“Security is kind of a death, I think, and it can come in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were or intend to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about—What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.”
The Catastrophe of Success
Between 1944 and 1961 Tennessee Williams had a run of plays on Broadway that included The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Night of the Iguana. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and many of his plays were made into films.
But the Williams’ plays first produced from 1962 though his death in 1983 are little remembered or performed today. The limited runs and poor reviews of plays from his last two decades weighed heavy on Williams.
“[Tennessee Williams] feigned disinterest in reviews, but he was deeply disturbed by them. Unfavorable ones could devastate him. Favorable ones might corrupt him. The most successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as one friend said, as a ‘biological necessity.’”
NY Times 1983, Tennessee Williams Is Dead
Some have claimed that critics lead to the destructive path Williams took, and others argue that his drinking/alcoholism, cigarettes, and drug use led to the decline of his writing. Still others point to Tennessee mourning the death in 1963 of his one-time gay partner of 14 years leading to his debilitating depression.
But whatever the reason his popularity declined and in 1969 his brother intervened and had Tennessee committed into a psychiatric hospital for a few months. Though it strained their relationship, it probably saved Tennessee’s life. Tennessee continued to write the rest of his life, but other than his play Small Craft Warning in 1972 he struggled to find an audience. In 1977 he was quoted in the NY Times saying he was, “widely regarded as the ghost of a writer.” He did experience an upsurge toward the end of his life as is major plays were performed in revival and as a new and young audience discovered his work. (And that continues to this day.)
Like the cause of his decline, Tennessee’s death involves a little speculation; the NY Times first said officials claimed the 71-year-old playwright died of natural causes, the original medical examiner’s report said Williams’ choked to death on a medicine bottle cap, others say the drug and alcohol that Williams consumed over his later decades was a form of suicide, and his brother claimed that Tennessee was killed by someone because he wouldn’t change his will.
Whatever the reason, Williams was found dead on February 25, 1983.
But if you step back from his life and career, and just look at the 10 or 15 year period where he wrote some of the most amazing plays in the history of American theater you have to marvel at the output. Fueled by family demons, a poet’s heart, and strong coffee, Williams and his passion to write came along at just the right time to shine. Just as attendance in American movies was declining and television was still in its infancy, American theater was serious business. (Remember Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949 and ran for 742 performances.)
So let’s go back to November 30, 1947 and look at The Catastrophe of Success. The essay Williams wrote toward the start of his career after The Glass Menagerie shot him into the spotlight, but just four days before A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. This is how he concluded his essay:
“Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive—that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. ‘In the time of your life—live!’ That time is short and doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”