THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: The Life of Tennessee Williams by Donald Spoto

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: The Life of Tennessee Williams

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Sympathetic, detailed, but ultimately shallow and merely depressing: the life and work of Tennessee Williams, ""a living example of the creative personality who shared the Dionysian or Bacchic impulse."" Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock) fills in Williams' roughly well-known background: mother Edwina, the model for Amanda Wingfield, minister's daughter and would-be Southern belle, willful yet ever-suffering; rejecting father Cornelius, a carousing phone-company/shoe-company man; and fragile sister Rose, whose mental instabilities eventually led--in Williams' 1937 absence--to a lobotomy. (""From then on, the spirit of his sister haunted his life, her personality trapped in a childish permanence like a pinned butterfly."") Unfortunately, however, as Spoto goes on to document Williams' desperate life-long loneliness (despite at least one genuinely loving companion), his compulsive homosexual promiscuity, and his self-destruction through multiple addictions, there's far from enough psychological insight to shape or illuminate the grim parade of tortured relationships, nightmare-binges, and hypochondriacal terrors. (""For him, hypochondria, an obsession for constant work and his essentially Dionysian personality'--a simplistic premise throughout--""made alcohol and drugs perhaps inevitable."") And the few attempts at deeper probings remain half-formed, imprecise: ""He never accepted that he was sexually loved--it wasn't that he didn't accept love itself."" On Williams' career and work, Spoto is somewhat more successful: the autobiographical elements in all the plays and fiction (especially those involving sister Rose) are persuasively suggested; there are reasonably balanced, if never striking, mini-critiques of all the works, with six of the plays regarded as ""great art"" (an over-generous assessment, perhaps); and Spoto avoids most, if not all, of the sentimental traps in narrating the legendary decline of Williams' last 20 years--flop after flop, repetitious belaborings (of his youth, of his fractured soulmate-ship with Rose), drug-induced descents into incoherence and paranoia. A competent yet disappointing critical biography, then, without the chilly-yet-fascinating life/work interplay of Spoto's Hitchcock study--but, thanks to extensive interview material, this does offer interested readers a solid account of Williams' manic, sad, drearily sordid ups-and-downs.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
ISBN: 0306808056
Publisher: Little, Brown