The first night of Ingmar Bergman's radical production of Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre in 1970 was nearly derailed by the antics of a bearded middle-aged man occupying a box with his handsome young companion. There was a certain amount of kerfuffle in the box, but the main problem was the older man's braying laughter at every line uttered by Maggie Smith. She was giving a performance of fierce containment, but the laugher responded as if she were a stand-up comedian. At the interval, we heard, the man and his companion were asked to leave. And then we heard who the man was. It was Tennessee Williams, in the midst of the protracted falling apart which had by now occupied the best part of a decade, and had another painful decade to run. He could be glimpsed, on both sides of the Atlantic, bearded, tubby, bespectacled, oddly attired - sometimes wearing shorts in winter, or safari suits at a gala - oozing alcohol, erratic and incoherent, accompanied sometimes by glamorous actresses, more often by young men of raw beauty and scant conversational skills.
New plays continued to come from him, but they were either enigmatic and incoherent, or flaccid, lacking in any sort of inner tension, made up of the old ingredients but now leaden, not alchemised into the burnished beauty he so uniquely commanded. Critics, smelling blood, swooped on the wounded writer with savage relish. The relentless John Simon denounced everything that Williams wrote from the early 1960s with such brutality it seemed his sole purpose was to drive the playwright into retirement or perhaps an early grave. "The kindest thing to assume is that Williams died shortly after completing Sweet Bird of Youth, and that his subsequent, ever more dismal plays are the work of a lover of his who has learned to impersonate him perfectly in daily life, but only very crudely in playwriting."
It was a terrible spectacle. How had the writer out of whom had poured The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, come to this? The revelation of Margaret Bradham Thornton's stupendous, superbly annotated edition of Williams's Notebooks is that nothing ever poured out of him. Everything, from the beginning, was squeezed out with agonising difficulty, surrounded by intense self-doubt and constant premonitions of physical and emotional collapse. We have known about this from previous sources - from the various collections of letters, from his own Memoirs, above all from the one volume of the authorised biography completed by Lyle Leverich - but never quite from the horse's mouth like this, unmediated by the element of performance inherent in correspondence or autobiography. This is what it was like, minute by minute, to be Tennessee Williams, his own commentary on himself for himself. In leaving the Notebooks to posterity, he noted that "they may have some usefulness as a history of an individual's fight for survival, emotional travail ... I wrote them purely the way that Catholics talk through a black cloth to the priest in the next cubicle. Except," he adds, characteristically, "that I was both Father Confessor and Son Confessor."
Of course this cannot continue, simply on a physical level, but the same is true emotionally. And writing becomes harder and harder: "If only I could get the colored lights going in my brain!" The uppers and the downers and the booze and the drugs finally induce feelings of dullness. "The talent died in me from overexposure, sort of sunstroke under the baleful sun of success." He sees that he has never been entirely in life, always detached from it. "Your hat is not in the ring," he had been told in his early manhood, and he sees the truth of this, helplessly watching his own decline. "The way down is long and it continues," he writes, while struggling desperately with Orpheus Descending and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the latter of which, at any rate, is acclaimed in terms which must have made Williams roar with ironic laughter: "It seems not to have been written. It is the quintessence of life ... simplicity and directness of craftsmanship." He attempts psychoanalysis, but withdraws when the analyst tells him that he must be prepared to "go through hell": what else had he been doing all his life?
The journals stop in 1958 and resume 21 years later with a searching Apologia pro sua vita. "Did I die by my own hand or was I destroyed slowly and brutally by a conspiratorial group? ... I don't understand my life, past or present, nor do I understand life itself. Death is more comprehensible to me." In fact he lived for another four years after writing that, and then he only died by the absurd circumstance of choking on the cap of an eyedrop bottle. After 73 years of constant abuse, his body was still perfectly capable of enduring more: endurance, the greatest of virtues in his world view. "En avant", many of the entries end, and it might well have been the title for the book as a whole.
Simon Callow's Orson Welles: Hello Americans is published by Jonathan Cape.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007