Acting in ‘Tennessee Williams’s Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh’


IN February 1983, Tennessee Williams flew off alone to London, Rome and Italy. A week after, he was back in New York. In that month, a company was doing a revival of Williams’s play, Vieux Carre. The play, according to Williams’s biographer John Lahr, is a “reimagining of the playwright’s life in a boarding house in New Orleans, where his literary adventure and his sexual coming-of-age had begun.” It was not reviewed during its run. When asked about this, Tennessee Williams said, “I’ve gone from good reviews to bad reviews, to no reviews.”

This was the same playwright whose play The Glass Menagerie opened on March 31, 1945, on Broadway and promptly shocked the world. Lahr, again in his biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, wrote: “When the final curtain came down on the Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie, the audience knew that some kind of theater history had been made.”

To Arthur Miller, a young playwright then, The Glass Menagerie was a revolution in New York theater, with the play “lifting lyricism to its highest level in our theater’s history.”

Playing Amanda, the legendary Laurette Taylor was “reborn as a legend in her time.” It took Eddie Dowling, the actor playing “Tom” and also the play’s co-director, to convince everyone, including Taylor, that she was Amanda. “Hibernating with a gin bottle for 12 years,” Taylor had the reputation of alcoholics’ alcoholic. Williams did not like her the first time he heard her read the role. But Dowling insisted Taylor would be different on stage.

The actress was returning to stage after a hiatus that had stretched for years. It is written in Lahr’s biography how a bucket had been placed in the wings for Taylor who, after every scene, would lean over the container and retch. Long before the play closed, Taylor had already been compared to legends of legends in theater like Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt.

The Glass Menagerie would win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the year.

For Lahr, “Williams made characters so large that they became part of American folklore. Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda and Laura transcend their stories—sensational ghosts who haunt us through the ages with their fierce, flawed lives. Williams allowed words to live like anthems in national imagination: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”; Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly;” “Nowadays the world is lit by lightning….”

After Amanda, there was no stopping Tennessee Williams as he gave us a procession of terrific, terrible women. In 1947, he gave us Blanche Dubois. The play was Streetcar Named Desire, its title breathtakingly unforgettable.

With Streetcar though, Williams would introduce us also a man hogging the conflict and wielding the central force of the story. Blanche Dubois would not be alone; standing with her was Stanley Kowalski. And with Stanley was this actor named Marlon Brando.

In Lahr’s biography, the staging of this intense play would be as tortuous and tortured as the life of the playwright now in the middle of his most tempestuous relationship with Pancho Rodriguez, Williams’s lover.

Kazan, the man who would eventually direct Streetcar, is quoted in the Lahr bio saying: “If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley.” Kazan continued: “Wasn’t he [Williams] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself?”

Elia Kazan, a cofounder of Actors Studio, who would go on to become one of the greatest filmmakers from Hollywood. Williams thought of no one else to direct his Streetcar after seeing the work of Kazan in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Reading Lahr, it seemed having Jessica Tandy perform for the first time Blanche was easy. The group, which included Williams and Kazan, all went to watch Tandy perform what Lahr called “Williams’s first sketch of a doomed hysteric, Miss Lucretia Collins, in his one-act Portrait of a Madonna.

But who would be Stanley? It is said that Irene Selznick, the producer, released to the press the news that John Garfield, “one of the few sexy Hollywood stars with a proletariat pedigree, had signed on to play Stanley.” But Garfield would prove to be difficult, with so many conditions, that the production eventually gave up on him. Interestingly enough, Garfield is still considered by many as preceding actors using Method, and this would include James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

After Garfield, it was Brando’s name that was wired to the producer. The 23-year-old actor was then asked to travel to where Williams was. The actor arrived in the middle of a heated lovers’ quarrel between Pancho and Tennessee, but Brando would bowl them over. To Williams, following Lahr, Brando was a “spectacle of both beauty and prowess.”

Kazan tried to probe the acting approach of Brando: “He didn’t look at you, and he hardly acknowledged what you were saying. He was tuned in to you without listening to you intellectually or mentally. It was a mysterious process.”

Good acting, we would discover, would not always be received well by, well, other actors. In Lahr’s words: Marlon Brando’s characterization of Stanley was so strong that it threatened to overpower Tandy and throw the play off kilter.” Tandy would complain about this to Kazan.

Gore Vidal would put things succinctly: “In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared onstage in a torn sweaty T-shirt, there was an earthquake.”

There are more interesting insights in this thick biography—700-plus words including an index. For months, I swam through this deep, dangerous and marvelous ocean of narratives where Williams’s mind, to borrow the lines from Elizabeth Ashley, the playwright’s definitive Maggie of The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “went into the taboos of the heart and let us know that we don’t have to carve out of our souls the innocence and the madness.”

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