menagerie, and although he is chiefly remembered as a playwright, he wrote short stories, novels, poems, screenplays, and essays until his death at seventy-one in 1983.

Clark Mills (the name McBurney used for publishing his work) was two years younger than Williams, but regarded by their peers at Washington University in St. Louis as the more accomplished poet (he became a government intelligence officer after World War II, then taught at Hunter College and Fairleigh Dickinson University). In 1944’s “Preface to My Poems,” Williams credited Mills with introducing him to the poetry of Rimbaud, Rilke, and Hart Crane; the latter became a lifelong inspiration. Almost five decades after their summer together, Mills recalled: “‘I could never have imagined anyone writing as he did. He would do, say, a half page or two pages, and it was fast—he was fast on the typewriter—he would be operating as if blindly.’” Williams’s writing process, Mills said, was like “‘throwing dice—as if he was working toward a combination or some kind of result and wouldn’t have any idea what the result might be but would recognize it when he got there.’”

By the time he met Mills, Williams had multiple publication credits to his name, beginning with the May 1927 issue of Smart Set. In response to a writing contest with the prompt, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?”, sixteen-year-old Tom had assumed the persona of a divorced husband with a faithless wife, asking: “Can a woman after marriage maintain the same attitude towards other men as she held before marriage? Can she drink, smoke, and pet with them? Those are questions of really great pertinence to modern married life. In recounting my own unhappy marital experiences, perhaps I can present convincing answers.” His prize was five dollars plus publication alongside other “true confessions” with titles like “Hunted Lovers” and “Forgive Me My Trespass.” Family reactions to his success were mixed. His maternal grandfather Walter Edward Dakin was proud, but advised Tom to aim higher than writing for a trashy magazine. And years later, Williams’s mother Edwina remembered that her son began “coming into the house through the back door instead of the front as he usually did. I am sure he feared the magazine would send someone to the house to check up and discover this supposedly sophisticated divorced prizewinner was sixteen and had never even dated a woman.” The following year Tom sold a short story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” based on an episode in Herodotus’s History, to Weird Tales for thirty-five dollars.

Williams wrote fast, but he’d work on a story or play for years or decades, revising it across genres and producing multiple versions of single scenes. His typescripts, which include thousands of fragments, fill many boxes in literary archives, and previously unpublished works continue to enter the literary marketplace more than thirty years after his death: his collected poems were published in 2002, and many of his apprentice stories and plays are now in print. According to Albert J. Devlin, “Williams wrote often and ‘badly’ in order to write well.” He “did not destroy or otherwise withhold his many drafts—a fellow southerner, Eudora Welty, was loath to have similar ‘mistakes’ revealed—but, like a visual artist, Williams, who also painted, unabashedly used ‘studies’ to probe the dynamics of character and motivation.” Revered for his sympathetic portrayal of society’s outcasts, Williams’s career might best be understood as he himself described it—a “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages”—and the texts he left behind are another kind of devotional, demonstrating his faithful worship of the work itself.

Williams wrote every day, usually in the morning; for many years he catalogued his daily success or frustration in journals and letters to friends. The first entry in his published Notebooks, dated March 6, 1936, reports the following: “Saw first robin today – two in fact – pains in chest all morning but okay tonite – Went swimming – mailed verse to liberty amateur contest at Miss Flo’s suggestion – Now have 4 manuscripts in the mail not counting plays & poems in St. Louis contest – Returned case of empty bottles – collected $1.00 – felt rather stupid all day but will write tomorrow.” A few days later he specifies the story he’s working on, about a terminally ill young woman who seduces a traveling salesman but then sends him away: “Just finished re-writing ‘This Spring’ – Had thought it was no good but reread it this evening and liked it. Rewrote it stream-of-consciousness style – seemed very successful! – But tomorrow? Oh well. Tired out but happy.” In another journal entry several months later, Williams marks “what you might call the beginning of the ‘great offensive’ – I am going to deliberately nail myself down to this job if it literally kills me . . . I’ve got to buck up and be a man instead of such a damned whining sissy – I’m so lazy and easy going I’m not worth shooting at.” Although this particular offensive was never completed, the joyful determination to persevere became a refrain throughout his life. The peaks and valleys of external acceptance and rejection are a writing cliché; Williams’s journals reveal the tumult within.

Nine years after first enrolling in college at the University of Missouri, Williams graduated from the playwriting program at the University of Iowa in the summer of 1938. Hoping to secure a position with the Federal Theatre Project in New Orleans, he left home at the end of the year, stopping on the way south to visit his grandparents in Memphis. While there, he mailed a packet of plays to the Group Theatre in New York City, shaving several years off his birth date in order to meet the contest’s age restrictions. (The inaccurate birth date persisted in the popular and scholarly press for decades—just one of many alterations he made to the facts of his identity.) The submission included four one-act scripts collected under the title American Blues, and it was the first time he signed an entry “Tennessee” Williams.

