Southern Ascendant

In addition to the letters and stories of Tennessee Williams, I have procured his journals, probably my favorite volume so far. I’m fascinated by the old school style of journal writing, where people jot down the weather, errands they ran, and feelings that they’d otherwise forget they ever had. And the more I read of Wms., the more under his spell I get.

My first acquaintance with Wms. is actually a weird little story. When I was a junior in high school, Mom and Dad took Jon and I on a 2-week trip to Spain. We spent the bulk of it in a hotel in Torremolinos, a hyper-touristed town on the Costa del Sol, but a good jumping off point to see southern Spain. Despite all the great stuff we did, Jon and I still found ourselves left to our own devices on a couple of afternoons. So we went to the closest drug store and bought the only English reading material available: a strange British comic book about WWII, which introduced us to the memorable expressions of pain, “Yarghhhh!!!” and “Ga-guh!!!!” (an exchange Jon and I still have to this day whenever we talk), and a copy of Streetcar Named Desire.

I had determined my course as an actress by this time (age 16), and was thrilled at Blanche’s page-long monologues. The problem was, Blanche talked so much, there wasn’t any way I could be any of the other characters. Jon, bless his heart, was game. At 12, his Stanley and Stella were equally wooden, but by gum if he didn’t oblige his crazy older sister.

I loved the play, especially some of the more enigmatic lines, like Blanche describing one dead relative as “so big with it, she couldn’t be put in a box.” Big with what? What horrible disease could make someone too big for a coffin? Up until then, I had only really fallen in love with Wm. Inge’s Picnic and a staged version of The Little Princess. Wms. was in an altogether different, dark, and intriguing world. The first two plays spoke to my vanity by providing lots of lines for someone under 20. Wms. went straight to my gut. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was waking up the writer buried under the performer.

I’d like to say that I came home and looked up all the Wms. I could find, but I was a slow starter. I gravitated fairly early to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, recognizing that Maggie was younger than Blanche and probably in reach as someone I could play. (Young actors are only ever interested in how many lines they get, not in the overall integrity of the play or anything else.) Consequently, I never gave Glass Menagerie a whole lot of attention primarily because I was too young for Amanda and too strong for Laura.

So I came to Williams solely out of selfishness, because he wrote absolutely great women’s parts with lengthy speeches that could be worked on in acting class. I read the Memoirs fairly young, early 20s, and loved them, but I avoided the short stories until now, because I couldn’t act them.

Now I’m here because I don’t know of any other writer who explores relationships so fearlessly, and who captures the “charm of the defeated” so beautifully. Yet I’ve never found him despairing, even though so many people talk about how depressing he is. To me, giving the broken a voice, saying, you’re crazy and deluded and filled with all sorts of bile but I still see the beauty in you, is uplifting even as it’s sad. And I always think it’s OK to be sad. Sometimes it’s necessary.

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