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TENNESSEE WILLIAMS c,, C,, THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS 73 "You Can't Retire From Being An Artist" Glenn Loney It is understandably easier to assess an artist's life-work when he's no longer around to confound any ringing, resounding judgments. There is always the danger-for the critic, not the artist-that in his advancing seniority the artist may suddenly surprise with an astoundingly insightful work which bears little relation to what came before, or which proves to be the absolute capstone of his literary monument. The latter was certainly the case with Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. And, although Henrik Ibsen's last play remains unsatisfactory as a stage-work for some, and a symbolic mystery to some others, When We Dead Awaken must surely be viewed, if not as a capstone, at least as a final comment on the significance of an artist's life-possibly for Ibsen a metaphoric memorial. Among artists, authors are frequently more fortunate than Julius Caesar, for whom Marc Antony cryptically wished that the good might be interred with his bones. With publishing costs what they are today, it's not likely that a writer or playwright's worst efforts will long outlive him. So let it be with Tennessee Williams, now his time has come to face that great Critic in the sky. Up to the end, however, Williams continued to write, even though many critics believed-and often reminded their readers-that his best work was far behind him. Not only did Williams pursue his elusive, once generous muse, but he also granted interviews notable for their charm, thoughtfulness, and honesty. When he was a guest-speaker at some assemblage of theatre folk or drama editors, his sense of survival, tempered by a benevolent humanity, was readily apparent. Some Williams-watchers would have been happier with him if he'd settled into an august posture as America's oldest-living Great Dramatic Poet, giving gracious audiences, awarding playwriting prizes to young hopefuls, delighting the denizens of major universities with spritely sallies at seminars, and generally enjoying the role of Grand Old Man of American Letters, without feeling the need to write yet another play, which the fervent admirers of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire would be compelled to condemn as only another evidence of his lost or waning talents. 74 Most of Williams's plays of the 1960s and 1970s are an embarrassment to those who lauded his genius in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether they are quite as bad as some of New York's daily and weekly drama critics judged them to be when they premiered is another question, a question which cannot be answered by any absolute standards. In fact, although some efforts such as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) and Out Cry (1973) were generally excoriated -despite Williams's own apparent affection for them-a study of the full range of reviews of each new Williams opus will show that critical opinion is seldom unanimously negative. Some critics even seemed to espy signs of fresh inspiration, new techniques, or an unaccustomed personal honesty. Of all the practicing drama critics, New York's John Simon best knows how to damn with the faintest of praise, as he did the 1980 premiere of Clothes for a Summer Hotel: ". .. Williams has finally written a play that, unlike its eight or ten predecessors, is not embarrassing. Neither, however, is it good."' For all those critics who continued to use Menagerie and Streetcar as their yardsticks for measuring Williams's later creations, it was to be expected that his more recent efforts would disappoint, whatever their merits. It did Williams no good at all to protest to critics, or anyone who would listen-as he did occasionally-that he was not trying to repeat those impressive artistic and commercial successes, that his writing had taken a new direction, that he had been developing a new kind of dramaturgy. What was often perceived, instead, was not a new direction but a sad deterioration in Williams's former skill in imagining affecting characters, in evoking arresting environments, and in invoking potentially...


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