“Poetry,” declared T.S. Eliot, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” More than one set of eyebrows has arched at that pronouncement. For surely we read in part to know the man behind the work. A blind bard, Demodocus, sings in Odyssey VIII, we conclude, because Homer was blind; Micawber lives in the shadow of the poorhouse in David Copperfield because Dickens’ own father did. Poets are peculiar, and we always delight in hearing the details of their lives. But do we really read Homer or Dickens to discover the intimate struggles and deepest secrets of their past? Eliot was right: as much as we enjoy hearing of our favorite poets’ eccentricities, their work must transcend the autobiographic and confessional. We want words and images that order our chaotic perceptions into a decorous, truthful whole. The poet, however fascinating, who fails in this task remains a mere character, a stranger speaking an arcane language that may amuse, captivate, or anger, but cannot teach.

In the last 20 years of his life, Tennessee Williams wrote play after play trying simultaneously to exorcise personal demons and to maintain his standing as the greatest living American playwright. How well he succeeded privately and professionally may be seen both in the continuing torment he suffered and in the bewildered, often caustic, reaction of theatergoers and critics. To the faithful who wanted another Class Menagerie, the new works were imcomprehensible; to the aficionados of the avant-garde who thrived on the latest shocker, they were flat. By the time of his death in 1983, friends and public alike pitied Williams as much as they admired him.

In his biography of Williams, The Kindness of Strangers, Donald Spoto sketches the career of the playwright from birth in Columbus, Mississippi, to death in Key West. Notwithstanding his admiration for his subject, Spoto admits the link of Williams’ decline to the sordid habits—liquor, sex, and dope—that absorbed his private and public energies and separated him from the friends and audience he wanted to reach. Spoto’s readings of the individual plays become repetitious, and his trendy acceptance of Williams’ “sexual preference” fills the reader with loathing. But one message is clear: personal catharsis untranslated into public catharsis spelled Williams’ fall as a successful dramatist.

Yet Spoto disappoints in his assessment of the early play’s which made Williams’ reputation. Spoto would have us believe that Williams was a keen examiner of the verifies of human passion and endurance, that The Glass Menagerie plumbs the depths of human endurance and fragility, and that A Streetcar Named Desire contrasts the romantic, chivalrous South (symbolized in Blanche) with a brutish modernity (seen in Stanley). Certainly, Williams tried to work such ideas into his plays. The trouble was his exhibitionism. “I am more personal in my writing than other people,” he said, “and it may have gone against me.” Too true. The more audiences learned of his past, the less they thought about human passion and endurance. They only saw Tennessee Williams baring his soul on stage. That’s why viewers easily forget that Blanche symbolizes the South, and remember instead that her dead husband killed himself after she exposed his homosexuality. Similarly, audiences miss the pathos of Laura in The Glass Menagerie, seeing in her plight only the Williamses of Enright Avenue, St. Louis. After all, wasn’t Williams a homosexual? Didn’t he have an insane sister, a domineering mother, and a philandering father? Poor man. Strange work. But what does it have to do with us? Spoto’s failure to deal with this question ultimately makes The Kindness of Strangers, like Williams’ plays, trivial.


[The Kindness of Strangers, by Donald Spoto (Little, Brown; Boston) $19.95]