Consider the characters Tennessee Williams created: Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy, Maggie the Cat, Alma Winemiller, Brick Pollitt, Big Mama, Serafina della Rosa, Alvaro Mangiacavallo ("Eat-a-Horse"), Don Quixote, Lord Byron, Baby Doll, Catherine Holly, Sebastian Venable, Mrs. Venable, Princess Kosmonopolis, Chance Wayne and Esmeralda, Mrs. Stone and Kilroy of "Camino Real."
That's a score plus one swiftly identifiable characters. The plays and stories, an endless array of them, are chockablock with figures we can call to mind without them ever having existed at all.
Williams, who died yesterday at 71, perceived his people in precise, exactly chosen words. His lines, in the best plays, had that brevity and precision necessary for fine drama, and while he could write long, bravura speeches, sometimes even arias, he knew where to place them for dramatic effect.
None of this came easily. He was a prodigiously hard worker. "If I don't write every morning, usually from two to four hours at least, I don't feel I'm alive," he would say. After a morning with his words, he was ready for food, conversation, business, letter-writing, whatever.
His instinct for developing drama also caused him to use the same material over and over. Sometimes it would first appear in a poem, then as a short story, perhaps a novella, then a one-act play, finally a full-length one.
Though the early years, when he was known as Tom Williams, seemed utterly hopeless, the age of 34 brought him celebrity and an assured income. If, on the outside, this seemed like quick success, he never forgot the loneliness of being a poor misfit. Those years he described through the character Tom Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." For all his sophistication, his knowingness, Williams looked out on the world with a child's wonder. He was a believer, a doer, a lover of words, sensations and, above all, of feelings.
Still, being a Great American Success would haunt him. The heady years would, in time, have their effects through liquor, drugs and a life style colored a rich, deep purple. For a time he was confined to an asylum, and for its final 40 years his life was lived in a celebrity's fishbowl.
Having had his first heart attack at 24, Williams claimed in the late '70s that "in time you stop worrying. I certainly feel more peaceful now than I did twenty years ago and I must say that I can see nothing in life after death to interest me unless they play bridge and poker."
His friendships were tumultuous, and he wrote of them either as fiction or as autobiography in a range of plays, short stories, memoirs, letters and poems that made him as prolific a writer as any of his contemporaries.
I first met him at a luncheon after the opening of "Orpheus Descending," which was trying out in Washington. I'd knocked the play in the morning paper and was seated on the author's left. With the Star's Jay Carmody, who had praised it and was seated to his right, Williams began his talk with the words: "Today my heart is on the right side of my chest." He didn't say a word to me that day or for some years.
We wound up together on the Margo Jones Award committee and became friends. And among his friends, as well as among theater lovers at large, one question kept surfacing in his later years: Did he have in him another fruitful period that would match those early, timeless dramatic wonders, "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the underrated "Camino Real"?
In a sense, Williams often was the victim of his own and others' optimism. Illustrating this was his final major Broadway production, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," which tried out at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere before a 15-performance run in New York that began March 26, 1980.
Its characters included F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara Murphy, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Ernest Hemingway. Williams couldn't seem to decide what his play was about. Was it the often-told Fitzgerald relationship? Or was it essentially Zelda's story? Had this been anyone but Williams in what promised to be a Big Comeback, the producers might have well ordered the playwright to clarify his focus. Despite an extended tryout tour, director Jose' Quintero failed to settle on what I, for one, was convinced Williams really was writing about: the Fitzgerald-Hemingway relationship, not as it was but as Williams imagined it.
Because of his wide-ranging vision, this need to focus could be said to have plagued Williams his long writing life. From the realities of language and action that was to startle Bostonians in 1940 with "Battle of Angels"--and a production mishap which sent clouds of smoke into the auditorium--to his sensitive perception of human relationships, Williams' problem always seemed what to include; what, however glowingly written, to delete.
Thus it is likely that there was not, after all, one more play left in Tennessee Williams. The final years of plays, with such titles as "Tiger Tail" and "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur," revealed the shadows of earlier characters, twice-cooked adventures. He was aware of that.
One of his closest relationships now has its eerie finale: his long association with Audrey Wood, the literary agent who fostered him in poverty, and led him to his highest reaches of fame and creativity. Nearly 20 years ago their relationship crashed. It took them years to realize that the schism was rooted in his misunderstanding. They had no communication whatever.
But at the death of Edwina Dakin Williams, Tennessee's mother, Audrey Wood wrote to him in warm understanding and he replied in friendly, touching terms. Each was pleased with the other's letter.
The irony is that in 1981 Audrey had a stroke, which leaves her still in a coma, her savings, intended for playwrights, going to keeping her unconscious body alive. Williams grieved profoundly over this. His death, before hers, is the ending to an intimate relationship in which Williams would have found poetic drama.