'Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh', by John Lahr

Blood-Hot and Personal

Into this scene comes the man of truth—awkward, timid, inept, even with an almost idiotic side. But he is the bringer of truth, the man from whom progress grows. He creates or destroys, there is no middle ground or compromise in him.

—Clifford Odets,

The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets

I suspect my only influences were Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence— and my life

. —Tennessee Williams

On March 31, 1945, at the Playhouse Theatre on Forty-Eighth Street, on the unfashionable side of Broadway, in New York City, the curtain rose on the sold-out opening night of The Glass Menagerie ten minutes late, at 8:50 p.m. Tennessee Williams, the show’s thirty-four-year-old playwright, sat in the aisle seat on the left side of the sixth row. Wearing a gray flannel suit with a button missing, a water-green shirt, and a pale conservative tie, he seemed, according to one paper, “like a farm boy in his Sunday best.” Beside him was his friend, and cruising sidekick, Donald Windham, with whom he was collaborating on the romantic comedy You Touched Me! A few seats away in the same row, his chic, diminutive agent, Audrey Wood, sat clutching the hand of the renowned set designer Robert Edmond Jones, her escort for the evening. At the clumsy dress rehearsal the day before, an aphorism of William Liebling, her husband and business partner, kept playing through her mind—“You’re only as good as the night they catch you.” At the dress rehearsal, as the cast got their notes, the play’s tyro producer Louis Singer slid beside her. “Tell me—you are supposed to know a great deal about theater—is this or is it not the worst dress rehearsal you’ve seen in your life?” he said. Words, for once, failed Wood. She nodded a vigorous yes.

Wood fiercely believed in Williams and in her own instincts. Her father, William Wood, a theater manager, had exposed her at a young age to the art and business of vaudeville and theater; the agency that she founded with Liebling in 1937 would come to represent some of the most influential theatricals in the industry: William Inge, Carson McCullers, Robert Anderson, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Elia Kazan, and Joshua Logan among them. But Williams, her client of six years, had not yet known success. On April Fool’s Day, 1939, tipped off to his talent, Wood had written the unknown author, “It seems to me, from what I’ve heard about you, that you may be exactly the kind of author whom I might help.” She judged him “not a finished dramatist” but “highly promising.” By May of that year, Williams had joined forces with Wood, who promptly sold one of his short stories to Story magazine. “You are playing a very long shot when you take an interest in my work,” Williams wrote her. So it had proved. More than anyone in the Broadway audience that opening night, Wood understood the precariousness of his situation. “I’d reached the very, very bottom,” Williams said, recalling his state of mind. “I couldn’t have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a teletype operator. . . . I couldn’t have made it for another year, I don’t think.”

Eddie Dowling, a jug-eared fifty-one-year-old actor, was improbably cast as Tom Wingfield, the play’s young narrator. He was also the show’s co-director and co-producer. Standing in front of set designer Jo Mielziner’s transparent fourth wall—a see-through scrim that evoked the delicate moods of the play by allowing the exterior of the alley and the fire escape to be lit both separately and simultaneously with the shabby genteel interior of the Wingfield apartment, Dowling went into the opening speech. “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve,” the Narrator said, brazenly announcing Williams’s visionary powers. “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time.”

