Tennessee Williams, Restless and Revising
Posted February 12, 2018 9:26 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Tennessee Williams’ most reliable instrument of release — and torture — glows impiously in the hushed white gallery of the Morgan Library & Museum, like a neon sign in a church.
It is only a manual typewriter, one of the many that did hard labor under the fingers of this great American playwright, who is the subject of “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing,” a profoundly affecting new exhibition of manuscripts and memorabilia.
But the color of this machine, an Olivetti Lettera 32, belies its utilitarian function. How to describe this shade of blue? To call it aqua or teal seems too pedestrian for the man under consideration here. Williams (1911-1983) delighted in finding names for blues — chromatic, spiritual, emotional.
He allowed Blanche DuBois, heroine of the immortal “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to point out, in extremis in the play’s final scene, that her dressing gown was “della Robbia blue, the blue of the robe in the old Madonna pictures.” She went on to predict that she would be buried at sea, dropped overboard into “an ocean as blue ... as my first lover’s eyes.”
Splashes of blue erupt throughout the dominating blacks and whites of “No Refuge but Writing,” which is curated by Carolyn Vega, in the manner of sudden springs forcing their way to the surface. They show up in portraits Williams painted of himself (and of his lover, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez) and in the empyrean fierceness with which he endowed his own eyes.
Then there’s the echo sounded in the first entry in a diary Williams kept in 1955 during rehearsals for his “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” It begins, “A black day to begin a blue journal.” He was, he wrote, “tired and a bit drunk, and I have a beastly cold.” And after lamenting the inadequacy of his leading lady, Barbara Bel Geddes, he fretted about “the play not coming to life enough.”
One can imagine Vega, an associate curator in the Morgan’s Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, facing similar worries. Documents under glass; black-and-white photographs; manuscripts — these would hardly seem ideal elements for conjuring a man who lived and wrote in Technicolor and was always, it seemed, on the run from his demons.
Yet “No Refuge but Writing” feels anything but static. The restless energy that drove (and sometimes flattened) Williams buzzes amid the quiet of this exhibition, which follows the dramatist’s career from “Battle of Angels” (1941), his first produced play, to “Orpheus Descending” (1957), a reworking of the same material.
Both “Battle” and “Orpheus” were flops. But what came in between were the works that made Williams a literary titan, including “The Glass Menagerie” (1945), his breakthrough play, which he said ushered in “the catastrophe of success”; “Streetcar” (1947), his masterpiece; “The Rose Tattoo” (1951, and his only Tony Award winner); and “Cat,” his personal favorite.
These productions are mostly represented here on paper, via rough drafts, scripts, programs, notebooks, correspondence and sketches for sets. In other words, the living flux that is theater reduced to two dimensions.
Look closer, though, at the framed pages on display, and a fraught and excited dialogue surfaces, reminding us that what is now archival was once trembling potential. Penciled notations on the rough drafts show a writer still sculpting and shaving material that, in its finished form, has acquired the solidity of sacred texts in a canon.
But how fungible they once were, names and characters and stories still swirling before settling into the shapes of posterity, and how different they might have been. The typewritten text for a late addition to “The Glass Menagerie,” its concluding scene, offers that much-quoted benediction from its narrator, Tom, to his sister: “Blow out your candles, Laura.” Those are not, however, the play’s last words. They are “And so, goodbye.” And we can see here that this curtain-closing farewell has been penciled in, not by Williams, but by the producer of the original production of “Menagerie,” Margo Jones.
Sequential versions of what would become “Streetcar” are on display across a long wall. One draft (dated 1945-6) is titled “The Passion of a Moth,” and instructions, in the author’s hand on the upper right corner of the title page, read, “Typist — please change ‘Ralph’ to ‘Stanley’ whenever found in script.” The Blanche character appears as “Gladys” in a precursor to “Streetcar” called “Interior: Panic,” a title that speaks volumes about both the character’s and her creator’s states of mind.
There’s chatter — frenzied and buoyant, discouraged and exultant — in these changes, which suggest endless exchanges among a writer and early readers. You have the chance to examine, side by side, the four alternative endings that Williams proposed to director Elia Kazan for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” each of which slants the play toward slightly different degrees of optimism, cynicism and resignation.
Williams’ steamroller mother, Edwina, and his delicate sister, Rose — whom with the playwright made up the quarrelsome tribe of fantasists that inspired “Menagerie” — are represented here by snapshots that look as if they had been freshly unglued from a family scrapbook. The presence of his adored Rose, who would spend her life in mental institutions after being given a prefrontal lobotomy, feels especially vivid.
You can see her as a young woman, seated in serene profile in a pink dress against a twilight-blue background, in a portrait by Florence Ver Steeg. There is an innocence about the painting’s subject and its rendering breaks your heart. And if you know anything about Williams’ life and work, you can be excused for thinking that those demure pastels scream “danger.”
The vision of the damaged Rose — of Laura and her still burning candles, of Catherine and her dangerous, endangered brain in “Suddenly, Last Summer” — would always inform Williams’ work. It also surely figured among the “dismembering furies” (a phrase scrawled on the title page of his “Orpheus Descending” manuscript) that pursued him wherever he went.
Not that he didn’t do his damnedest to outrun them. His typewriters were portable of necessity. The life portrayed in “No Refuge” is exhaustingly and hopelessly itinerant. “I am already making plans for a faraway flight (perhaps as far as Ceylon), the night the play opens in New York,” Williams wrote during the first days of rehearsal for “Cat.”
The frontispiece of a cherished volume of Hart Crane poems, an idol of Williams’ youth, is filled with the changing addresses of its owner, from his native St. Louis to the Men’s Residence Club in Murray Hill in New York to temporary sanctuaries in Key West, Florida; Paris; Los Angeles; Rome; Taos, New Mexico; and New Orleans.
On the facing page, Williams has written two versions of a rumination on the thick skins of most people and his own too permeable flesh: “Alas for the poor dreamer, who has emerged unarmored from the womb of nature and who has been cast into the world without the indispensable insulation.”
The artist was still finding his voice, but the sensibility that would shape everything he wrote was already in place. What choice did he have but to keep running, and writing? This exhibition of fixed pieces never seems to stop moving.
“Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing”
Through May 13 at the Morgan Library & Museum; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.