In New York, the Tormented, Triumphant Life of Tennessee Williams

In New York, the Tormented, Triumphant Life of Tennessee Williams

Irving Penn photographed Tennessee Williams in 1951, for Vogue.

Playwright Tennessee Williams said that he found “no refuge but writing” and couldn’t resist gilding even his paintings with words. On one self-portrait, the author scrawled “very flattering”; on another, he signed the canvas on the white undershirt he is wearing.

The pictures—one is from 1939, the other isn’t dated—capture Williams’s face and his bare shoulders, in a simple representational style, against a vivid blue background. They are part of a wide-ranging exhibition on the writer of plays such as “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” opening Feb. 2 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Williams started painting as a young man and made it a lifelong hobby. The exhibit also includes an undated oil portrait by Williams of Pancho Rodriguez, his lover at the time he was working on “Streetcar.”

The poems of Hart Crane entranced Williams, but in 1936, a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s dark drama, “Ghosts,” literally propelled the would-be-poet from his seat and into pacing back and forth. The drama “took the top of his brain off,” said Carolyn Vega, an associate curator in the department of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, who organized the exhibition.

The Morgan exhibit focuses on six plays Williams created between 1939 and 1957, from the threshold of fame to the height of his powers. He left behind a prodigious trail of journals, letters, poems, short stories, one-acts and full-length plays. The exhibit also includes first editions, posters, programs and photographs from his plays—including a 1947 image of a then-little-known Marlon Brando and his co-stars on the first day of rehearsals for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which made Brando’s name.

From left, Karl Malden, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter in rehearsals for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in October 1947.

From left, Karl Malden, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter in rehearsals for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in October 1947. Photo: 2016 of Brando Enterprise, LP

“Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing’” has photos documenting the playwright’s harrowing family life—including a schizophrenic, institutionalized sister and his parents’ poisonous marriage—which became fodder for his works. Thomas Lanier Williams III, born in 1911 in Mississippi, entered a playwriting contest in the late 1930s under the name Tennessee Williams. His explanation for the name isn’t entirely clear, Ms. Vega said, though at times he cited some of his relatives’ Tennessee heritage.

As an adult, Williams was estranged from his father and flickered between respect and rage for his mother, Edwina. In his 2014 biography “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” John Lahr writes that in 1969, after critics panned her son’s latest play, Edwina said, “Tom, it’s time for you to find another occupation now.”

Williams’s theatrical career began inauspiciously. “Battle of Angels,” a saga of scandal in a Southern town, opened in 1940 and ran for two weeks in Boston. Audiences walked out—or were driven out by a staged fire that filled the theater with smoke. But “The Glass Menagerie,” the tale of the ill-starred Wingfield family that opened on Broadway in 1945, brought Williams renown. The exhibit traces the seeds of the drama to earlier short stories, poems and journal fragments.

The Morgan displays similar artifacts related to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which opened on Broadway in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize. An Irving Penn portrait from 1951 shows a pensive Williams in a dark jacket and crisp bow tie, fingers crooked around a holder with an ashy cigarette. That was the year the celebrated movie of “Streetcar” opened.

Williams painted this undated self-portrait, which is from 1939 or later.

Williams painted this undated self-portrait, which is from 1939 or later. Photo: The University of Texas at Austin/George Borchardt, Inc.

Williams received a Pulitzer and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), a family drama of hard truths and filial showdowns. In a photo from the Broadway production, Burl Ives, playing Big Daddy, worries about his illness and menaces Ben Gazzara, in the role of his injured son. The exhibit includes a telegram from Williams to the cast: “Dear Players: I want you to know that I know that you all gave me the prizes all my love, Tennessee.” Williams liked “Cat” the most of his plays, perhaps because he felt that in the character of Big Daddy, “he reached his lyrical capabilities,” Ms. Vega said.

Williams kept writing until the end of his life—and notched more successes, such as “The Night of the Iguana” (1961), before he died in 1983, just a month shy of his 72nd birthday.

Travel inspired and restored Williams. In his volume of Hart Crane’s poems, on view in the exhibition, he jotted his many addresses inside the cover, presumably in case he left the book behind. Williams “was in the habit of losing things,” Mr. Lahr said. “He was himself lost. He would lose clothes, he would lose manuscripts.”

The writer’s harum-scarum friendships echoed his tumultuous childhood. He often lived in hotels, including one where he frequented the indoor pool to swim and to cruise for men. In a 1945 letter to Williams, the manager scolded “you have been in the habit of doing considerable entertaining in your room” and emphasized that the hotel didn’t allow “entertaining in the rooms after twelve midnight.”

Williams died in New York’s Hotel Elysée, which he had nicknamed the Easy Lay. He had hoped to be buried at the spot in the Gulf of Mexico where Hart Crane jumped or fell from a ship in 1932. Instead, Williams was laid to rest beside his mother in a St. Louis cemetery.

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