Interview with Tennessee Williams
BROADCAST: May. 1, 1981 | DURATION: 00:38:05
Terkel interviews famous playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams gives his own reflections on his 70th birthday.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel What is remarkable about that conversation that took place in 1961, 20 years ago, is the prescience of it, the time we're in now and the kind of people who, indeed, have breakdowns now. I was thinking, Tennessee, how close to now that all your plays have been.
Tennessee Williams I think the violence, the brutality has certainly increased. We've had several presidential--we've had two, one presidential assassination, several attempts at assassination, the president--one a couple of days ago, and we've had the assassination of Martin Luther King, and we've had Governor Wallace crippled for, you know, virtually incapacitated for life. You must remember that you are now talking to a man who has gone through what Blanche went through. I've been in an asylum and I've survived. I've come out, whether or not I'm a crackpot, I said in an earlier interview that I was not. I think I'm a man who is, who has the San Andreas Fault built into him, and I'm not confident of the future.
Tennessee Williams Yes.
Studs Terkel And Alma Winemiller, the others who are considered strange, Tennessee Williams--they would say they're--as a Tennessee Williams figure, but are they so different from you, or is it that their sensibility is such, as so many of us are fragile, that at a time of such brutishness they do break down? I find friends of mine, among the most sensitive, who have indeed had nervous breakdowns, to put it mildly.
Tennessee Williams So many people you wouldn't expect to crack up, they do, suddenly. They live behind a facade, that, you know, which a society expects of them and they manage to maintain that facade up to a certain point. Then suddenly, a pressure shows how thin that facade is, because it cracks wide open.
Studs Terkel Your plays, Tennessee, I'm thinking from the very beginning, it was here in Chicago, of course, on that Christmastime, the winter of '45 it was, was it not, when we first met Amanda Wingfield.
Studs Terkel And then we saw Amanda, gallant, with her sham sensory--you spoke at the very beginning of this conversation some 20 years ago, you spoke of a double legacy of yours. A mother who you found charming, at the same time putting on an act, and a father was somewhat different, and you inherited both streaks, and later on you recognized your father as having more substance than you originally thought.
Tennessee Williams Oh, all of my fighting spirit comes from--no, both of them are fighters. They--actually, my mother who was only four feet eleven, conquered my father, who was six feet [two?], and but he adored her. Yes, well, I have a double legacy. It's true. Many a multiple legacy.
Tennessee Williams Episcopalian clergyman whose salary was around a hundred a month. We moved from parish to parish in the south, you know, and then I went north the--at eight, but I soon returned south. Now, I don't want to just be reviewing my rather well-known, rather overexposed biography. Is there something we can talk
Studs Terkel Let's talk about yourself and theater right now and the plays since '61. Yourself and what you've been--your vision, what you've been striving for and, indeed, in many instances accomplishing. So, where do we? Last time here--we'll talk about your current play. Now, the last time here was Zelda and Scott and "Clothes for a--"
Tennessee Williams "Clothes for a Summer Hotel", which I have re-written, and I carry around with me a great satchel full of nothing but manuscripts. I'm rather puzzled with the fact that so little of my work is produced in Ameri--in New York anymore, because I have theories, but they're not the sort of theories I wish to express right now. I have much better luck in England and in Europe.
Studs Terkel You've--
Studs Terkel You've just touched on something interesting, and that's a New York and American commercial theater and a playwright. In European theater, as a playwright of your stature, you know, the playwright of a country, of a society, is always honored, no matter what the play is that he writes. There is tremendous respect for his work. They might like some better than others, but somehow here, you have to start as though you had written nothing before. I mean, it's an astonishing fact that a Tennessee Williams play, they pick it up and see, as though you were a beginning player, as though there were no past. I think I'm hitting on something. It's as though we have no sense of history or past, whether it be a society or an individual, in this case an artist.
Tennessee Williams I don't know how to explain that. But it does. It is true, yeah. I think that every American writer has suffered terribly from that. I happen right now to be reading the collected letters of Ernest Hemingway. They're heart-breaking, with that poor man went through after well, his top work was, of course, "Sun Also Rises". "Farewell to Arms" was also a great work. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" they tell me was a great work. I rarely read a piece of fiction that's three and a half inches thick. So I only read bits of that, but there was always that impeccable, that matchless style.
