Monday, April 27, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt ten)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

When Alan U. Schwartz came to the New York apartment one day to discuss some professional matters, Williams discouraged even the mention of Merlo, which “made the talk somewhat dull on his part,” Schwartz said. The two men drank martinis and tried to make conversation. Off to the side of the large room in a golden cage, Creature, the monkey that Merlo had cared for in Key West (and cried over when he thought it had escaped—“I don’t know why this creature appealed so strongly to Frankie,” Williams wrote), was making chirping noises. After a while, Schwartz looked over at the cage and noticed that the monkey seemed to be in some difficulty; he was not chirping as much and his movements were disjointed. “Tenn, your monkey seems to be sick,” Schwartz said. “Tennessee raised his lidded eyes and glanced over at the cage and gave me one of his knowing smiles. ‘No, Alan, he is just fine,’ he said.” The conversation meandered on until Schwartz realized that the room had gone quiet. “When I looked over at the cage, the monkey was lying motionless at the bottom. He didn’t seem to be breathing . . . . ‘Tenn, I think your monkey is dead!’ I said. Tennessee slowly moved his gaze from me to the cage, studied it for a moment, then looked back at me and in his slightly drunken Southern drawl said, ‘Why so he is. So he is.’”

Sunday, April 26, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt nine)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

While trying to box clever with Davis, Williams was already dazed by harrowing bouts with Merlo, which made it almost impossible for him to concentrate on the professional task at hand. “Frank is not a bad boy,” Williams had written Wood. “In certain ways, his devotion to our pets, his devotion to the outcasts of society, the whores of Rome, the beatniks of New York, the cracked or cracking up ‘lost ones’ in Key West, even the chronic jail-birds and the heroin-addicts, is a bit like Saint Francis of Assisi who embraced the leper in the woods who cried ‘Unclean!’” Merlo, who couldn’t resist the desperate and the wounded, couldn’t say no to Williams.

But Merlo, too, was ailing. He “really didn’t feel well,” Paula Laurence, who was understudying Davis, recalled. “He used to walk the streets at night because he felt so poorly and didn’t want to upset Tennessee.” Williams, however, misconstrued Merlo’s late-night absences as rejection; “It’s over between us!” he bleated repeatedly to Corsaro in Detroit. Feeling the need for devoted attention, Williams had their black Belgian shepherd, Satan, acquired in Rome at Anna Magnani’s urging, shipped up from Key West. “He is a handy thing to have around when you are entertaining strangers whose kindness you aren’t quite sure of,” Williams wrote to Oliver Evans, with an admission that he was “a little scared of him myself.” (The previous summer, Satan had put a bite that required seven stitches in Marion Vaccaro’s hand.) Satan was good company at first. “He used to sit in front of me at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, staring into my eyes with those lovely yellow eyes of his, and occasionally sticking out his tongue to give my hand a lick,” Williams recalled.

But one morning, after his stint at the typewriter, Williams went into the bedroom and stepped over Satan, who lay “like a guardian by the twin bed of Frankie.” As Williams slid into Merlo’s bed, Satan growled his displeasure. That night, the dog savaged Williams in his own bed and bit both his ankles to the bone. “He was starting for my throat when Frankie rushed out and pulled him off me,” he said. Merlo had the dog put down the next day. A week later, after his ankles, he claimed, “had swollen up almost to the size of an elephant’s,” Williams was hospitalized. He was under heavy sedation, but there was no way to calm his rampaging paranoia: Merlo had set Satan on him; Merlo wanted him dead; Merlo wanted his money.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt eight)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Kazan’s other great contribution was to the play’s casting. His prowess secured Newman’s commitment to the production. For the bravura role of Princess Kosmonopolis, Kazan opted boldly “for the inner qualities” of Geraldine Page, an actress he “greatly admired” but who was no protection at the box office. As Alma Winemiller in José Quintero’s 1952 Circle in the Square revival of Summer and Smoke, Page had turned in an uncanny performance that had made the name of the star, the director, and the play. “Miss Page is not the kind of actress who waits to give a performance on opening night,” Quintero wrote in his memoir, If You Don’t Dance They Beat You. “She plunges into her role at the very first reading. It’s almost as if she wanted to forget herself as Miss Page and utilize everything that she owns to become the character that she is playing.” Casting her was a brilliant decision, one that Williams had questioned. “I think it may demand more power and technique than a young actress like Geraldine could give it,” he worried to Crawford, who agreed at first. “The Princess is a pretty cosmopolitan character and I would still be better satisfied with Page if I first heard Margaret Leighton, Vivien Leigh, Eileen Herlie and Edwige Feuillère and maybe even Siobhán McKenna,” Williams wrote to Wood, adding, “It’s a virtuoso part, demanding great stature, stage presence, power, vocal richness and variety, and so forth, but Gadg, we have to remember, has a genius for casting, second to no one’s.”

