Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK). His play ANTIQUE ROSES will be performed in August 2016 at the Old Courthouse Theatre, Concord, NC.
The Stories of Tennessee Williams
By Robert Boucheron
Tennessee Williams scored his first success as a playwright with The Glass Menagerie in 1944. Ten or more Broadway hits followed during the next two decades, with film adaptations: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and more. After 1961, Williams found it hard to get his plays produced. Alcohol, drugs, and an unstable home life took a toll on his creativity, in the opinion of critics.
Yet Williams continued to write and publish until his death in 1983. Donald Spoto writes in his preface to The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams:
Tennessee Williams’ creative legacy is perhaps far vaster than many of his admirers realize: a complete catalog would have to include more than twenty-five full-length plays, more than forty short plays, a dozen produced (and unproduced) screenplays and an opera libretto. . . . In addition, there are two novels, a novella, more than sixty short stories, more than one hundred poems, an autobiography, a published volume of letters, introductions to plays and books by others, and occasional pieces and reviews. He gave new meaning to the word prolific.
Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. He began to use his pen name in 1938, when he graduated from college. From his high school years, he wrote short stories, which he published in magazines and in five book collections: One Arm, 1948; Hard Candy, 1954; The Knightly Quest, 1966; Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed, 1974; and It Happened the Day the Sun Rose, 1981. The Collected Stories were published in 1985 with an introduction by Gore Vidal, who was a personal friend. This posthumous book includes 49 stories, some of which had not previously appeared in print. There are still more, according to Spoto. Considering their quality, and enduring public interest in the author, a revised Collected Stories that includes all those known would be a worthy project.
Other writers wrote both fiction and drama: Anton Chekhov, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Somerset Maugham spring to mind. These writers are Russian, French and English, respectively. Few Americans have been so versatile. Thornton Wilder was an older contemporary who achieved success in novels and plays. Henry James remarked on the essential likeness of the two genres, and the need to structure a narrative as a series of scenes. But James’s plays failed, showing how difficult it is to put theory into practice.
Judging by the trouble he took to revise and publish it, Williams thought highly of his fiction. “Many of these stories were rewritten a dozen or more times, often over as many years,” Vidal says in his introduction. Popular opinion has also remained high in the thirty-three years since Williams’s death. Vidal disparages Williams’s own Memoirs published in 1975, as giving too much space to drugs and sex. Instead, he says:
These stories are the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, is here. . . . No, he is not a great short story writer like Chekhov, but he has something more than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice that is totally compelling. The only other American writer to have this gift was Mark Twain.
In view of his early life and subject matter, Williams belongs to the Southern writers of twentieth-century fiction, a group that includes William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Flannery O’Connor. The Southerners share a social milieu and a way with language that sets them apart. Character types and themes recur, notably social class, family ties, and race. The warm climate and rural landscape infuse the fiction, such that the place itself becomes a character.
While it would be interesting to compare Williams and his contemporaries, my aim is more limited: to trace connections between the stories and the plays, note themes and devices common to both genres, call attention to the early short stories, and suggest how they influenced other writers.
Some story-to-play connections are obvious. The story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” written in 1941-1943, led directly to the play The Glass Menagerie, first staged in Chicago in late 1944. “It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for plays,” Vidal says. “The truth is more complicated.”
“Portrait of a Girl in Glass” features the same four characters as the play, with an emphasis on the detached narrator Tom, and it is set in the same cramped apartment in St. Louis. Tom’s sister is Laura, the dreamy girl who is too shy to go out. “She loved colored glass and had covered the walls with shelves of little glass articles, all of them light and delicate in color. These she washed and polished with endless care.” The overbearing mother is not named. Modeled on Williams’s mother Edwina, she becomes Amanda Wingfield in the play. The gentleman caller in the story, “Jim was a big, red-haired Irishman.” In the play, all four characters are blown up to fill the stage, as it were, with some traits exaggerated and some stripped away for clarity.
The story uses only brief stretches of dialogue. Williams was also writing plays at the time, and he would become known for his remarkable ear. So the narrative choice must be deliberate. The prose is tight, and the action is swift. By way of illustration, here is a passage that describes the characters seated at dinner. We hear them talk, and at the same time we see them through Tom’s eyes.
