Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cheap Trash

This blog hasn't been gay enough lately. Herewith, then, the last book review I published in Gay Community News, on January 27, 1991. It may not be enough, but it will have to do for now.

Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage
a personal memoir by Bruce Smith
New York
: Paragon House, 1990
$19.95 hardcover
262 pp.

First there was Dotson Rader’s Cry of the Heart, in which Rader presented himself as Tennessee Williams’s only true friend in his twilight years, the only one who really cared about him; now we have Bruce Smith’s Costly Performances, by someone else making the same claim.

Bruce Smith, a marketing and public-relations person from Chicago, says he met Tennessee Williams in 1979. But Smith never quite explains how he met Williams. He says in the prologue that “the pages of this book open in 1979 with the advent of Tennessee's last big play”, but in fact the first chapter begins in Key West in January 1980, with Smith and Williams in conversation over after-dinner drinks. Williams was preparing for the production of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which was to open in Washington D.C. and then move to Chicago. It’s certainly a marvelous coincidence that Williams should have met a PR man from Chicago who just happened to be in Key West at that moment; or was this perhaps a professional acquaintance that turned into genuine friendship? That wouldn't discredit Smith, but his vagueness about this and other matters makes me suspicious.

These suspicions were aroused again as I watched Smith working over director Gary Tucker, a director whom Smith judges by his ‘outrageous’ Chicago plays Whores of Babylon and Turds In Hell rather than by his later productions in Atlanta of two late and seldom-produced Tennessee Williams plays. Smith introduces Tucker as “a former minor league director of offbeat productions” and “a marginally outrageous theater presence”, one of “two new observers [who] had been brought to the scene” in Chicago.

Brought by whom? By Tennessee, it seems. According to Smith, Williams had seen and liked the Atlanta production, which Smith admits had been well-received; so it’s hardly surprising that “Tennessee felt at this time that Tucker had a sincere vocation with him in advancing the acceptance of his much underplayed later plays”.

But Smith is sure that “Tucker wished to capitalize on the decadence of Tennessee's late work and his much publicized life. He thought only to aggrandize himself through association with the Williams name. . .” (As though Williams's early work weren’t ‘decadent’!) Tucker had with him in Chicago a handsome blond named Schuyler Wyatt, and Smith knows that Wyatt was there as a “sex and drug kit” to draw Williams into Tucker’s “Machiavellian reign”, which “would effectively see Tennessee through to the end of his involvement with play production and insure the failure of all his dramatic ventures” -- including his ventures with Tucker? Some opportunist!

Tucker’s world, Smith told Williams, was “not my world, Tennessee. . . . It’s why that part of the gay world has such a hideous reputation. And, because it’s the most visible part of the gay world, it holds the entire minority back from gaining any real acceptance as a responsible social entity.” [76] There might be some truth in Smith’s assessment of Tucker; but it’s so entangled with Smith’s jealousy and vindictiveness that I found myself giving Tucker far more of the benefit of the doubt than he perhaps deserves.

Tucker isn’t Smith's only target, though. Smith’s portraits of Williams’s friends and theatrical co-workers reminded me of the sort of photographs you see on the cover of the National Enquirer: garishly overcolored and picked to be as unflattering as possible. Geraldine Page, for example, “made a beeline for our table. Acknowledging Tennessee with only a grimace, she addressed herself to me. I rose. With her hands still clothed in her gray woolen mittens she began pounding me on the chest. The ballet company turned its collective head in our direction, en pointe” [49].

Or Williams’s old friend Maria St. Just, with her “unfortunate hatchet face which, while it asserted quite aggressively that it would brook no affront to its dignity, at the same time it betrayed her inmost culpabilities. I’m afraid that the knowing concern of a friend one might have hoped to see traced into her features was hard lined out into blatant self-concern” [101]. It appears that while Smith was sharply suspicious of anyone Tennessee got along with, he was more than willing to join in his feuds.

A couple of references to Smith’s father’s “certain ruin through alcohol” (162) make me speculate that when Smith is indulging in New-Agey rhetoric like “As the architect of my own life, my structures were conceived in an upward manner, toward the light” (75), he might also consider the term “co-dependent.” Perhaps his professed desire to create a “new, healthy Tennessee” -- provided Williams played by Smith’s rules -- had in it certain motives that deserve the same jaundiced scrutiny Smith applies to everyone else in Williams’s life; if so, they don’t receive that scrutiny. Bruce Smith is the light; all else is darkness.

Aside from being a nasty, depressing, self-serving and self-aggrandizing book, Costly Performances is incompetently written and edited -- much like Rader’s Cry of the Heart, come to think of it, or like the National Enquirer. Smith leaves no cliché unturned, no participle undangling. (“Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, St. Louis was the crucible of Tennessee’s creative life.” [2]) He wants to write a florid prose but doesn’t know the meaning of many of the big words he uses, also like Rader (whose name he misspells, as “Raider”, twice!). I’ll give him this much, however: somehow he seems to have got Williams’s voice, as I know it from interviews and other transcriptions, on paper. Most of the words put into Tennessee’s mouth in the book do sound like him, rather than Smith. But there’s little dish here that you couldn't find elsewhere; and to get to the subject of Costly Performances you have to get past the author.