Kazan maintained that “consanquinity”—by which he meant being American—was a very important factor in casting the role. Still, Page struggled at first to locate the ravaged emotional geography of Princess Kosmonopolis’s character. In preparation Kazan gave her a collection of photographs of silent-film stars and asked her to consider which one her Princess might have been. Page discounted Greta Garbo as too remote, with a coolness that was not indigenous to the Princess’s combustible nature. She discarded Mary Pickford, and her trajectory from sweetheart to diva, as a lazy choice. She was tempted by the steaminess of Theda Bara and the sassiness of Clara Bow. But in the end, she chose the complexity of Norma Talmadge, who seemed to have “an air of great vulnerability, as of someone who would greet everything and everyone with a spontaneous open-heartedness, and I was very touched by it,” she explained. “I felt the shocks and hurts that would fall full force on a heart like that could turn someone into a complicated, volatile phenomenon like the Princess.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt seven)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Williams honored Merlo’s inspiration in another significant way: he gave him a percentage of the play. “I want him to feel some independence,” Williams told Wood in March. “His position with me now lacks the security and dignity that his character calls for.” Intimacy required equality; the money went some way to ensuring it. The Rose Tattoo was also dedicated to Merlo “in return for Sicily”; the exchange to which the play was a testament, however, was as much psychological as geographical. Even before Williams had written about Sicily or visited it, his identification with the place and with Merlo’s stories about it signaled a hysteric’s desire to merge with the alluring personality of his friend. Merlo regaled Williams with tales of his parents, originally from Ribera, and their large, noisy, bumptious first-generation Sicilian-American family. According to Merlo, sometimes after a family blowup, his mother would take umbrage in the garden and climb into a fig tree to sulk. “I remember Frankie telling us that after one particularly blinding row, she refused to come down,” Maria Britneva recalled. “Having shouted at her, and pleaded with her, her sons eventually took an axe to the tree and brought the whole thing down, with her in it.” Britneva went on, “Tennessee and I . . . were whimpering with laughter. Frankie was livid.”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt six)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Brando’s acting style was the performing equivalent of jazz. The notes were there, but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him. In his ability to call out of dialogue a heightened sense of emotional truth, the freedom of his stage behavior was mesmerizing and revolutionary. Instead of making everything learned and clear, Brando let the lines play on him and rode his emotions wherever they led him. “He even listened experientially,” Kazan said. “It’s as if you were playing on something. He didn’t look at you, and he hardly acknowledged what you were saying. He was tuned in to you without listening to you intellectually or mentally. It was a mysterious process . . . . There was always an element of surprise in what he did.” By turns charming, witty, wounded, cruel—Brando presented the public with an immediacy that seemed un-worked out; his reliance on impulse made him unpredictable and therefore dangerous. For both actor and audience the experience was a submersion in emotional contradiction. “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people,” Williams wrote to Kazan when negotiations with Selznick seemed to have broken down. “Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.” Brando incarnated this ambivalence and made it sensational.

