My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams.
This slight but warm volume is the first account of Tennessee Williams written by a bona fide friend of long standing. Smith is a poet of steady reputation and awesome duration, still productive and worth reading at ninety-four. He has no interest in settling scores, and the clarity of his prose will register well with readers weary of the clangorous and twaddly rot of much academic writing.
Whether or not My Friend Tom appreciably augments our understanding of Williams is another matter. We have not lacked information about the twenty-something St. Louisan in the mid- to late 1930s, the most sustained period of intercourse between him and Smith and the subject of the longest of Smith's chapters. Williams's mother and brother weighed in on the early adulthood of their famous relative in memoirs published in 1963 and 1983, respectively; the playwright's own Memoirs of 1975 chronicles the period, albeit in the woozy and haphazard manner characteristic of that volume; and selections of Williams's letters from the ages of eight to thirty-four appeared in 2000. Lyle Leverich's 1995 biography of the young Williams is profuse in its coverage of the college years, in the company of Smith and otherwise. There is no shortage of insistently chummy memoirs by acquaintances of the mature playwright; and this pertains, as Smith somewhat awkwardly extends his study to the time of Williams's death.
A fluidity of text among Smith's earlier work, Leverich's biography, and the present volume compromises My Friend Tom from the outset. The "entire chapter" on St. Louis, Smith acknowledges, "is based on chapters 3-13 of [Leverich], on which I collaborated intially and to which I have now made several additions" (158). Actually, some of the material had appeared in Smith's memoir Army Brat (1980) and other sources before finding its way to Leverich, as a result of which the "new" book often seems too familiar. Smith's addenda mostly concern Smith himself; and time and again a tendency to dwell on his own life, work, and other interests tugs the book from its stated purview. This problem is superevident in later chapters, for example in excursuses on Eudora Welty, and, bizarrely, in the illustrations, which include clever but irrelevant "typewriter portraits" by Smith of Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Tallulah Bankhead.
The short chapters that constitute the last two thirds of the book are a mixed bag. Engaging glimpses into Williams's later life and astute if impressionistic readings cohabitate with prose (and verse) of uncertain purpose. Lacunae are sometimes filled by material from Donald Spoto's unreliable 1985 biography, at cost to Smith's ethos and, again, to the freshness of his book. Some of these chapters are remarkably diffuse. In "Williams and Frank Merlo: Florence, 1949," Smith reproduces and glosses a letter that Williams wrote him in 1974, rehashes well-known material about Williams's college girlfriend and his then inchoate homosexuality, provides a roll call of other famous writers who had visited him (Smith) and his wife in post-war Florence, notices Welty s dislike of A Streetcar Named Desire, reproduces a large portion of Kenneth Tynan's 1954 review of Streetcar and other plays, and ends with a bit on the apparent homosexuality of Welty s beloved John Robinson. Interlarded are references to the titular visit during which Williams and his lover dined with the Smiths, listened while they read poetry postprandially, and, in the morning, visited a Fascist-era building that Williams "loved" (97). The get-together was obviously memorable to Smith, but his account of it seems unlikely to prove so to readers. A chapter about President Carter's bestowal on Williams of a Medal of Freedom is hamstrung by Smith's admission that "of what went on at the Williams table we have no report" (134). The memoirist on that occasion sat with Welty, who had impressed him by revealing that during the presentation proper "a fly had landed on Tennessee's cheek and then had circled his head for several minutes" (133). Smith's next paragraph begins thus: "I thought of the many houseflies that had pursued Tom in his long career ..." (133). Ouch.
Much of the book suffers from this lack of focus and enthusiasm for trivia, and the inclusion of long and frequently unreferenced quotations doesn't help. But there are gems here, too, even if few of them sparkle for the length of a chapter. A discussion of Williams's poetry is noteworthy both for treating that material seriously and for appraising it knowledgeably. Rather than making inflated claims for the verse, Smith documents Williams's lifelong commitment to poetry and demonstrates his friend's indebtedness to Sidney Lanier, Sara Teasdale, and Vachel Lindsay--predecessors less well remembered than Hart Crane, whom Williams habitually claimed as his inspiration. A firsthand account of the failed Boston tryout of Battle of Angels (1940) corrects Williams's famous assertion that "an already antagonistic audience" had responded with "outraged squawks, gabbling, [and] spluttering" when excessively ardent smoke pots spewed out "great sulfurous billows" at play's end (52-53). Not quite, says Smith, who recalls "a period of total confusion" followed by "a great hush" and, when the female lead moved downstage for a bow, "a strong wave of applause" (53). The snapshot of Smith reading Donne to a depressed Williams after the show is affecting, although like the broader account of the evening will be familiar to readers of Leverich's biography and Smith's previous work (here, a 1984 entry in the American Dictionary of Literary Biography).
Amid staler passages, the most illuminating portion of a chapter on a 1979 reading at Lynchburg College pathetically counterpoints Williams's charm and his drunkenness, a juxtaposition that Williams had by then worked into a set piece for audiences of callow acolytes. And in the clearer moments of his chapter on Williams's underrated Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), Smith points up the biographical pertinence of Williams's representation of Zelda Fitzgerald, for example by noticing the playwright's Zelda-like desire "to escape into both madness and creation" (130). Given how little has been written about Clothes for a Summer Hotel, the analysis should constitute an immediately useful contribution to the emergent discussion of Williams's late drama.
The most provocative chapter concerns a 1966 performance of JeanClaude van Rallies radical chic America Hurrah, during which Smith spied Williams seated nearby with a "fixed, stoned smile" on his face (108). After the show, the friends headed off for a drink, only to be interrupted in their perambulation when "the body of a man who had been hit by another man literally flew through the air and fell at our feet" (108). The ensuing brawl, Smith writes, "spoke brilliantly of the message offered by van Itallie ... [and] all we could do then was hail a passing cab, get back to our hotel, and wonder about the world we were living in that we had seen so accurately and forcefully depicted for us that evening" (108-9). The playwrights stuporous expression, the absence of dialogue, the abrupt, almost cinematic hyperkinesis of the fight, and the unresolved conclusion coalesce to make the account gorgeous as well as suggestive.
It is perhaps best to read My Friend Tom unencumbered by expectation. A reader content to drift through the book buoyed up by Smith's prose and heartened by his love for his subject will benefit from many of his fugitive observations as from the somewhat fuller sections noted above. Smith's description of Clark Mills McBurney's eyes as "a dull gray-blue that lit up like the underside of a crashing wave" (19) vibrates with an intensity not generally found in academic books. His brief reminiscence of the St. Louis production of Candles to the Sun (1937), Williams's first professionally staged full-length play, is particularly valuable for not having been hitherto committed to print. The recuperative and pedagogical power of age is amply on display in Smith's recollection of the voice--with "its light and dark resonance ... that was capable of lifting the listener into the realm of pure poetry" (60)--that Laurette Taylor brought to the role of Amanda Wingfield in the premiere of The Glass Menagerie (1945). Passages like these help attenuate the book's shortcomings, which are in any case forgivable in a memoir that, like the better sort of Williams character, is neither jaundiced nor exploitative.
University of North Texas
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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