Tennessee Williams Yet, here was a man who'd so desired death at the end that he tried to walk into the propeller of an airplane. Then he tried to leap from the airplane, he tried to break the door open and leap from an airplane. Finally, he blew out his brains with a elephant gun or something of the sort. It accomplished his death.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about yourself and the plays you've done. There's always this lyric quality to your plays, in the language itself. I'm not the first, of course, this has been one of your hallmarks, but the heroes and heroines are always a particular kind of person who I think, perhaps in all of us, there is this kind of wanting and not quite certain how to face up to it against, in a society or a framework that is so rough and tough.
Tennessee Williams I tell you, I have two kinds, at least two kinds of dominant blood in me. And that is, I am a fighter. I really am a terrific fighter. I had to summon various allies, but I managed to, declined to be thrown out of a hotel suite, on the day of opening. That is the fighting Williams blood in me.
Tennessee Williams "Clothes for a Summer Hotel", about the Fitzgeralds. People thought it presumptuous of me to write about the Fitzgeralds, yet I felt that I had experienced all of their problems, both their problems, I mean. I'd experienced my sister's madness, which is very like Zelda's, and my own, actually, because I had a period of mental breakdown. And then I had experienced early fame, as has Scott Fitzgerald, and then the humiliation that follows when you fall out of fashion.
Tennessee Williams Maybe American society does think in those terms. I just want to still have available to me great artists. Because my work needs great artists. My work should not be produced in a studio with a narrow proscenium which does not permit me to have the amount of space that I require. I am lucky in having excellent actors here in Chicago, but I need to work on a big stage.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking before I ask you about your current play now being performed in progress I assume at the Goodman, the roles you've written, primarily for women, men as well of course, but you're one of the few male playwrights, I don't know any other male who is able to somehow get into the psyche of a certain kind of woman, and so the actresses, from Laurette Taylor on, through Geri Page, to Maureen Stapleton to Margaret Leighton, you had magnificent actresses, and yet the roles have been for them so incredibly juicy.
Tennessee Williams Yes. I think people are inclined to overlook certain very vivid male roles that I've created like the gentleman caller Jim O'Connor in "The Glass Menagerie". They don't remember the tremendous power, perhaps, of Big Daddy of, I don't see how they could forget it. And T. Lawrence Shannon was a third and masculine person despite his sensibilities. I think of any number of plays I've written strong male parts, but fortunately I'm able to create female parts, too. I think, perhaps I do them better, yes.
Studs Terkel No, I'm saying very few male playwrights have been able to do that. Generally they have the strong male, when in your case it's both, I think. Big Daddy is a perfect case in point. And here Burl Ives was a singer. Burl Ives was primarily a singer and suddenly became a fine actor because of, I think it's primarily his own talents as well, but the idea of Big Daddy as a great study of Southern power, of power you might say in some community, in any community.
Tennessee Williams That's right. I was somewhat offended when, with the early sequences of a television show called "Dallas", because the man who owned the great estate there in "Dallas", he seemed to be somewhat a copy of Big Daddy, and also quite coincidentally, Barbara Bel Geddes, who played Maggie in "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof", was in that series, too, but then I thought, "Oh, well." Soon they soon ran out of material resembling "Cat", and they'd gone into all kinds of--
Studs Terkel You know that, well, of course there is a, you're talking about now, cannibalism. There is a cannibalism in the taking, stealing you have--well, you mentioned "Dallas", of course you can't compare the two, "Dallas", and what you've done, and yet it's remarkable how commercial property is, and the word is property, how producers all--the schlock makers and shakers are able to steal from others' good and profane it. But this is part of--do you remember the movie "Red Shoes"? It wasn't a great movie.
Studs Terkel But there was a wonderful scene there, in which a young playwright, a young composer is saying, "The man stole my work." And the producer said, "Forget about him. There's more where that came from." And, so, in a sense, it's you, too.
Tennessee Williams Yes. It's not a very catchy title, but when you see the play, it becomes a very pertinent one. And as I said, I don't think I can afford to work again in the studio at the Goodman, because I've had to support both the director and the man who, his friend who provides the music. I've had to support them and it takes quite a feat. Expensive.
