Tennessee Williams: The Rotten Flowers Of The Magnolia Tree

by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), December 14, 2016

His maternal grandfather, named Rakin, was the rector of The Episcopal Church of Columbus, when Tennessee Williams was born in that Mississippi city on March 26 in 1911.  His paternal grandfather, one Lanier Williams II, a man of accredited lineage, squandered a fortune trying unsuccessfully to become governor.  His mother Edwina was capable of managing a man, a beast, or a storm.  His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was demeaned during his military career as a simple ne'er do well and wound up as a traveling salesman for a shoe company--a job which permitted him to visit the whorehouse of every place he worked.

His sister Rosa spent her life among psychiatrists, was subjected to a lobotomy, and spent her life locked up in a mental hospital.  And there was the childhood friend, Hazel, his ambiguous girlfriend of adolescence before our hero became a ravenous crocodile that consumed young men.   Hazel would only permit him to kiss her on the mouth twice a year:  on Christmas day and on their "anniversary".

It's useful to remember the names of these family members because Tennessee Williams would do no less than pass them through his inspiration and, hidden behind different masks, onto the stages of his theater.  But in his work, there is another is another large, invisible character that rambles beneath the rotten perfume of the magnolia trees after a rainstorm, on the wooden porches of mansions, among the sweat, the Bible, and alcohol.  It's called The South.

The boy adored his grandfather Rankin whom he always associated with the happiest times of his childhood.  Rankin's first gift consisted of taking the boy with him on a trip through Europe with a bunch of other family members while Tennessee was still a teenager.  He also paid the two thousand dollars that the young man needed to get into the University of Missouri in the city of Columbia in autumn of 1929.  During the tempestuous days of Tennessee's youth, he would help him out whenever he could.

On the other hand, Tennessee respected his father until the day that he bit off the ear of another player during a poker game and scandal ensued.

When he was a child, he had diphtheria and during the long period of convalescence in bed, he began to imagine stories.  He was always sure that he wouldn't live very long.  The insanity of his sister and the memory of their black Nanny Ossie awakened an unspeakable tenderness in him; but the strength of his mother possessed an attraction that never let him escape from her orbit, where he always felt protected.  When he was 11 years old, she gave him his first typewriter.

He was neurotic and sickly.  He had heart problems and a cataract that left a cloud in the left pupil; he was shy to the point of mortification:  If someone looked him in the eye, his face would burn and he would redden to the ears.  Reading his splendid, stark memoirs it's hard to understand how one day he suddenly smashed his timidity and decided to openly display a homosexuality so demanding that it obliged him to devour every night a young *partenaire*, a classmate, or some brute he tracked down in the most dangerous nocturnal regions, always risking public shame or a beating.

When things took an unexpected turn and he had to leave the University of Missouri because of lack of money, his father got him a job in the shoe factory; however, the life of Tennessee was a constant journey from one place to another, with his family or alone.  He traveled to St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Mexico, Key West, New York, and Rome; but whether in the outside world or within his own mind, he wandered without ever finding himself.

For a time, he was a doorman and elevator operator in a hotel.  Meanwhile he was writing short stories that he would send to the magazine *Story*. Anton Chekov and D.H. Lawrence were his instructors at that time.

In 1939, he abandoned the university, found work on a poultry farm in the outskirts of Los Angeles as a chicken-plucker.  For every chicken he plucked, he would put a feather in a milk bottle with his name on the label, and he would be paid according to the number of feathers in the bottle.  One of his fellow workers gave him a small lesson in philosophy:

—Take note:  If someone spends enough time in any part of California, sooner or later a seagull passing overhead will wind up shitting a pile of gold on top of him.

And so it was.  While he was plucking chickens, The Theatrical Group of New York informed him that he had just won a special prize of one hundred dollars for a piece called *American Blues*.  At that time, a hundred dollars was a good bit of money.  That's how it all began.

He would repeat that sentence of his fellow worker in one of his plays.

Since the 1950s, I've always associated the name Tennessee Williams with the captivating sound produced by the titles of his works:  *The Glass Menagerie*, *The Cat On A hot Tin Roof*, *Summer and Smoke*, *Sweet Bird of Youth*, *A Streetcar Named Desire*, *The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone*.

At the time, that sound was all I needed.  They were words that passed over the tongue and the palate like fresh coconut and I believed I had penetrated the essence of his passions merely by pronouncing them.

All of his plays were made into movies and in them he again and again turned inside out the obsessions of his misfit characters to escape sordid reality through their dreams.  These characters are brutal men who take out their aggressions on frail sensitive women; deranged heroines who inhabit disaster and fantasy at the same time; decadent aristocrats who are lost among alcohol and psalms.

Tennessee Williams was one of his own characters.  He never achieved any success that wasn't followed by destruction.  It was only during the years he spent with his stable companion Frankie Merlo that he attained a convulsive serenity in his life; but with the early death of his friend, all restraints were broken.  Embracing ever changing young bodies that he stalked in the streets, he maneuvered among drugs and alcohol without ever ceasing to be that sickly child whom his mother adored.

Tennessee Williams died at the age of 71 in the room of a hotel having choked to death on the cap of a bottle of pills. His brother Dakin believes he was murdered.  He's buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

"Desire" is the name of a neighborhood in New Orleans.  A streetcar that bore the name of its destination under a glass pane in its facade used to go from the center of the city to this neighborhood in the outskirts.  One day I boarded this streetcar. Desire was a poor, dangerous neighborhood. I got off at that stop.  I traversed streets of wooden houses with small porches accessible by rotting steps that were occupied by drunks with murky expressions who were holding bottles of beer.

I imagined that one of the drunks was Marlon Brando in a sweat-soaked tee shirt and that a woman hanging the clothes was Vivian Leigh draped in silks, buttons, and bows.

Later, in the French Quarter, beneath the porches with cast iron filigrees, I stopped by the houses in which Tennessee Williams had lived.  In the backyards of these houses, the Magnolias scaled the walls while the sound of jazz emanated from the nightclubs.  It is through these streets that his soul wanders.

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