To Mother belonged the conversational honors, such as they were. She asked the caller about his home and family. She was delighted to learn that his father had a business of his own, a retail shoe store somewhere in Wyoming. The news that he went to night-school to study accounting was still more edifying. What was his heart set on beside the warehouse? Radio engineering? My, my, my!
At least four other short stories can be directly linked to subsequent plays. “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” written 1935, led to the play of the same title, produced in New Orleans in 1955. Considerably revised, it appeared as the movie Baby Doll in 1956. “The Night of the Iguana,” written 1946-48, was expanded to become the play The Night of the Iguana, staged in New York in 1961. It then became a movie in 1964. “Three Players of a Summer Game,” written 1951, was adapted as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, produced in New York in 1955. “Man Bring This Up Road,” written in 1953, was eventually transformed into The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, produced in New York in 1963. It then led to the movie Boom! in 1968.
In all five examples, Williams reworked his material, sometimes beyond recognition. The story “The Night of the Iguana,” is set in the Costa Verde hotel near Acapulco, as is the play. The story has three characters: Miss Jelkes, an amateur painter, forces herself on two male writers. The play adds several characters, brings the patrona onstage as Maxine, and shifts the focus to her relationship with a new character, the Episcopal priest and tour guide Shannon. The poor iguana is still there, tied to a post, but the drama is larger and more complex.
‘Booze and pills were common at the time,
and they figure prominently in Williams’s writing.’
Williams stuck to a daily routine: he wrote in the morning, and swam for exercise in the afternoon. Late in life, his prodigious consumption of alcohol and drugs led him to behave erratically and rudely. But like many writers, Williams managed his life to suit his own purposes. He drank to relax—he was by nature shy and backward in company. He took amphetamines to do the day’s work, and he took barbiturates to fall asleep at night.
Booze and pills were common at the time, and they figure prominently in Williams’s writing. Several characters are alcoholics: the wealthy croquet player and adulterer Brick Pollitt in “Three Players of a Summer Game,” for example. But Williams has no interest in substance abuse as a medical condition. For him, it is always a symbol for moral decay, a lack of will, and an inability to face reality. In his preface to The Rose Tattoo, Williams says that a play offers an “awful sense of impermanence” and “moral values in violent juxtaposition.” The stories are equally full of change and violence.
Homosexual characters crop up frequently in Williams’s work. In life, his male lovers and sexual adventures were sensational fodder for journalists and later for biographers. His attitude toward homosexuality is complex, to say the least. Early on, he seems to accept condemnation by others, and he quotes insults like “fag,” “fairy,” “queen,” and “sissy.” In the story “The Angel in the Alcove,” a “tubercular young artist who slept in the room adjoining” is both a welcome visitor to the narrator by night, and “a filthy degenerate and a liar” to his landlady. The central figure of “Hard Candy” is a “seventy-year-old retired merchant named Mr. Krupper, a man of gross and unattractive appearance,” who goes to a sleazy movie theater for gay sex in the balcony. But the two writers in “The Night of the Iguana” are a male couple described in neutral detail, with a “troubled youth and wise counsellor air of their conversations.”
At the same time, the story “The Malediction” shows a man who is defeated as much by poverty and bad luck as by anything he does or desires. Spare and enigmatic, with touches of fantasy, “The Poet” and “Chronicle of a Demise” are about a man or a woman set apart, one who dwells in the world of imagination, and who is therefore doomed. For Williams, “queer” is simply one kind of eccentric.
Later, the long story or novella “The Knightly Quest” elevates a homosexual rich boy as a Don Quixote-like hero. His nocturnal rambles for sex are his “nightly quest.” Williams belabors the pun. “Happy August the Tenth,” published in 1970, is a fine study of a lesbian couple, a pair of professional women who share an apartment in New York’s Upper East Side.
Most interesting are the characters who make their own rules and form unlikely bonds. Based partly on the real-life couple of Oliver Evans and Marion Black Vacarro, and partly on Williams himself, the affluent, middle-aged and alcoholic Billy and Cora in “Two on a Party” cruise sailors together. Billy is a “queen” and Cora is “normal.” But group sex is an amusement, not the main point: “Their existence was a never-ending contest with the squares of the world, the squares who have such a virulent rage at everything not in their book.” Billy and Cora find an echo in the play Suddenly Last Summer, where Catherine describes her beach adventures with Cousin Sebastian: “He bought me a swim-suit . . . It was a one-piece suit made of white lisle, the water made it transparent! . . . Don’t you understand? I was procuring for him!”
