Tennessee Williams: Form, Union, Plan

Photo by Jill Krementz

Tenn was ready to show me how I could marshal my thoughts and focus my energies. He hoisted himself from the bed, straightened its mussed coverlet, and spread across its creamy expanse a blizzard of paper. I watched him methodically place the pieces on the bed, shift and  move them around to suit some interior logic, to achieve some effect, and then we stood over them, looking at the scribblings and hoping for some sense to come to either of us.
   We looked over the bed for some time. Tenn then pointed at one piece of paper--ivory-colored stationery from Crane’s-- directing me to read it.
   On the sheet were the following lines: “burning and unashamed,” “in secret,” “my father’s guns,” “flush and fierce,” and “the power to shape human destiny.” The words were written as if they were lines of poetry, but they made no sense, until Tenn told me that they were lines he could remember, could almost see, as if they were white subtitles, on a black screen on a large movie screen, from Eva LeGallienne’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which had starred Ingrid Bergman, had been aired on television, and had led to a meeting between Tenn and the Swedish actress, whom he liked and wished to work with.
    “I carried those words with me to the meeting,” Tenn told me, “and I felt they were the starting point for a character of mine. Here I had dismissed Ibsen, had insulted him directly to LeGallienne, and I can now remember, two decades later, that there had been words--there had been a performance--that had led me to believe I could write something, go somewhere new.”
   Farther down on the page were more lines: “The thing I’ve been waiting for all these years,” “the wonderful thing will happen.” Those lines were from A Doll’s House, and Tenn could see the genesis of Blanche in those words, which he could remember hearing from so many productions, understanding the meaning of them, hurting a bit in his heart on hearing them. “I don’t know why I went back to Ibsen,” he confessed. “I was thinking of LeGallienne, I suppose; trying to regain a youthful mind, hungry and dismissive.”
    On another creamy page: “Weekends, like life, are short,” the origin of which escaped Tenn on that day, but which I would learn later came from the Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets. “It’s a good line,” Tenn thought. “A good line to have open a scene. It came to me. It returned to me.”
    On a piece of onionskin: “There is no beauty here: only death and decay,” a line from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie, although Tenn did not know that at the time; it had simply stuck with him, had a rhythm he liked, and a sentiment with which he agreed. He had also written “carnival music, sadness, music and sugar in the air, and that feeling, heavy on Sunday afternoons, that play was coming to an end, and the punishments of the real world were imminent, ready, anxious, and we all, unaware, await their assignments.”
   On an index card: “Congo Square. A shout to…God, nature, or to perform.”
   On a piece of yellow, lined paper he had written “Buy a candle for your loved one,” under which was written “beautiful boy,” and in the margin, at an angle and with pressure that indicated it had occurred to him later and had been hastily added, was the word “Beaurevel.” It took me almost fifteen years to learn that these lines were evoked from the film My Forbidden Past, set in New Orleans, and starring Ava Gardner as Barbara Beaurevel.
    On a piece of paper that appeared to have been pulled, with some effort, from a journal, Tenn had written “All rooms are lonely when there’s only one person,” which I recognized from Summer and Smoke, but next to it was written “Isabella Street--Our Lady of Victories/Marist Fathers.”
    Another address? Yes, Tenn told me. There had been a tryst, on Isabella Street, in Boston, deep in the night, a night that was lavender and cool, and in the brightness of day, he had walked out of the apartment of the young man, whose handsomeness intimidated him and made him feel plain and old, and right across the street was an ornate doorway and a sign indicating that it was an entrance to Our Lady of Victories. “Irony and amatory exhaustion all at once,” Tenn remembered, “and that is where, I think, Alma Winemiller was born.”
     All across the bed, in different colors of ink, in handwriting that varied from schoolboy neat to anxious to angry were a variety of sentiments and quotes.
     “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, for this and not the external mannerism and detail, is their reality.” It was attributed to Aristotle, and was firmly written across a clean and faded piece of paper. “From Kazan,” Tenn said, “years ago.”
     “Simplicity is not an end in art, but one reaches simplicity in spite of oneself by approaching the real meaning of things.” A quote from Brancusi and given to him by Jane Smith, and which he had carried with him for years. In a fainter hand, in pencil, was written the name Bartlett Hayes. When I asked Tenn about the name, he could not recall the quote from the man, but he recalled loving it. I found it years later, and Jane Smith would confirm it for me: “At least twice in the past, Western civilization has altered its solid appearing environment to emphasize the world of the spirit: it overlaid the structure of early church architecture with the tangibility of color provided by the Byzantine mosaic. It converted the heavy stones of the Romanesque church into the mystical glass of the Gothic cathedral. In his search for the inner Truth, modern man has penetrated the structure of solid matter and finds there space and energy of which his five senses give him no inkling.”
    Another page: “A play about Christ. The man, not the icon or the savior, but the man, flawed and giving and hunted.” Beneath this precis were these lines of poetry:

                                    “The healing of His seamless dress
                                      Is by our beds of pain;
                                      We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
                                      And we are whole again.”

      Tenn had written “Whittier,” and he meant John Greenleaf Whittier and the poem “Our Master.” On the bottom of the page were these lines, attributed to Walt Whitman:

                        Do you see, oh my brothers and sisters?
                        It is not chaos or death--it is form, union, plan--
                        It is eternal life--it is happiness.

                        In this earth of ours,
                        Amid the measureless grossness and slag,
                        Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
                        Nestles the seed of perfection.

      “Title of Christ play: Grossness and Slag: A Tale of the Christ.”
    The words were dizzying. Plot outlines. Opening lines of plays or short stories or novellas. Stage directions, Descriptions of the face of an actress. Questions about a Ouija board. Speculation on the spiritual carnage that might or might not reside, intrinsically, at 10050 Cielo Drive or at the El Palacio apartments, and how Lillian Gish and Stella Adler might have both been, if only temporarily, privy to evidence of supernatural or demonic influence. I looked at Tenn and his face was pale and his eyes were darting across the notes he had written. His lower lip was pulled into his mouth and he was working it as if chewing a cud.
   I remember that I asked this question: “What is all this?”
   “This,” he replied quickly, “is proof of what I need to remember, and what I need to master. It is also the most important thing I can teach you--that you can take away from this time we’ve spent together.”
     Form, union, plan.
   Writing, life, death--everything, he stressed, once again--is navigation. Getting from one place to another, traveling safely and wisely, driving and walking defensively, seeing the sights, observing the customs and the civilities, and then finding the way home again, safely and in one’s right mind, and recounting what has been seen and smelled and felt and learned.
   You form it; you bring it together; you navigate it across a page.
    There were lines on pieces of paper and there were lines on the counter of the bathroom, and they might both allow Tenn’s mind to recall what he saw and felt and who he was and wanted to be on Isabella Street, on Coliseum, on Royal, in Clarksdale or St. Louis, or, he pointed out, “here and now with whatever is left to work with.”
   He paused a moment. “You ask me what all this is, and it’s just the notes of a man--a writer, yes--who’s lost his way. What is that great line Forster had about Cavafy?”
   I did not know the line.
   “Oh, find it if you can. It suits me perfectly, and I wish I could have it here, among my travel notes, for my mental dopp kit.”
    Tenn looked at me. It was a look that managed to be sad and sweet and thoughtful. I felt he was considering something--a dismissal or a reappraisal. Instead, he clasped his hands together and announced that he believed we could get something from the notes on the bed, and I could get something from our time together. “I believe, foolish though it may be,” he announced, “that I can find my way.”

   The E.M. Forster quote about Cavafy, which I found later, reads “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.”

©  2015 by James Grissom


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