Tennessee Williams The substance of it, yes. The substance of it is about the difficulty of holding together an American family in the South or anywhere. It depends a great deal on humor, and yet the end is, there's a kind of sadness, it's tragicomedy. It's also gothic comedy. There's going to be a third draft of it, but it will require a large scale, a large stage, and--
Studs Terkel And something is as though life has caught up with art. It's as though your play is, seem to have people, some would say, far out, different, so far removed from me, yet the very--we spoke of the prescience of your comments in the 1961 conversation. We're talking now 1981, and that which was considered way out, the character situations in your plays, so highly dramatic and theatrical, are really realistic now.
Tennessee Williams Oh, yes. Society has, society followed that pattern, and more or less, and we are living in times that seem to be, in a society that seems to be struggling, struggling fiercely against disintegration.
Tennessee Williams This family in the "House Not Meant to Stand" is fighting desperately against disintegration. It's leaking in the rain. There are several pails set around to catch the leaks. The house in a way is a metaphor for our society.
Studs Terkel The house we live in right now. There used to be a song in the palmy days we say, in the innocent days, a song called "The House I Live In", there was supposed to be America, metaphorical song, and how great it is, and you're saying the house has leaks in it, and--
Studs Terkel You know, and also the people live in it, now we come, because you deal with people who are not simple. They're not cartoon figures, and they have [to? the?] flesh, but also the ambiguities in them. And in an earlier play, "Summer and Smoke", Alma Winemiller is bucking both a Puritanism in her, you know. At the same time there's a wildness. There's a phrase said about your characters, caged, or perhaps you used it, "caged within our own skin."
Tennessee Williams That's true. Yes, Alma was caught in this cage of Puritanism, but was battling inside her something even stronger, which was her desperate need for love. For realization and love. And that prevailed in the end to the point where she was willing, when finally she gave up on the great love, great romantic love of her life, she was finally willing to settle for attractive younger salesman whom she met at the--
Studs Terkel Park.
Tennessee Williams Yeah, it's my appro--it's one I prefer, although they made an opera of "Summer and Smoke", which is much more moving as a play, I believe. I didn't like the diagrammatic quality of "Summer and Smoke" so much. There are one
Tennessee Williams Well, yes, I presume they must. I pay a great deal of attention to cadence, you know. I won't write a line that's [as?] cadence. And if a syllable is omitted, the cadence falls apart and I insist on its restoration, or I rewrite
Studs Terkel And that'll fit, perhaps, right here. And as we listen to this passage, the words of Tennessee Williams, the play, the origin is Tennessee Williams, the music is Hoiby's, we come back to the question of theater, lyric, I suppose the word "lyric theater" would be a description of your way, wouldn't
Studs Terkel But you right now, now here's this play. In your case it's continuously battling and creating and this is it, even after this play, no matter what happens to it, and I trust it will be a success eventually as you will rewrite it and be produced, you will continue as far as your writing is concerned.
Studs Terkel Chips.
Studs Terkel Cash in your chips. We have a long way to go before that. You know what's so funny? I'm going to say something personal. In that interview in 20 years ago, you said, "I'm 50." And I said, "Well, that's just the beginning." And you said, "Don't kid me, my friend. That's about it." Now it's 20 years later.
Tennessee Williams No, I was a clerk in the branch at the International Shoe Company in St. Louis. Terrible job, for which I was paid $65 a month. Well, I worked at night with black coffee, and it affected my heart, and at 24 I had my first heart attack. I went down to Memphis to see my grandparents, and one evening I had a recurrence of the palpitations while at dinner with some friends downtown, and a lady doctor was summoned. She said, "Your heart's, you're too uptight now, I'll examine you in my office tomorrow." And after all this, she examined me carefully, and she said, "Don't worry too much. You might live to be 40."
Tennessee Williams I tell you, as long as you're devoted to a certain--you have a certain commitment to a thing, it's astonishing how you can hang in until you fulfill that commitment to your--that's, you know, you're never going to defeat death altogether. No, although that was a Black bishop last night who claimed that I've been reincarnated several times and will be again.
Tennessee Williams You can't be. Those people who think you can get through life without a terrific struggle are deluding themselves, especially when it comes to the world of theater. You always have to have your gloves on. It doesn't mean you always have to be macho, macho. I couldn't be that. There are moments when I can be when I have to be, though.
