THE REMARKABLE aspect of Tennessee Williams," Donald Spoto quotes the playwright Robert Anderson as observing, "is how he transmuted his anguished life into great plays. Wasn't it Faulkner who said that a writer needs experience, observation and imagination? Williams had them in abundance, and these qualities enabled him to turn his private pains into public art." That there were private pains in abundance, many of them self-inflicted, is perhaps the principal theme of these two books; certainly it is in many respects a painful business to read them, filled as they are with accounts of Williams' wildly self-destructive abuse of drugs and alcoho, his astonishingly promiscuous homosexual activity, and his descent over the last two decades of his life into hypochondria, paranoia and panic.
The pain is everywhere in both books, but that is about all they have in common. Spoto's is a straightforward, chronological biography. It was not authorized by the Williams estate, which presumably explains its relative lack of direct quotation from Williams' correspondence and works; but Spoto had access to many people who knew Williams well, and from their testimony as well as the public record he has managed to paint a persuasive and satisfying portrait. Dotson Rader, by contrast, has written a vulgar book that seems to exist primarily to prove his own intimacy with Williams and to drop famous names in numbing profusion; it is, to borrow Rader's own description of a pornographic film he once saw, "an altogether wretched piece of work, smarmy and pretentious at the same time."
Rader is a homosexual who came into Williams' life around 1970 and, by his own testimony, hung around a good deal until Williams' death in 1983. His testimony is gratuitously explicit on a number of matters, but coyly vague when it comes to his own exact relationship with Williams -- who, Spoto writes, was surrounded in his last years by a "circle of attractive young men ever in attendance now more than ever, and more boldly than ever, (who) sought the glamour of association." Whether Rader was merely one of these or a genuine intimate, he has served Williams' memory in large part by serving himself ("Surely if there was one person whom he did not have to convince of his greatness, if he had one true believer by his side, it was I") and by smothering Williams under a wet blanket of adoration ("I was overcome by the dearness of his person. I knew I loved him and always would") that is both ostentatious and odious.
NO, IT IS to Spoto whom we must turn for dispassionate and reliable analysis of Williams' life and work. About neither does he have much to report that we do not already know, but he has assembled a great deal of material into a coherent whole. Because Williams led a bewilderingly peripatetic life, and because people moved in and out of that life in equally bewildering numbers, Spoto's chronicle occasionally descends into a rather paralyzing recital of arrivals and departures; but he only rarely lapses into the indiscriminate accumulation of meaningless detail that characterizes contemporary American literary biography, and he has many calm, judicious things to say about his subject.
It is easy enough to trivialize Williams, as Rader unwittingly does, by simply reciting the lurid details of his private Dionysianism. His life was an orgy of drink, drugs and sex, the mere description of which suggests a caricature of tabloid sensationalism. Viewed purely as orgiast, he seems tawdry and contemptible. But Spoto quite satisfactorily demonstrates that he was neither. Not merely was he an artist of real accomplishment and importance, he was also a human being of impressive fortitude and decency -- one who could be cold, self-absorbed and temperamental, to be sure, but also one of genuine compassion, of remarkable energy and resilience, of passionate commitment to his art.
All of these contradictions and complexities trace back to his famous childhood: to his strong but slightly loony mother, to his distant, unsympathetic father, to his abrupt removal from happiness in Mississippi to misery in St. Louis, above all to his beloved sister, Rose, whose frontal lobotomy was the central event in his emotional and artistic life. Much has been made of these people and events by psychologists both professional and amateur, but the person who made the most from them was Williams himself, who transformed them into dramas about "family pain, mental instability, emotional obsessions, the conflict between the love of solitude and the desire for human comfort."
These plays were written after a long, uncertain apprenticeship that included a devastating initial failure and a difficult, if ultimately rewarding, acceptance of his homosexuality -- this latter taking place during the '30s and '40s, when homosexuality was still generally taboo. Success did not come to him until 1945, when he was 34, with the opening of The Glass Menagerie, and it was actually many years later before great celebrity and riches were his. He therefore had a decade and a half, from The Glass Menagerie until The Night of the Iguana, in which he could work at his art without the crippling distractions that come with fame in America, and the results were breathtaking: A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer.
After those there were many more plays of varying length, a novel and a memoir, odds and ends of fugitive work. But for the last two decades of his life Williams was in terrible artistic and personal decline. As early as the mid-'50s Williams had acknowledged that "the source of his unhappiness and of his addictions was not disease, but rather a wasting of the spirit," but by the turn of the decade "there was an accumulation of alcohol and drugs in his mind and body that contributed to a physical, emotional and mental confusion and decline that would eventually take a dreadful toll, and that would forever deaden something rich and essential in his creative powers." The work of the last two decades is a pathetic shadow of the major plays, yet say it for Williams that the work never stopped. The tribute paid to him by Elia Kazan is as true as it is poignant:
"Tennessee confronted his weaknesses and faults for years in a way that few others ever did. We all try to appear tougher and stronger than we are, but there was something in him that reached out and touched everyone who saw his plays or who knew him. You felt that your own faults and sins were understood and that he had compassion for them. He accepted his own weakness and sinfulness, and he went on courageously and bravely -- always writing. He never backed off."
If compassion is one primary characteristic of Williams' plays, then surely courage is another -- just as it is, however peculiarly, in his life. For all the sordid chaos of his life and for all the shocking nature of his work, he had a great heart and a willingness to confront all of life's possibilities, the hard along with the soft. Out of pain and fortitude, he built himself a large and enduring monument.