SCOTT SIMON, host:
Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. He entered a writing contest in 1938 and changed his name in order to change his identity and appear three years younger. Tennessee Williams won that contest for a series of one-act plays, and that new name would become a permanent part of American theater.
For most of his adult life, Tennessee Williams kept private journals. They detailed his addictions and illnesses, real and imagined, his churning insecurities, even about his talent, and a personal life that could be wild and compulsive.
Writer Margaret Bradham Thornton has collected and annotated his 30 known notebooks that spanned the years 1936 to 1981. They've just been published for the first time in a collection called "Tennessee Williams: Notebooks." Tennessee Williams reflected about his journal towards the end of his life as he wrote his memoirs.
Actor Rick Foucheux reads for us.
Mr. RICK FOUCHEUX (Actor): Keeping a journal is a lonely man's habit. It betrays the vices of introspection and social withdrawal, even a kind of narcissism. It has certain things to recommend it. It keeps a recorded continuity between his past and present selves. It gives him the comforting reassurance that shocks, defeats, disappointments are all snowed under by the pages and pages of new experience that still keep flaking down over him as he continues through time, and promises that this comforting snowfall of obliteration will go right on as long as he himself keeps going.
SIMON: Tennessee Williams is about to turn 25 in 1936 when the journals begin. He's living at home, taking night classes to earn enough credits to start his fourth and final year of college. It sounds as if his writing was becoming a compulsion.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: March 6th, Friday. Saw a first robin today, two in fact. Pains in chest all morning but okay tonight. Went swimming, mailed verse to Liberty Amateur Contest at Ms. Flo's suggestion. Now have four manuscripts in the mail, not counting plays and poems in St. Louis contest. Returned case of empty bottles, collected one dollar. Felt rather stupid all day but will write tomorrow.
SIMON: Later that same year, Williams wrote an entry that Margaret Bradham Thornton says affords us a clue that we shouldn't always take Williams quite so seriously. She says that Williams is often trying on different attitudes like costumes to see what suited him.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: Monday, August 10. Here I remain soaking in my own sour juices, sweltering heat, complete misery and dullness. My situation now seems so hopeless that this afternoon it seemed there were only two possible ways out - death or suicide. However, that was a bit melodramatic and I shall probably go on living. And if I saw death coming, God knows I'd run the other way as fast as my two legs could carry me.
SIMON: April 9, 1939. From melodrama to elation. Here's Williams handwritten addendum to this entry added later that year.
Shortly before this entry, I got the group theatre award which radically changed my state of mind. Hence this manic elation about a next play.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: April, Easter Sunday. My next play will be simple, direct and terrible, a picture of my own heart. There will be no artifice in it. I will speak truth as I see it. Distort as I see distortion. Be wild as I am wild. Tender as I am tender. Mad as I am mad. Passionate as I am passionate. It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation.
SIMON: From this point on, Thomas Lanier Williams III is no longer. Tennessee Williams becomes the liveliest and largest name in American theater. In 1946, "The Glass Menagerie" won the Drama Circle Award. "A Streetcar Named Desire" had already won a Pulitzer. And "Summer and Smoke" had just opened in New York. But despite or because of these achievements, Williams is anxious again, afflicted with self-doubt over whether he deserves or can maintain his success.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: Sunday, the usual day of unpleasant revelations. I read over the various stuff, dramatic, that I have been working on lately and the only stuff that has any fire in it is the stuff I was just playing with for my own entertainment. The trouble is that I am being bullied and intimidated by my own success and the fame that surrounds it and what people expect of me and their demands on me. They are forcing me out of my natural position as an artist so that I am in peril of ceasing to be an artist at all. When that happens, I will be nothing.
SIMON: In the summer of 1954, Williams traveled to Europe, stopping first in Morocco, then Spain, then on to Rome. He was exhausted but kept writing. He wrote even though it exhausted him. He couldn't stop writing and go on living.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: Monday, a.m. Here is the dilemma. Let's face it. I can't recover any nervous stability until I am able to work freely again, and I can't work freely until I recover a nervous stability. Solution? Much less clear. Just not working doesn't solve the matter for the need to work, the blocked passion for it continuous to tear me inside. Working against exhaustion bit by bit wears me down even further. And there is no way out, none, except through some bit of luck, another name for God.
SIMON: Tennessee Williams read Earnest Hemingway during his travels. Williams was one of the first writers who was more or less openly gay and was convinced that he could detect in the prose of this most flagrantly macho of writers clues to a concealed nature, whether valid or not.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: Thursday, a.m. A bright day without the weight of Roman summer, read "Death in the Afternoon" by Hemingway with ever increasing respect for it as a great piece of prose, an honest acknowledgement of a lust which is nearly always concealed. H's great quality aside from his prose style, which is matchless, is this fearless expression of brute nature, his naively candid braggadocio.
If he drew pictures of pricks, he could not more totally confess his innate sexual inversion despite the probability that his relations have been exclusively, almost, with women. He has no real interest in women and shows no true heterosexual eroticism in any of his work. I don't think this is just the usual desire to implicate others in one's own vice.
SIMON: By the spring of 1979, Williams had suffered a string of critical failures. His depression deepened. To Williams, an unflattering review wasn't just a bad notice - he considered it a kind of obituary. His health was faltering for reasons even he recognized that had less to do with the critics and more to do with drinking, drugs, stress and all the hotly pursued excesses of his life, which he had already imagined was drawing to a close.
Mr. FOUCHEUX: Did I die by my own hand or was I destroyed slowly and brutally by a conspiratorial group? There is probably no clear-cut answer. When was there ever such an answer to any question related to the individual human fate? Today I must leave for New Orleans for medical examination and possibly for surgery. The chronic disease of my gastrointestinal system has for several weeks now flared up alarmingly and there is no true relief. I suffer no pain but I am observing my life and the approaching conclusion of my life and I see a long, long stretch of desolation about me now at the end. Or will I yet survive? In what condition, under what circumstance? The best I can say for myself is that I worked like hell.
SIMON: Tennessee Williams was 71 when he died February 25th, 1983, ingloriously choked to death on a plastic cap from a bottle of eyedrops that he put in his mouth while he rolled back his head. Police also found drugs in his New York hotel room that might have hastened his death. He left behind three novels, nine collections of short stories, and more than 60 plays. Some, including "Streetcar Named Desire," "Summer and Smoke," "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Glass Menagerie," will probably be performed for centuries.
"Tennessee Williams: Notebooks" were edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton. Rick Foucheux read excerpts from the notebooks.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.