I’m reading Costly Performances right now, an account of the last few years of playwright Tennessee Williams’ life, written by his friend, Bruce Smith. It is a funny, sad, informative, salacious read. Last night, I read a passage about the opening of his last Broadway premiere, Clothes for Summer Hotel. It did not look likely that the reviews or following box office would be good, but after the show, as they stepped into the alley, Tennessee and Bruce were met by a group of fans. One man, in particular, held out a stack of books and said, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Williams, would you be kind enough to autograph these for me?” Bruce Smith, who was there, thought that the fan was imposing too much by asking Williams to stand there in the rain and sign 12 books. Williams graciously signed each one and then moved on to every person standing in this line, people who probably not had even been inside the show for financial or booking reasons.
When Smith asked him about his graciousness in what was a trying time. (His play did open to poor reviews and the show only lasted a few days on Broadway. Furthermore, the opening date had been decided to coincide with his 69th birthday, so they were en route to a less than festive birthday party/opening night party.) Tennessee only said, “These are my people, I know these are my readers, people whom I’ve communicated in some quite human and genuine manner. That man who wanted me to sign all those books, I know he’ll have to sell them, probabbly to pay his rent. These are the people I relate to and for. They’re all so far removed from the group inside the theatre. And to think that some one critic in there is going to decide against their being able to see one last big play of mine. I could feel it as we sat there during the performance of the play. They’re warming for the kill, baby, they’re warming for the kill.”
I can’t stop thinking about the image of Tennessee standing in the rain, signing autographs and making connections to people like, well, people like me. Around that time, I was a 12 year old boy who spent every Saturday at my local library. About 12 was when I discovered, and discovered would be the word, the play section in the upstairs aisles at the Independence Public Library. I would sit for hours and read plays and leaf through the pictures in “The Best Plays” series. It was my window into a world that I dreamed I’d be a part of. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair. So, when I read this, it affirms what I always believed when I read Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, or saw Jessica Lange do A Streetcar Named Desire or watched Night of the Iguana and Summer and Smoke and Suddenly, Last Summer on TCM. I know what Tom was trying to leave behind when he told Laura to blow out her candles because all of these characters and stories had been written for me and about me and to me, like a love letter.