Grissom, James. “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog”, Knopf, 2015.
Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, Stella Kowalski, Alma Winemiller and Lady Torrance among others are women that we meet in the plays of Tennessee Williams and they are also unforgettable, and the other characters that will endure forever. Williams is the kind of playwright who makes us think. Up until this book, we have not had the opportunity to learn how he came to create these women as well as how his plays were part of the pulse of the American South. Perhaps I should say early on that I knew Williams and I saw him work but even so I really did not know much about the genius of his mind. I heard him speak several times about “his women” and I came to understand that each was a composite of the women that he actually knew. These women and the plays that they are in transformed theatre in the twentieth century. It is one thing to create but Williams created each character anew each time the roles of his characters were brought to life by an actor. There was a connection between Williams and the women who took his characters to the stage. In some cases he worked with the actress who was assuming the character. Those who did so, in effect, became part of a magic show when they breathed life into their roles . By magic I mean that it was magical to see them belong the women they played. The list goes on and on— Lillian Gish, Maureen Stapelton, Laurette Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Elizabeth Ashley, Joanne Woodward, Jessica Tandy, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Anna Magnani, Kim Stanley, Jo Van Fleet, Ann Margaret, Jessica Lange, Rosemary Harris, Eva Le Gallienne, Estelle Parsons all played Williams’ women and each of them made the role that they played their own. The list above is a Who’s Who of American theater and cinema.
Author James Grissom takes us on a journey with Williams to examine the playwright’s inspirations and how he came to write what he did. We get to have a look almost inside the man and see that everything he did was part of a collaboration between him and the actor and the director.
How did Grissom come to write this book and what was his inspiration for doing so? We learn that when Williams dramatic output was at a low point and critics claimed that he had lost his touch, Williams returned to New Orleans where he answered a letter written by the then 20 year old new writer Grissom who asked for advice. He invited Grissom to come to New Orleans and after an intense conversation, Grissom began his journey to find out if Williams or his output mattered to those who mattered to him. Grissom went after those people and actually spoke to “more than seventy giants of American theater and film” and among them were women who “came to Williams out of the fog”.
But it was not just women who aided Williams in his creations—there were many important men as well—Elia Kazan, José Quintero, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud to name just a few. . . .
It seems that there is a renewal of interest in Williams these days. Right before we get “Follies of God”, we also have John Lahr’s new biography, “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”. However, Grissom’s book is not so much a biography of the man but a biography of how he wrote and worked. It combines literary history with being alive. There is not a day that a Williams’ play is not being performed or rehearsed all over the world.
Grissom refers to the people that came into Williams’ imagination as “the fog” and it was these characters that went on to become his signature characters. I remember when I was working on translating “A Streetcar Names Desire” into Hebrew for a performance at the Haifa Municipal Theater in Israel. We did our first read through and the actress who later played the role of Blanche DuBois remarked that Blanche is so “Israeli” and I thought to myself that what she said was so true. Williams wrote characters that were typically Southern but who could be at home anywhere in the world.
Grissom most definitely has captured the man who was Tennessee Williams and as I read I thought back to the times in New Orleans and other places when I had the luxury of being with him as he told his stories. There is poetry and artistry there and he was a man who would stop to listen to what you had to say. I often wondered if that was a way of capturing someone so that he/she could later appear in his drama. The women who played his roles loved and admired him but more than that, they touched him deeply.
Williams was an artist and when he began to lose his ability to continue to write, nevertheless kept trying for one more hit— he never stopped writing and creating. There are not many who could show how he felt about his women so poetically—he knew what drove them and therefore they dominate his writing—consider Stanley Kowalski and Blanche. Brando made Stanley unforgettable yet when we think of “Streetcar”, we think of Blanche.
In the interviews that Grissom was part of, we find how others (particularly those who reenacted his women) saw Williams and for these comments alone, the book s worthwhile—but it is so much than just that.
We hear from Williams himself and what he had to say still says a great deal about him. Grissom tells us that Tennessee Williams was a tormented soul but we would see that anyway in the way that he wrote and what he wrote about. He was love with words and we know this because of the way he puts them together. He was an “artist and human being — a flawed, fearful, self-destructive, achingly vulnerable, gallant, forever questing pilgrim: a genius and a visionary who tragically could never seem to take the measure of his own unparalleled gifts.”
I believe that I have read everything that Williams wrote and everything that I could get my hands on about him. This book is different and it is as if Grissom had a direct line to the soul of the man. I love that Grissom allows us to see his own feelings for the playwright and I have the same feeling that were Williams alive today, he would have returned the affection. I see this book as a personal remembrance of Williams in addition to everything else. It is also an important book for fans and for those who knew Williams—for those of us who loved him, this may be something of a painful read in that it will raise memories. This so reminds me of “The Glass Menagerie’, the play that Williams himself called a memory play.
In an attempt to understand the subtitle of this book, “Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog”, I learned that “no play written by Tennessee Williams, however, got its bearings until a fog rolled across the boards, from which a female form emerged”. Williams explained that he did not know why that was but that there was a “premonitory moment before a woman, an important, powerful woman enters my subconscious, and this moment is announced by the arrival of fog… it comes with a smell” that reminds him of hotel rooms in New Orleans, St. Louis and New York; rooms where Williams wrote and “dreamed and starved and fucked and cried and read and prayed, and perhaps all that action and all that steam [from the radiators in those rooms] creates both fog and this woman.”
In the past I read articles about how Williams, as a writer, really did not know much about women and hence we get caricatures of women instead of the real thing. I must disagree with that. Wherever he lived, Williams took his idea of the “genteel” Southern women with him and he emerges and reemerges over and over.
I am deeply impressed with this book and its author. There is a lot here and I mean that to say that we are constantly learning about who we are. We also get to see a different Williams than we thought alongside new interpretations of his work. I read the uncorrected galleys and now I see that I also want the finished book.