Thomas Lanier Williams, a genial, intense man who remains remarkably shy after some two decades of international acclaim and public attention, is one of the major playwrights of this century. In 1945, his first play to reach Broadway—The Glass Menagerie—won the Drama Critics Circle Award, and two years later A Streetcar Named Desire was decorated with both the Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He has written 14 plays, three films, a novel, short stories and a good deal of poetry. His latest drama is Slapstick Tragedy, which opened in New York at the Longacre on February 22.
How do you begin a play? Does an idea nurture in you for a long time, or do the characters come first—then the story?
It’s almost impossible for me to pin-point the start of a play. I think all plays come out of some inner tension in the playwright himself. He is concerned about something, and that concern begins to work itself out in the form of a creative activity. Some times I will get up in the morning and I will feel a little more energy than usually, and I will just start off writing dialogue. I typewrite very rapidly. Something in the page or two of dialogue will spark something in the way of characters or situations, and I just go along from there. I am a very wasteful writer. I go through several drafts, as many as four or five, before I finish a work. I am sure any playwright would give you practically the same description.
Albee said to me that he writes a play when it becomes more painful not to write it.
That is a very good way of putting it. Some people accuse me of being too personal in my writing, but I don’t think you can escape being personal in your writing. That doesn’t mean that the dramatist is one of the characters in the play, but rather that the dynamics of the characters in the play and the tensions among them correspond to something he is personally going through. There is a correspondence between the tensions of the play, the concerns of the play and the writer’s concerns and the tensions at the time he wrote it.
You have done a great deal of poetry writing, but you don’t write much poetry now. Why have you given up poetry for the plays?
You can use just as much personal lyricism in a play as in a poem, and also I have noticed that as writers get older those who are poets tend to write less poetry. I think that poetry, I mean actual poems, is a medium more for the young than for the middle aged.
Does this question of aging trouble you now that you have turned 50? Is it something you are going to be a writing about?
I think that I have always written quite a bit about it. We were having a poker game up here last night, and at one point somebody knocked a glass off a table. An accident, of course, there was no violence involved. And suddenly all at once I began to talk about age. I said “I can’t believe it, I am 54 years old now and, I think the reason that it is so incredible to me that I have suddenly reached this age is that each year is not a year to me but it is a play.” And sometimes three years are a play. My life seems to be chalked off not in years but in plays and pieces of work.
Most of your plays have been set in the South, which is where you grew up, but do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
I think I am becoming less a Southern writer than I was originally. I was a Southern writer because my parents were Southern and I was born in the South. I took the name of Tennessee because my father’s family were Tennesseans. In professional meetings, of course, people call me Tennessee, but people with whom I am close I always ask to call me Tom. It is easier, and I like the name Tom.
You are the grandchild of an Episcopal minister. Are you still actively involved in any discernible religion?
Well, I keep a Russian icon by my bed. It was given to me by a dear friend in London for my birthday. It is a very beautiful little icon, and I don’t suppose I would keep it there if I did not have some religious feeling. It may seem ingenuous to have religious feeling to a lot of people, but to me it seems necessary.
Could you identify this religious feeling?
It isn’t associated with any particular church. It is just a general feeling of one’s dependence upon some superior being of a mystic nature.
I have heard an anecdote told about your digging in the yard as a child.
That is one of my mother’s favorite stories. She found me digging in the backyard, and she said, “What are you digging for?” I said, “I am digging for the devil.”
In a sense, do you think you are still digging for the devil in these plays?
In a sense, yes, but I am also digging for the opposite of the devil—for God.
You have said your plays represent Man’s struggle between good and evil. How would you define good and evil in our contemporary society?
I don’t think it needs definition; it is so obvious. When I look at the papers that arrive every morning, it is just incredible what is going on. There is so much that is fantastically abominable going on. This whole Viet Nam bit—the napalm—incomprehensible evil. I mean where they burn people alive, and the way that they spray chemicals over the rice fields so that people will starve.
You are talking about the cruelty of modern weapons rather than the political connotation of the war?
They are incredibly cruel, and, believe me, nothing that will be won out of this war will be worth the life of a single man that died in it—in my opinion.
Do you have equally strong feelings about the civil rights struggle?
Yes, equally strong.
You have not touched on that very much in your writing, or do I do you an injustice?
I think the closest I came to writing directly about my feelings about what goes on in certain parts of the country was in Orpheus Descending. I want to be allusive; I don’t want to be one of these people who hits the nail on the head all the time. I am not a person dedicated primarily to bettering social conditions because I am not able to except through my writing, and i doubt if people pay enough attention to writing for writing to have any effect.
Critics have written about the obvious influence of Freud on your work. Is that a fair statement? Have you read a lot of Freud?
I have looked into a book or two of Freud’s but I have never read any of them fully. I think Freud did illuminate many dark areas in the human unconscious, and I think I write mainly from my unconscious mind.
Is there any special time that you write?
I find it almost impossible to write almost anytime but in the morning when I have more energy to write—immediately after breakfast.
Do you require any special conditions?
Oh yes, I require many special conditions. I have quite a ritual. Up till 1955, I found it much easier to work and after 1955 I was conscious of a certain fatigue. I have to get up in the morning and give myself a shot, an injection which peps me up to get to the God Damn—oh, excuse me — to get to the desk. Well, combined with the shot there are also the two strong cups of coffee; then I always have one of these Martinis on my writing table. I don’t take more than one. But I found that after 1955, specifically after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that I needed these things to give me the physical energy to work. The intelligent thing might have been to stop working to rest, but I am a compulsive writer. I tried stopping work and I am bored to death with it.
I am pleased that you are so compulsive, because we benefit from it every year or two.
I hope you do. Somebody gets something out of it, I hope. I have never been without terrific anxiety about my work. It is constitutional in me to be anxious as all hell about my work. I will never get over that and I never hope to. I just have to live with it.
Which playwrights do you think have influenced your work in the past?
Strindberg and Chekhov, if you are talking about master playwrights of the past. Nobody influences me anymore because I have formed my own way, and it is crystallized for me.
Do you read contemporary novels?
I have not had much taste for novels in the last ten years or so. I prefer to read journals and books, collected letters of writers and biographies. Right now, I am reading the diary of Anais Nin.
You’ve said, “American need not settle for its present state, we must go forward and be unafraid.” In what way, what areas do you think we have to move?
We were just speaking about the civil rights. That is very important. We are making progress. It is not as fast as we might hope for and there is some very ugly opposition to it, but we are making remarkable progress. I feel that finally American people have a sense of justice. It may take them a while to formulate it because so many false leaders, politicians like Senator Dirksen or Mr. Nixon and the late Senator McCarthy — so many people like that are impeding the spirit of the American people, the understanding, I mean.
On the question of the spirit of the American people, do you have any feeling about the young people of today?
I love what the young people of today are doing. They don’t seem to be scared of anything, except their own shadows maybe. But anything except their own shadows they are not afraid of, and that is wonderful. It is wonderful how they can go out and face police bullies in the South, KKK, the whole bit and they do have that courage and it is marvelous. I think that this is one of the great generations of young people that we have now.
Finally, you’ve said you would rather stay an outsider than adjust to injustice. Do you still think of yourself as outside the main social stream in America?
No. I am very much a part of it, I hope. I hope to be always.
This conversation took place in Mr. Williams' 33-floor apartment in mid-Manhattan, where the playwright spoke with the Editor of Playbill shortly before Slapstick Tragedy opened.