Over the years, as the legend of his performance as Stanley grew from its initial mixed critical response to what the New York Times in his obituary called “epochal,” many theatricals took credit for casting him. Audrey Wood claimed it was her husband William Liebling; with more justification, Kazan maintained it was him; Brando insisted that Harold Churman planted the idea in Kazan’s head. “Gadg and Irene both said I was probably too young, and she was especially unenthusiastic about me,” Brando recalled in his autobiography. After pondering the script for a few days, even Brando called Kazan to decline the role. The part, he felt, was “a size too large.” “The line was busy,” Brando recalled later. “Had I spoken to him at that moment, I’m certain I wouldn’t have played the role. I decided to let it rest for a while and the next day he called me and said: ‘Well, what is it—yes or no?’ I gulped and said ‘Yes.’” To Kazan, Brando was “a shot in the dark”: now only Williams needed convincing. Kazan called Williams, gave Brando twenty dollars, and sent him up to Provincetown to read. “That’s all I said,” Kazan recalled. “I waited. No return call. After three days I called Tennessee and asked him what he’d thought of the actor I’d sent him. ‘What actor?’ he asked. No one had showed up, so I figured I’d lost twenty bucks and began to look elsewhere.”

Brando, who was broke, had decided to hitchhike with his girlfriend to Provincetown. When he finally arrived at Rancho Pancho around dusk in the last week of August, Brando walked into a scene of “domestic cataclysm,” according to Williams. The kitchen floor was flooded, the toilets were blocked, and the light fuse had blown. Like the blackout during the Wingfields’ supper, Williams and his houseguests were plunged “into everlasting darkness.” “It was all too much for Pancho,” Williams said. “He packed up and said he was going back to Eagle Pass. However he changed his mind, as usual.” To Williams, Brando was a spectacle of both beauty—“He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen”—and prowess. Brando fixed the lights, then unblocked the pipes. “You’d think he had spent the entire antecedent life repairing drains,” Williams said.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt five)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

The first day on the road from St. Louis to Taos, Williams’s car and his body began to break down. He felt stabbing pains in his abdomen. “Jack in Black had come out of the bushes,” Williams wrote. As he continued west, both he and the car grew worse. In Missouri, his pain was diagnosed as cramps and nerves; in Kansas, as low-grade appendicitis; in Oklahoma, as kidney stones. After Williams abandoned his car in Oklahoma and got himself by bus to Taos, the Sisters of Nazareth at the Holy Cross Hospital told him that because he had a fever and a white blood cell count of 18,000, his appendix might have burst and therefore he required immediate surgery.

“The altitude affected my heart, and I did not think I’d pull through,” he wrote Audrey Wood. “Pancho sat in the hospital with me and I made out my last will and testament while the young doctors shaved my groin for surgery,” Williams wrote. “I had nothing to leave but the playscript of ‘Battle of Angels’ and I left it to Pancho.” Pancho took the will and tore it to pieces. “He always had moments of great style, and this was one of them,” Williams said. As Williams breathed in the anesthesia, he experienced “a sensation of death.” “Claustrophobia, feeling of suffocation are my greatest dreads,” he explained later about the moment. As he went under, Williams’s last words were, “I’m dying! I’m dying!”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt four)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Just before the New Year, Williams moved back to the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he’d begun his artistic adventure in December 1938. Then, Tom Williams had signed himself into a rooming house on Rue Toulouse as “Tennessee Williams, Writer.” Now, his name needed no explanation. “About an hour after my arrival,” he wrote to Wood, “the hotel owner rushed out of his office and seized my hand and exclaimed: ‘Mr. Williams, this is indeed an honor! We saw your play in New York!’” Although he met with three reporters and gave a radio interview soon after his arrival, Williams promised Wood that in New Orleans he was going to have “no telephone and if necessary an assumed name.” He added, “I’m going to be a very serious, hard-working boy again—all else is vanity.” A month later, he wrote to Wood again: “I am switching back and forth between two long plays, the one about the sisters started in Chicago and one about a Spinster begun in New York. Right now I am doing more with the sisters, it is now set in New Orleans and is called ‘A Street-car Named Desire’—there is one by that title that runs close by my apartment, and proceeding in the other direction down the next street is one called ‘Cemeteries.’ In spite of this I am not really in a very morbid state of mind, as this might suggest.” Williams had surrendered to the flesh; his new plays dramatized this capitulation. The ensuing twenty-four-month period would be the most fecund of his writing life.