Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fragments of a Divided Self

There was a time in my young years when most of my reading was in the form of play scripts. In those days I was besotted with the theatre and names like Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, the Barrymore Theatre, Eugene O’Neill, Broadway and of course, Tennessee Williams. In speech class when the assignment came to memorize and perform a scene from a play, there were several of us who wouldn’t consider anything but Tennessee Williams, arguing over who would get to play which part. And how passionate we were, certain that our interpretations would bring tears to the famous playwright’s eyes.

Many years later the words of the playwright continue to send chills down my arms. From the beginning I have loved his plays, but then came the discovery of his stories which turned out to be another treasure trove totaling almost 600 pages. One day in 2006 while browsing the shelves of Kinokuniya’s American literature, I nearly shouted for joy upon finding a big, heavy, just published book titled, Tennessee Williams Notebooks.

The journals were not previously known to me, but beginning around the time of his twenty-fifth birthday and continuing until two years before his death in 1983, the writer kept journals recording his daily thoughts and emotions. There are thirty of these journals, all a collection of ordinary notebooks, most stitched or spiral bound and largely written in pencil. As editor Margaret Bradham Thornton tells us, ‘…the journals reveal Williams’ authentic voice—genuine and unadorned…where Williams talks “to myself about myself.”’

In the first pages of these journals the author writes…

‘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.

I have a sort of vertical five-foot-shelf of these journals…I keep them locked in a closet, and now and then I go to them for that comfort and reassurance I spoke of above, a sense of continuity as a person, and though they were certainly never written for publication and have no literary value, I suspect that some passages from them may bore you less than the sort of formal essay that I could produce in my immediate condition, which is fairly close to exhaustion.

And of course, as usual, I am doing only what I feel like doing.’

To preserve the rhythm and pace of the writer’s voice, the text has been printed faithful to the original spelling, capitalization, punctuation and underlining.

Here is an entry for Sunday, 21 March 1943:

‘Sunday Night. Very lately.

It seems funny at this particular time to think of the future. I have most surely come to the very near end of something but not to any beginning. I feel as though a gentle but wasting illness were in me most of the time lately. Weak, enervated. Even my legs strengthless. Always, nearly, tired and wanting to sit or lie down. The energy to write only whipped up for a few pages and none of it the old fire.

Still I feel it is all there and I need only a good, complete rest to restore me. And that there is a future and some kind of a new beginning.

Fidelma’s for supper with Donnie and Paul Cadmus.

Charming as usual, those evenings with her, a little sadly.

It is not arranged, my leaving N.Y., but I believe it will happen. The only way to rest.

Reading Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. He interests me profoundly. Sally Bowles a brilliant study. A new something in it. How can they be lost and found again. And even their treachery isn’t true, anymore than their apparent faith.

Isherwood seems strangely like me—his mind, his attitude. Only clearer, quieter, firmer, A better integrated man.

What is out purpose? To understand our lives and to communicate our understanding. Let’s all join hands in the dark!

Those unfamiliar with the stories of Tennessee Williams, might give some thought to his Collected Stories. Don’t skip the introduction by Gore Vidal.

1 comment:

  1. Big Tennessee fan myself. Discovered his stories back when I first owned a bookstore. At least one copy each of the New Directions publications went unsold and ended up in my library. And, of course, STREETCAR will always be one of the seminal works of the American theatre.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America