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

In the spring of 1954, Williams picked up A Place of Stone, a short play that he hadn’t been able to ‘get a grip on’ when he started it the previous year and that had added to his “terrible state of depression last summer in Europe.” In March, he wrote to (Audrey) Wood (TW’s agent) about it. “I’m…pulling together a short play based on the characters in Three Players,” he said. “Don’t expect that till you see it, as I might not like it when I read it aloud.”

Nonetheless, within a week, although he judged the new play too brief and too wordy, Williams clearly saw that he found a new imaginative seam. “I do think it has a terrible sort of truthfulness about it, and the tightest structure of anything I have done. And a terrifyingly strong curtain.”

Back in Rome that summer, when Wood was visiting, Williams handed her a pile of pages he called his “work script,” typed mostly on hotel stationery. By then the play was called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wood stayed up reading until four in the morning. “I was terribly excited,” she said. “In the morning I immediately told him this was certainly his best play since ‘Streetcar’, and it would be a great success. He may not remember this now, but he was then overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. It was obvious to me that he didn’t yet know what he had done.”…

Williams came to understand the play as “a synthesis of all my life.” In Brick and Maggie’s battle, Williams projected the way inside himself between self-destruction and creativity – his desire to reclaim literary inheritance.   

On opening night, March 24 1955, at the Morosco Theatre on Forty-Fifth Street, Williams took his seat. During the first act, he was agitated, muttering to himself so loudly that people around him had to shush him. He sat out most of the second half at a bar across from the theatre then returned to watch the crucial final scene between Maggie and Brick.

 “The wait for the morning notices to come out was one of the most unendurable intervals of my life,” Williams said. They picked up the papers and went over to Forty-Third Street and Broadway to pore over them at Toffenetti’s.

To Williams, each rave review – “the production has no flaw” (Walter Kerr), “enormous theatrical power” (Richard Watts Jr., New York Post) – was as much cause for laceration as celebration. He was convinced that, for commercial success, he had sold out the truth of his characters and his heart.

In silence, at three o’clock in the morning, Williams, Wood and Liebling sat together in a booth while Williams read his thick stack of opening-night telegrams one by one. “He studiously refused to permit us to see any of his messages. He continued to behave as if he were completely alone,” the bemused Wood recalled. She and Liebling were witnessing in person what Williams had just dramatized in Cat: “the shocking duality of the single heart.”

Extract from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, published UK by Bloomsbury and in USA by W W Norton (c) John Lahr 2014

Reproduced by permission of Sheil Land Associates Ltd working in conjunction with Georges Borchardt Inc