Mar 262011

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  and . have ded­ic­ated a long art­icle to the great man:

– 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 ’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”.

via Ten­nessee Wil­li­ams: A tor­men­ted play­wright who unzipped his heart — Fea­tures, Theatre & Dance — The Independent

Photo: Wil­li­ams in the 1940s

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