Today would have been Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday, and there are many projects in the pipline to celebrate the fact, including the starry Suddenly Next Summer on Broadway in the autumn with Nicole Kidman and James Franco. The Independent have dedicated a long article to the great man:
Tennessee Williams – arguably the greatest of American dramatists – would have notched up his 100th birthday on 26 March. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister, his father, Cornelius, was a womanising and hard-drinking travelling salesman for a shoe company. History does not record how the birth went, though it is a fair bet that the occasion was more elevated than the master playwright’s less than ideally dignified demise some 71 years later.
In February 1983 in a Manhattan hotel room, Williams choked to death from inhaling the plastic cap of a nasal spray dispenser. His gagging reflex had been impaired by drink and drugs. To his righteous detractors – who had long looked askance at this laureate of lost souls and champion of life’s undesirables – it must have seemed like roundly retributive poetic justice. The assiduous substance-abuse of the author of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire was, by then, the stuff of legend. In his Memoirs (1972), Williams had characterised the 1960s as his “Stoned Age”, while Tallulah Bankhead, chum and sometime leading lady, had once quipped, punningly: “Tennessee – you and I are the only constantly High Episcopalians I know…”
… A review of Memoirs notoriously claimed that the author may not have opened his heart, but he had certainly opened his fly. Williams knew better than most dramatists the hotline between the groin and the higher seat of the emotions. His productivity right to the end of his life, exemplified in the celebrations here, offers the heartening spectacle of a man who, even when hardly able to stand upright through excess, could still, in Gene David Kirk’s lovely description, “sit at the typewriter each morning and unzip his heart”.
Photo: Williams in the 1940s