The Group Theatre submission also included the full-length play Not About Nightingales, a drama based on the true story of a hunger strike in a Pennsylvania prison. Four inmates perished when the guards locked them in a steam-heated cell. The St. Louis Star Times reported the story in September 1938, and Williams began the play one month later. By November he had completed three full drafts, but feared it “may be very good or very bad – I don’t know – haven’t even read it yet – just writing, writing.” Four days later, he added: “Read NAN last nite – It seemed incredibly bad and I felt quite desperate about [it]. Thought I couldn’t look back at it for another 6 months – yet this a.m. I was writing on it as usual – And writing badly – Will try to salvage something from the wreck – but I think a production this year is almost out of the question.” In the next entry he claims to have tucked the play “away in the desk with so many other derelict scripts,” but it was included in the Group Theatre submission within the month, and in March 1939 he received a telegram from contest judges Harold Clurman, Irwin Shaw, and Molly Day Thacher. His short plays had won a special one-hundred-dollar prize. More significantly, in the long run, Thacher (who was married to Elia Kazan, the future director of Williams’s major theatre) shared the plays with agent Audrey Wood, initiating one of the most significant professional relationships of Williams’s life. Soon after signing him, Wood submitted a selection of his plays for a Rockefeller grant, Not About Nightingales among them. (Williams received the grant, but the play was never staged until actor Vanessa Redgrave discovered it in the University of Texas archives and produced it professionally in London, Houston, and New York City during the 1998-99 theatre seasons.)

Though his departure from St. Louis did not result in a position with the Federal Theatre Project, it marked the commencement of Williams’s vagabond existence. His journal entries and letters from this period reflect the diversity of life on the road. In Key West in 1941, living in former slave quarters at the home of Clara Atwood Black, a “clergyman’s widow who gives me lodging at a ridiculously low price because I remind her of her son who was an aviator recently killed in a crash,” Williams wrote: “I lead an exciting double life here, writing all morning, spending my afternoons in an English widow’s cabana on the beach where I associate with people like John Dewey, James Farrell and Elizabeth Bishop, and in the evening consorting, in dungarees, with B-girls, transients and sailors at Sloppy Joe’s or the Starlight Gambling Casino.” He would later treasure these years, as yet unfettered by the burdens of fame.

Williams frequently reworked his manuscripts by starting a new draft from scratch. It was, he said, a “terrifically wasteful” method, whose shortcomings he detailed in a letter to Thacher: “I have already written enough dialogue for two full-length plays, some of the best of which will have to be eliminated because it flies off on some inessential tangent.” Sometimes a rewrite would take him in a completely new direction, while in other cases the new version(s) were almost identical. These fragment clusters were like pieces in a puzzle he didn’t yet know the shape of: some were solidly in place and linked to others, so he did not move them, while other bits circled around until he discarded them or found their proper place in the text.

The evolution of Williams’s story “One Arm” is representative. The story, which concerns the fate of Oliver, a male prostitute put to death after being found guilty of murdering a wealthy john, includes a half-dozen complete drafts, plus fragments, and an expanded version eventually became an unproduced screenplay. The title “One Arm” never changed, nor did the main character’s name and situation, but Williams’s drafts interrogate the core narrative from varied angles—sometimes challenging the structure, another time finessing a single line of speech or description. Williams worried about the disturbing elements of the story; in a letter to his novelist friend Donald Windham, he recounted his conviction that border patrol officers had confiscated his copy of “One Arm” on a journey home from Mexico because of its scandalous, even pornographic, nature (he later finds the manuscript among his belongings). When the story was selected as the title piece for his first collection of prose, he and New Directions editor James Laughlin exchanged letters discussing the specifics of an advertising plan designed to attract readers without alerting his mother’s garden-set friends to the subject matter.

Williams worked with a finite number of references and themes, but recast his material repeatedly. In the summer of 1935, his story “Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton” was accepted by Manuscript, a bimonthly magazine from Athens, Ohio; Mills called the piece “a kind of prose poem rather than a short story—and in it was a very, very fat wife of the owner of a plantation.” By 1945, Williams had converted the story into a one-act drama, which appeared in a collection of his short plays. Another decade passed before Kazan convinced him to use the scenario as the basis for the Baby Doll screenplay (1956); the sexually provocative image of the wife (played by Carroll Baker) in a crib on the movie poster sparked a public debate about morality when the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, condemned the film. Baby Doll’s notoriety did not keep Williams from making further revisions, and another theatrical version of the work, with the new title Tiger Tail, premiered in Gainesville, Florida in 1979.

Williams also auditioned titles for his works obsessively. One example: A Streetcar Named Desire. As memorable as the work itself, the title signals the play’s most compelling conflict even as it indicates the action’s locale, for in midcentury New Orleans, a streetcar named Desire banged “through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.” However, in a letter to Audrey Wood in March 1945, when he was about sixty pages into the first draft, Williams listed four other possible titles for this play “about two sisters, the remains of a fallen southern family”: “The Moth,” “The Poker Night,” “The Primary Colors,” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon.” He also considered “Electric Avenue,” “The Passion of a Moth,” and “Go, Said the Bird,” the latter two appearing as single title pages in the archives. As Vivienne Dickson argues, the many titles of Streetcar drafts “reflect the evolving conception of the characters and their fates”; however, “when a title was rejected some trace of the idea which inspired it remained in the body of the play itself.” “Go, Said the Bird” borrows from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” several lines of which served as epigraph, slightly altered from the original: “‘Go, said the bird, go, go go, said the bird! Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’” In the final version, Blanche DuBois tells her suitor, Mitch, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” and the rejection of “much reality” paves her path to the asylum.