‘Rooted in the conventions of his time, Williams often uses ethnic tags to define American characters’
In the story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” as in the play the followed, Williams gives Laura a collection of glass animals. Fragile, small, and transparent, they symbolize her. At the same time, Laura’s loving care for these inanimate objects shows her to be withdrawn and pathetic. In the stories Williams wrote leading up to this time, he often uses symbols in this way. As early as 1930, “A Lady’s Beaded Bag” has only four pages, but it packs a punch. A street bum finds a lady’s beaded bag thrown in a trash bin by mistake. He takes it to sell, then fears he will be accused of stealing, so he walks to the front of the house and gives the bag to the lady’s maid. Despite Vidal’s comment, this slice of life recalls the early stories of Chekhov, for example “A Malefactor.” Similar is the 1936 story “The Gift of an Apple,” in which a hungry young man on foot passes a roadside trailer and begs for food. The big dark woman in the trailer, an “old dago slut,” gives him an apple and sizes him up. But he is nineteen, the same age as her son, so she sends him away. The apple is juicy, and the young man eats it. But the apple is also a symbol for sex, denied and sublimated.
“The Field of Blue Children” of 1937 is longer and more ambitious. College students Homer and Myra are in love with poetry and with each other, but Myra is engaged to Kirk, a better match. Homer takes Myra to a field “covered with dancing blue flowers,” where they embrace. The next day, Myra dismisses Homer in “a curiously stilted and formal note.” She gives up poetry and marries Kirk. Years later, she visits the field and falls to her knees sobbing. The blue flowers are a powerful symbol of what she has lost.
Additional examples are ready to hand: the iguana; croquet in “Three Players of Summer Game;” hard candy in the story “Hard Candy;” rain in “The Accent of a Coming Foot;” and the violin case in “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In “Oriflamme,” written in 1944, a young woman who has a fever and coughs blood runs through the city in a red silk dress. She is a “flag,” the literal meaning of the title, which also suggests the “flame” of fever, the color red, and blood. The 1944 story “The Vine” is puzzling because it does not mention a vine. Donald, a slightly employed actor in New York, awakes one morning. His wife Rachel is gone. He spends the day in a frantic attempt to find reassurance. In the first sentence, “he knew the same blind, formless want that plants must feel without that warmth about them.” So Donald is the vine, a person who clings.
Bearing the last two stories in mind, we turn to “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” and “Desire and the Black Masseur.” In both, the black character is big, brutal, and inarticulate, a racial stereotype that readers today will find offensive. Williams reflects the attitudes of white writers in the 1930s. More than this, he uses characters as symbols. At the end of the second story, he makes the symbolism explicit: “the earth’s whole population twisted and writhed beneath the manipulation of night’s black fingers.” This tale of “torture” ends in murder and cannibalism, disturbing to the reader and a forecast of fiction by later writers. It is possible to read “Black Masseur” as a macabre fantasy, in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe. Or Williams, who suffered from insomnia, creates an extreme metaphor for it.
Rooted in the conventions of his time, Williams often uses ethnic tags to define American characters as Mexican, Irish, Polack, German, Sicilian, and so on. Some are Anglo-Saxon: white, educated, and privileged. The story “Rubio y Morena” hinges on the contrast of the blond writer Kamrowski and the tall, dark-haired Mexican girl Amada. Despite all their differences, including language, the two fall in love. Amada’s death and the meaning of the affair are unexplained. Adding to the mystery is a “homemade doll, roughly cut out of wood . . . like an effigy of the dead girl.” Fleeing the angry mourners, Kamrowski snatches the doll. The story asks questions about money, love, and what we can hold on to, questions the plays will plumb at greater depth.
