ennessee Williams, it's been said, wrote some of his finest roles for women. Today, at a memorial service at the Shubert Theater a month after his death, some of the great women of the New York stage remembered him, with readings and song and a naughty story or two--which Williams, as he was recalled by his colleagues, would have been the first to appreciate, in that much remembered, distinctive, cackling laugh.
If a memorial can have a showstopper, then Jessica Tandy provided one yesterday with her reading from "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Maureen Stapleton told a tale of theatrical comeuppance; Geraldine Fitzgerald, in a deep strong voice that grew from a husky whisper to a triumphant melody, sang "Danny Boy," Williams' favorite song. And Elizabeth Ashley, in a rumpled skirt and boots and a knotted silver cowboy belt, said that what drove her mad about many great people was that when they reached a certain age, they developed "a poisonous wisdom, forgetting everything they ever laughed at."
But Tennessee Williams, she said, had "never mellowed, never become a joiner."
"I remember, a few years ago, I was in this island paradise, and Tennessee came down to visit me," said Ashley. "We were both of us in pretty rowdy shape--a little raggedy around the edges--and we went to a very chic place and they made it immediately clear that they were not happy about having us there, which we immediately picked up on, demanding the best table, ordering about 85 things.
"And when we're sitting there, Tennessee says, 'You know, I bet I could empty this restaurant in a minute.' I said, 'I could empty it in two minutes.' We made a $50 bet. He said, 'I bet I could empty it in one minute using just two words from one of my plays.' We order our lunch--because part of the agreement is we're not going to say when we're going to do this--and all of a sudden, Tennessee hollers, 'Fire! Fire!' And I put my $50 down."
"Tennessee," said Ashley when the laughter and applause died down, "I hope wherever you are, you're drinking good champagne."
Considered by some to have been the greatest American playwright since Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams died Feb. 25 in his Manhattan hotel suite after choking on a plastic bottle cap. The month since his passing has not been tranquil: There has been outrage in the theater community at the insistence of Williams' brother, Dakin, to have him buried in the family plot in St. Louis; his will, on an estate estimated at
0 million, is being contested as well.
But at today's public memorial service--which included actor Hume Cronyn and agent Milton Goldman, as well as many celebrated actresses--the tone was one of exultation; a sort of requiem mass, in the special language of the theater. There were telegrams from Sir John Gielgud and Harold Pinter, recollections by Anne Jackson and Maria St. Just and Kim Hunter.
Jessica Tandy brought many in the packed theater to their feet with her reading from "Streetcar," in the role of Blanche DuBois, which she originated on Broadway. "I loved someone, too, and the person I loved, I lost . . ."
Maureen Stapleton told of struggling to create a fine theatrical moment in a scene with a madonna in "The Rose Tattoo," only to have Williams bring her back to earth.
"He said, 'What are you slobbering all over the virgin for?' " laughed Stapleton. " 'Just blow out the candles and get out.' "
But it was Hume Cronyn, quoting from a message from Elia Kazan, who finally put into words the spirit of the gathering.
"I'm so tired of hearing how unhappy his life was," wrote Kazan. "Of course his powers declined as he came into his sixties, which as a poet he understood. But he lived a very good life, with the most profound pleasures, and lived it as he chose . . .
"Imagine yourself being in his skin the morning he wrote some of those speeches or watching them performed . . . of seeing his family transmuted into art . . .
"Let's give him the respect and adulation he deserves . . . Let's do what the Indians in the East do at funerals of distinguished persons. Let's celebrate his life."