As the lights faded out on Dowling, they faded in on Laurette Taylor as Amanda, the matriarch of the hapless Wingfield family, entering upstage into the apartment’s dining room. The reception for Taylor, who had made her Broadway debut in 1903 at the age of nineteen and had been a full-fledged star for more than thirty years, was deafening. On the eve of her sixty-first birthday, she was returning to Broadway after a five-year hiatus. Her rustication was the aftermath of an Actors’ Equity suspension for drunkenly disrupting and closing a play. The death of her playwright husband, Hartley Manners, in 1928, had sent Taylor “on the longest wake in history,” as she liked to joke. “She’d closed many a show on opening night. The managers despised her, and they thought I was crazy entirely to have anything to do with her,” Dowling said. Management might have been wary of Taylor—“the alcoholic of alcoholics,” as she was known on the Rialto—but the public’s loyalty was rock solid. “Nothing like this we’d ever heard before. And so it thwarted the action a little bit, and it threw her. It really threw her,” Dowling recalled about the barrage of applause that greeted Taylor. To fill the stage time and to settle the audience, Taylor brushed the hair out of her eyes and talked into the telephone. “It’s Amanda,” she said, holding the receiver in her hand—vamping until the applause died down—“It’s Amanda. And I’ve got to talk to you.” Finally the audience grew quiet. “This was just about the time I came through the door and said, ‘Ma, I’ve got good news for you,’” Dowling recalled. “Instead of giving me the right answer, she took me into the second act.”

Wood had asked Dowling to direct The Glass Menagerie because of his success staging William Saroyan’s delicate and poetic The Time of Your Life in 1939. When she rushed him the slender, fifty-page script, Dowling was two weeks into casting a play called The Passionate Congressman. “Audrey I love the play that you sent me and I’ll buy it,” he told her. “Buy it for what?” Wood asked. “I said, ‘We’ll do it as a play.’ She said, ‘Will you put a curtain raiser in front of it? It’s too short.’ I said, ‘We’ll do no such thing. We’ll make it ‘long enough.’” Dowling added: “Send the boy around.”

Dowling met “a sick, tormented boy” profoundly wary of Broadway and those swamis of box-office wisdom, “the Broadway crowd.” “He couldn’t believe. He sat and watched. He’d been through the wringer so much. I don’t think he even heard half of what I was talking about,” Dowling recalled. “He was far away. He was arriving at a decision within himself.” “He said, ‘Do you really mean that this will go into a Broadway theatre?’ I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be wasting your time or my own, and I wouldn’t be spending this money if I didn’t think so. The Broadway theatre is the only theatre I know.’ Without much ado, he left, not too excited. He didn’t say much of anything.”

“Success is like a shy mouse—he won’t come out while you’re watching,” Williams had written; he certainly didn’t see The Glass Menagerie’s potential. Dismissing it as “a nauseous thing” and “an act of compulsion not love,” he scrawled his displeasure on the title pages of the various drafts: “a rather tiresome play,” “the ruins of a play,” “a lyric play,” and, on the final submitted manuscript, “a gentle play.” To this last comment Williams appended a note: “The purposes of this play are very modest. The hurdles are lowered to give the awkward runner an exercise in grace and lightness of movement. No stronger effect is called for than that evoked by a light but tender poem.”

But the cloud that seemed to hang over Williams’s view of the play didn’t obscure its shine for Dowling. He broke his contract for The Passionate Congressman. “I gave up a sure $25,000 to do it, and I didn’t have twenty-five cents when I did it. I was always just ahead of the sheriff,” he said. The producers were furious, but Dowling’s enthusiasm for his new property was so infectious that he persuaded one of them, Louis Singer, to put up $50,000 without ever having read it. The no-read condition was only part of the tough deal Dowling cut with Singer, who balked at first. “I said, ‘Make up your mind.’ He hesitated, and I thought I was going to lose him,” Dowling recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You know what the usual deal is on the Street. The money gets 50% and the producer gets 50%, but the money gets their investment back before the other fellow gets a cent and then they divide dollar for dollar.’ He said, ‘That’s right. Is that what you’re proposing?’ I said, ‘No. That’s the deal you’ve got now. You bring in an agreement where you’re not to read the play, you’re not to attend any rehearsals, you’re not to have anything to do with this. You keep completely away, until we’re getting ready to open, and until everything is paid for and all the bills are up. If you do this, I’ll give you an extra 25%. You get 75% and I get 25%.’ And that was the deal.”

