Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Writers have no imagination. Discuss.

“You need to read this review of the new Tennessee Williams biography,” says Husband, walking into the bedroom with my customary morning cup of tea and the Saturday papers tucked under his arm, “it explains a lot.” 

A few nights before Husband and I had attended the live screening of A Streetcar Named Desire, beamed straight from the Young Vic Theatre into our local cinema, and he still hasn’t got over it. He only gallantly agreed to attend because a group of my mum-friends were taking their touchy-feely husbands along with them and there’s a limit to the number of invitations my non-touchy-feely one feels he can refuse.

I loved it. Gillian Anderson was amazing. That woman can act. Hers was an utterly mesmerising Blanche DuBois, plus a triumph of memory and stamina. So much so that when I got home I googled her to see if she has children (surely not) and she does. Three! AND now I know where the line, “Stella!” comes from, which our two older boys have been shouting to each other recently in high-pitched, strangulated tones before collapsing into hysterics. (Referenced from the play in both Sienfeld and The Simpsons, I think.)

Husband didn't enjoy it quite so much. In fact, as the play progressed, with Blanche unravelling inch by painful inch, his fidgeting and eye-rolling correspondingly intensified so that by the time we reached the play's denouement (it was long), with Blanche carted off stage to the looney bin, Husband had assumed the air of someone who needed to be congratulated for having borne a terrible ordeal.

“Congratulations,” I said, as we stood up and stretched our cramping limbs in front of the rolling credits, “you made it to the end without falling asleep.” And then I said I wondered what had happened to Tennessee Williams that he should want to write such a play. But Husband wasn’t listening to this, he was muttering darkly about P G Wodehouse. “Give me any day,” I think he said. What Ho Jeeves! was the last play we saw together in the West End. And by the way I still haven’t forgiven Stephen Mangan for being ill that night.

I don't know anything about Tennessee Williams, despite having an English degree, (it’s surprising how little you can get away with reading on an English Literature degree course and still manage to obtain a degree at the end of it. I can vouch for this), but I was willing to bet that something of T.W.’s own life had found its way into that play. Not that all writers draw inspiration from their own lives. And I can vouch for this too, because when I was about fifteen I wrote a play about a teenage girl with an alcoholic mother and a criminal father, who was left to bring up her band of squabbling siblings alone. There weren’t a lot of laughs in it, as I recall. 

For some unknown reason that play won a competition, probably because there wasn’t much, competition that is, and the prize was that it should be performed by proper actors at the local arts centre. During the rehearsals, which I was invited to attend and where I developed massive crushes on all the male actors who happened to cross my path (plus ca change, see Stephen Mangan), the playwright in residence pulled me aside to inform me earnestly that all writers write what they know, before cocking his head to one side and waiting, presumably for my emotional floodgates to open.

They didn't. I fixed him straight in the eye and I told him I’d made it all up, and watched the disappointment steal across his face. For a moment I thought he might actually snatch my prize from me, cancel the upcoming performance, and escort me from the premises, but he didn’t: he merely dug a little deeper...

Yes, but were my parents divorced? No. Did I have siblings like the character in my play? Yes, but only one younger brother, and he wasn't a cripple. Did my mother work? Yes. Ah! She’s a teacher. Oh. What about my father? He works too. What does he do? He’s at the university. At the university? Yes. He’s an academic? Yes. What subject? Sociology. Sociology! That’s it! The playwright was delighted. Apparently it explained everything. It probably still does.

Any road up, as they say where I come from, I read the review of the biography, by John Lahr, about "a playwright whose work was entirely and pitilessly autobiographical," as I sipped my tea in bed, and it turns out that T. W. came from Mississippi, just like Blanche and Stella in the play, and that his mother was Edwina, a ‘southern belle’, who married beneath herself and was prone to hysterical outpourings and that his sister, Rose, suffered from mental illness and got carted off to the looney bin from time to time. So maybe that writer in residence was right? A bit.

Now, where did I put that manuscript I’ve been working on? The one about the middle-aged mum, trapped at home in South London, blogging her way out of obscurity.

Love E x

Here's The Times review that Husband was referring to. You won't be able to read it unless you subscribe to the paper online so I've also pasted one from The Independent as well.




  1. One of my favorite plays. Love the movie with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh!

  2. You know what I have never seen it. Get it muddled with Cat On A H T R. Must get the gang over to watch it for a movie night. E x

  3. Every time I find myself under an unflattering down-light I AM Stella Dubois! Back of hand to forehead. I love that play. One of my better memories of boarding school.

  4. Did you just study it Jane or were you actually in it?! E x

    1. We studied it. I'd have to check with my sister (she was always female lead) if we performed it. Memory fade. We did Wuthering Heights. I was Joseph the grumpy old butler!

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