Characters in the plays move away from realism: they are comic buffoons, tragic heroines, and figures from myth. In his preface to The Rose Tattoo, Williams says: “Perhaps it is a certain foolery, a certain distortion toward the grotesque, which will solve the problem for him,” where “him” refers to the playwright. It may be that in his later stories, this habit led him astray. “The Yellow Bird,” “Miss Coynte of Greene,” and others feature a spinster or an eccentric old woman as a sex-crazed heroine, a satiric tradition that stretches back to the poems of Horace. Readers today will find these characters as offensive as the black ones. Did Williams base them on real women, or did he imagine himself in a female role? Either way, the experiment falls flat. In the same way, “The Knightly Quest” tries to be a hip political satire of the 1960s. Now it feels dated. The success of the gay rights movement has dulled what was edgy in the twentieth century.
About 1960, Williams wrote a piece that purports to be autobiography. Vidal places it at the head of the Collected Stories as an author’s preface. “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair” is a portrait of his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, a raging alcoholic who died in 1957. It is also a saintly vision of his beloved grandmother Rose Otte Dakin, who lived with them and died in 1943. And it sketches Williams himself when he worked at the International Shoe Company as a clerk-typist for three years in his twenties. Like his comments on his sister Rose, the model for Laura in “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” this piece reads like family fiction, an overheated and partisan account of what went on in the Williams household.
By the end, though, we glimpse an author coming to terms with his past. The father figure is no longer a bogey. Using the tattered armchair as a symbol, spare dialogue, and a sense of the passage of time, Williams pricks our emotions. He gives the last line to his father, now old, divorced, and removed to a safe distance. Referring to the movie Baby Doll, Cornelius says: “I think it’s a very fine picture and I’m proud of my son.” As in his plays, Williams manipulates the drama of a family who in their daily interactions made expert use of drama.
The story “One Arm,” which leads the 1948 book One Arm, seems also to be based on an episode from life. But the beginning also sounds a bit like a fairy tale:
In New Orleans in the winter of ‘39 there were three male hustlers usually to be found hanging out on a certain corner of Canal Street . . . the oldest of the three was an unforgettable youth. His name was Oliver Winemiller and he had been the light heavyweight champion boxer of the Pacific fleet before he lost an arm. Now he looked like a broken statue of Apollo.
The story gives Oliver a background: “He came from the cotton fields of Arkansas.” After the car wreck that claimed his arm, he drifted to New York, where he “learned the ropes of what became his calling” in Times Square. He moved south, was kept by a rich man in Miami, killed the man while drunk, and moved to New Orleans. The police catch up with Oliver there. He is tried and convicted, and the case gets wide publicity. In prison awaiting execution, Oliver receives letters from former clients. A day before he dies, he receives a visit from a nervous young Lutheran minister, who sees him as a “golden panther,” an erotic dream symbol.
Williams certainly encountered “male hustlers” or prostitutes in New Orleans, and there may have been a murder case like the one he describes. But to compare a male body to classical Greek sculpture is an enduring cliché—Apollo, Adonis, and Heracles, broken limbs and all. It is also worth noting that Johnny Weissmuller starred in the popular Tarzan movies in the 1930s. Williams may have adapted the actor’s name and muscular physique. The story itself is lean at twenty-two pages. It develops Oliver in a realistic way, through dialogue and behavior. It even quotes a letter that he writes with a stubby pencil, with a drawing of the “hot seat,” the electric chair in which he will die. The Lutheran minister is accurately observed. Oliver sees through him at once as a repressed homosexual. This story is still fresh.
Moisés Kaufman adapted “One Arm” as a play and staged it in 2011 in New York. Other Williams stories have undergone this treatment, a tribute to his outsized reputation rather than theatrical successes on their own.
More interesting is a possible link to In Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel” by Truman Capote. Starting from a newspaper article on a murder in Kansas in 1959, Capote researched on site, interviewed the two convicted murderers in prison, and published his work in The New Yorker in 1965. The book came out the next year.
Capote and Williams were friends. It is likely that Capote knew about “One Arm” and he may have read it. The parallels between the story and the novel are strong: a random murder, a young male prisoner awaiting execution, quoted letters, and a homosexual angle. The genre of “true crime” began in the nineteenth century, well before Capote, who was not entirely truthful about his sources and methods. If “One Arm” inspired In Cold Blood, the connection would add to our appreciation of both.