Although the play’s setting was always a two-room flat, Williams moved the apartment from Chicago to Atlanta before choosing New Orleans. The ethnicity of the figure that becomes Stanley Kowalski shifted from Italian to Irish to Polish, with Blanche’s perceived superiority of bloodline developing from Italian-American in the first draft to French Huguenot in the published version. Williams enhanced the difference between the two characters as he revised, though the earliest drafts clearly indicate his interest in issues of ethnicity and class. Also present at the time of the work’s conception was what he called a “strong sex situation”; in its relentless interrogation of sexual power, the play dramatizes the complexities of desire, violence, and containment.

Williams arrived at the tragic denouement—Stanley’s rape of Blanche; her sister Stella’s denial of it; Blanche’s institutionalization—by exploring myriad options during the drafting process. An undated fragment includes a “morning after” scene, with Blanche and Ralph (not yet named Stanley) exchanging compliments about the other’s sexual performance. Ralph claims that in “fifteen years of experience,” his time with Blanche has been “like nothing – a man – could dream of.” Blanche counters with her own hyperbole: “Everything’s been a preparation for you in what I’ve gone through, also! I am really surprised the walls are still standing. There was one moment when I thought we were lying out-doors halfway between this crazy old world and the moon!” As Devlin argues, “traces of the surprising scene, probably related to a draft entitled ‘The Passion of a Moth,’” would remain in the production text in Blanche’s flirtation with Stanley, for “what did Williams test and confirm in this study if not the unstable amalgam of strength and fragility that comprises Blanche DuBois and the power of Stanley to exploit it?” Indeed, this discarded scene allowed Williams to explore an unusual sexual chemistry; in the final version he took this heat to its criminal and incendiary limit, one that seems inevitable, but that was reached through the mass production of a range of prototypes.

Williams’s revisions and cross-genre modifications create a hierarchy of value for critics and readers, but his prolificacy has only become more appreciated over time. Published texts are re-evaluated as “new” ones are discovered in the archives. His singular achievement, no matter the genre he was working in, was to convey great emotion and poetic power combined with violence or cultural transgression. Where images repeat themselves, our perspective of them is shifted. The delicacy of a glass unicorn or a paper lantern, the mournful sound of cathedral bells, the sexy texture of a snakeskin jacket; we see or hear them, whether on the page or in performance. Props register as rich symbols, their significance amplified by Williams’s fond and frequent use of them. He milked words for their highest level of ambiguity, joining them to form vibrant phrases and to construct complex characters.

Williams called his “fugitive kind” all those people who were “wild at heart” and who needed to fight against captivity, for they would not survive it. The film version of the play Orpheus Descending (originally titled Battle of Angels) is called The Fugitive Kind (1960), a title Williams borrowed from his apprentice play Fugitive Kind, which had been staged by the Mummers, an amateur troupe in St. Louis, in 1937. Vieux Carré premiered in London in 1978, but the action is set in the French Quarter of the late 1930s, and it draws from stories and vignettes composed during the author’s Depression-era vagabond years. In this and other late-life memory plays, he revisited his youthful depictions of deception, betrayal, and loss, stitching the past and the present together in elegiac retrospectives. The late career works were not appreciated in their time, but many of them have been reconsidered or revived since his death. As New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes wrote in 1972, when Williams’s play Small Craft Warnings opened at a small theatre Off-Broadway: “This is not a major Tennessee Williams play, but it will certainly do until the next one comes along, and I suspect it may survive better than some of the much-touted products of his salad years.” For his part, Williams struggled to write as his health declined. Lamenting his diminished pace and vigor, he continued. The last new full-length play to be produced in his lifetime, A House Not Meant to Stand, enjoyed studio and main stage productions at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the second of which closed nine months before his death in February 1983.

In Williams’s Memoirs, published in 1975, he asks himself: “What is it like being a writer?” His answer: “I would say it is like being free,” for it “means the freedom to stop when you please, to go where and when you please, it means to be voyager here and there, one who fleed many hotels, sad or happy, without obstruction and without much regret.” Quite simply, “to be free is to have achieved your life.” The concluding section of Memoirs contains a meditation on death and what lies beyond: Williams claimed not to believe that “there is anything but permanent oblivion.” And so, “while waiting, what? Of course I will continue to work, but not to trick myself into supposing that what I now accomplish still has the vitality of my work at full tide, when it sprang like the torrents of spring.” He punctuated this thought with a line from one of his early poems, when he was “bursting with images but had not yet broken the confines of iambic pentameter”: “How perilously do these fountains leap/Whose reckless voyager along am I.”

Jacqueline O’Connor is professor of English at Boise State University. This essay was first presented as a lecture for the Idaho Writers Guild Literary Luncheon. O’Connor’s book, Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America (2016), was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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