Tennessee Williams Which
Tennessee Williams Well, I've written a number of lyrics meant to be put to music, yes. Paul Bowles, the marvelous writer and musician, has put a number of them to music. Unfortunately, I can't carry a tune, so I can't--
Studs Terkel Of course, someone would say, some would say about Thomas "Tennessee" Williams right now, Tom Williams, they'd say, "Tennessee, you sound bitter." This is my joke for now, you sound bitter. That's an understatement.
Tennessee Williams Bitter? No, no, I'm not bitter. I just think I recognize life. I began to recognize it rather early when I thought I might drop dead at any moment. And now I'm less bitter. You know, I try to get as much pleasure as I can out of each day as it comes along, because I know the days grow short as you reach--
Studs Terkel Let's go back to, on that, let's go back to '44, the spring of '44, a young playwright, "Glass Menagerie". Your thoughts at that moment when the play is being seen here at the Civic Theatre in Chicago for the first time. Do you remember your feelings at that moment?
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about you the young playwright, work as yet unknown, work as yet untested, and there you were, and there's Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens and people didn't know about the play, and they said, "You must see it," and then bang. There's Laurette Taylor, the others. And then there's New York, and then there's you.
Tennessee Williams Yes, even with Laurette Taylor, now I'm trust I'm answering what, the question, even with Laurette Taylor, the audiences were not altogether, you know, sold on the play. They considered it downbeat, they considered it eclectic in form, you know, but this great Claudia Cassidy, her spirit is so indomitable and so beautiful, and the late Ashton Stevens, together they sold Chicago on "The Glass Menagerie". I think we would have expired without them, we certainly would have, I think, even with Laurette Taylor. But any play of mine which is in a new genre, and almost all my new plays now has its own genre, its own type. This one particular. Particularly. The precise name of the genre to which it belongs I haven't yet discovered. I will in the third draft, perhaps, but it certainly is not going to be realism or anything like that. I have a restless nature. I want to move from form to form within drama.
Tennessee Williams Yes, but unless it's supported by the critics, it's not going to fare well any more than "Glass Menagerie" would have. Not that I think it's the equal of "Glass Menagerie", it isn't.
Studs Terkel Could there be a play--suppose, there, and this is an academic question, perhaps a silly one. Suppose there were no critics. Critics serve a purpose, no doubt. Claudia Cassidy and Stevens certainly served a most important purpose in making the audience aware of something that was rare and rich. But I think of critics, New York critics specifically, because they're so powerful, and what an individual can do or a couple can do to a play and the audience doesn't get a chance to judge for itself. Now, the question comes up. Suppose there were no critics. And this is one of those crazy questions.
Tennessee Williams Now that television has become so accessible to nearly all people, the theater needs to be promoted, subsidized. We need people who love theater to criticize plays and to guide public taste, which have been corrupted to a large degree by certain cheap entertainment.
Studs Terkel My question was an academic one, obviously. We, of course we need critics as you say, to, it has to be that because of what happens to it, but you said something about subsidized theater. So we come to the age-old question, when we speak of a subsidized theater, say by the state.
Tennessee Williams Yes.
Studs Terkel In many European countries, I'm talking about Western European now, let alone Eastern. People say, "Oh, the heavy hand of censorship will be here." But there's another censorship here, and that's the box office.
Tennessee Williams Yes. And that's why we need these critics with their passionate love for serious theater to sell our work, to point out to the public that it is offering them something that they will not be offered by TV networks except PBS.
Tennessee Williams I don't think they, there are many strings attached to what they subsidize. Now, the Goodman is a subsidized theater, and yet Gregory Mosher is quite daring, and he'll put on plays that you wouldn't expect to be popular successes. And the critics have often gone with him and helped him to put them over.
Studs Terkel Now, I was thinking of actually government subsidized, like we know for example in Germany there are many civically subsidized theaters, state, city subsidized theater, in Sweden, in England, we know this is so, and there has been no censorship in that sense, see.
Tennessee Williams Not really. Not really, Studs. We talked about as much--not in my professional life now. It may be drawing close to a conclusion. At any rate, it has extended over threescore and ten year. I mean, my life has extended over three score years and ten. I've been working in theater since 1934, first in amateur, by 1940 in professional theater. I don't think we've left out anything of importance that I have to say.
Studs Terkel Tennessee Williams. Playwright. A magnificent one, indeed. We look for more of your--congratulations on what you've done, and of course a salute to what you will do. And thank you very much indeed.