Dowling could turn his attention now to casting the four-hander, whose biggest challenge was Amanda Wingfield, the embattled bundle of Southern decorum and Puritan denial. At the suggestion of George Jean Nathan, an influential critic and the model of the waspish Addison DeWitt in the film All About Eve, Dowling went to see Laurette Taylor, who lived above the Copacabana at the top of Hotel 14 on East Sixtieth Street, where, as Dowling said, “she’d been hibernating with a gin bottle for twelve years.” “She was a long time allowing me up,” Dowling recalled. When she opened the door, the sight of her frightened him. “She was in her bare feet, with an old beaten[-up] kimono around her, and her hair all scraggly. It was a pitiful kind of thing,” he said. He gave her the pitch and the play. “Is your telephone on here?” Taylor asked, and shut the door.

 

Not acting had left Taylor in a “jam about money.” To keep going and to keep her brain from ossifying in the loneliness of her handsome apartment, Taylor wrote short stories and articles for Vogue and Town and Country. She also completed a novel, which she tried, unsuccessfully, to sell to the movies. But “no play has come my way all winter, which is indeed very discouraging,” she wrote to her son. “I am, of course, desperately let down in my courage for a bit and certainly let down in my finances.”

Taylor immediately sat down to read the play. “Between two and three in the morning, after I finished reading ‘The Glass Menagerie’, I thought a lot about the mother in the story,” Taylor said later. In Amanda Wingfield’s misguided endurance, Taylor recognized both the comedy and the tragedy of a grief that she herself was still living through. “I could look back and see her as a girl. Pretty, but not very intelligent, with plenty of beaux. Not seventeen of them, of course. She says seventeen in the play, but she’s lying. I know why her husband left her. She talked and talked until he couldn’t stand it. She nags her children to pull them out of their poverty. She loves them. For them, she has strength and tenacity.” During the war years, Taylor had been sent scripts with only “tobacco-spitting mammas, horrible old harridans—crude disgusting roles,” as she put it. Now, she knew that “the absolutely right part had come along.”

The next day, Taylor called Dowling and asked him back up to her apartment. Taylor met him at the door with the play under her arm. “She’d spruced up a little bit,” Dowling recalled. “Do you think Broadway, this bastardly place, will buy this lovely, delicate fragile little thing?” Taylor asked. “This is what I’m betting on,” Dowling replied. “That’s the kind of talk I like to hear,” Taylor said, adding “but you can’t get a theatre with me.” Dowling pooh-poohed Taylor’s worry and told her that was his concern. “Can we talk business. Can you tell me what you want?” Dowling said.

“Right this minute? You know what I’d like better than anything else in the world? I’d like a martini,” Taylor replied.

“Would you like me to take you out and get you a martini?” Dowling said.

Taylor did a little twirl around the room and lifted her leg. “She said, ‘I can’t go out. Look,’” Dowling recalled. “She said, ‘Look at those nylon stockings. There’s a war on, you know that. I don’t have a pair of stockings to my name.’ I said, ‘I could order some things for you.’” Taylor continued, “You’re a big shot, head of the USO [United Service Organizations]. You have a lot of influence. Could you get me a few pairs of nylon stockings?”

“I can get you all the stockings you want. I have to get them for the troupes we send abroad. I’ll get them for you today,” Dowling said.

“All right,” Taylor said. “You’ve got your actress. I’ll play that Southerner.”

Dowling was thrilled to have his star; but Tennessee Williams, after hearing her first tentative reading at Hotel 14, was not. When he and Dowling got outside, Dowling remembered, Williams stood beside a row of garbage cans, beseeching him, “Oh, Mr. Dowling, you’ve got to get rid of that woman who’s doin’ a Negress. My mother ain’t a Negress. My mother’s a lady.” “Young man,” Dowling told him. “You’ll live to eat those words.” He went on: “You wait till the curtain goes up on it. You just wait.”

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr, is available now in paperback. Order from the Bloomsbury website to get 10% off.