Monday, February 20, 2012

Unpublished Significant Early Tennessee Williams Poem Surfaces

by Stephen J. Gertz

Between the end of May and the beginning of September 1937, Tennessee Williams, 26 years old and a student at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a startling prose poem, one never published and completely unknown to Williams scholars.

The piece, titled The Body Awaits, a monologue spoken by a bum in a St. Louis flophouse, appears to be related to Williams' fourth apprentice play, Fugitive Kind, also written in 1937 and occurring in a flophouse. It is unclear whether the piece was working preparation for Fugitive Kind, or, alternatively, grew out of it, Williams sensing something that he wanted to develop independently from the play.

The work is eerily prescient of his sad, later years. It begins:

I am tired. I am tired of speech and action. If you should meet me upon the street and still know me in spite of my present condition I would prefer that you passed me without salutation. Your face is unknown to me now. I do not remember your name. Maybe we drank together once or shared grub in a jungle of flop-house somehwehre [sic] in a different state or different city but that was a long time ago.

And ends, in this draft:

Death is the last convenience. Perhaps it will be a truck skidding close to a corner on which I stand. Accident or on purpose? Who cares! A step or two forwards or backwards and the whole thing's done. The body awaits identification at the city morgue. Will you perform a post-mortem? In the heart of me you will find a tiny handful of dust. Take it and blow it out upon the wind. Let the wind have it and it will find its way home.

In corrected typescripts of two different versions of Williams's working drafts, the earlier is typed on both sides of a single sheet, double and single-spaced in blocks of text on the first side, with several versions of some lines; on the reverse a portion is  double-spaced, with a line by line layout.

These two drafts contain about twenty-five words in Williams's hand in pencil.

The later version is double-spaced on four pages (including two drafts of the second page), and has thirty-four words and other corrections in pencil, by Williams. It's signed in type and dated June, 1937.

Thomas A. Goldwasser, of Goldwasser Rare Books, currently offering the typescript, said,  "It is particularly interesting to see the budding playwright experimenting with voices and phrases and trying to expand his imaginative world."

Williams typescript/manuscript material is extremely difficult to acquire. "Almost all such Williams  material is held by institutions, and rarely appears for sale," Goldwasser notes.

Here we have, pre-Tennessee, Thomas Lanier Williams III, unhappy in childhood, depressed in adolescence, and only two years after a nervous breakdown, contemplating, in his mid-twenties, a void in the heart, exhaustion with life, a turning within and away from the world, and an acceptance if not welcome of death.

It ends with what would become Williams signature language, a soft, stylized tongue never heard in real life, the song of a splendid bird with broken wing who sought compassion for all the injured and sung with a voice desperately seeking lyric poetry in a brutal prose world. In the beginning he saw his end with a yearning to return to the refinement that he never knew as a child yet mourned just the same, the Never-Neverland of a tortured Peter Pan from Mississippi who sought grace in all things but experienced its subversion by gross reality.  Tennessee Williams was Blanche DuBois. In The Body Awaits, Blanche lies with her brothers, the lost, helpless souls wounded beyond salvation.

"In the heart of me you will find a tiny handful of dust. Take it and blow it out upon the wind. Let the wind have it and it will find its way home."

The body awaits delivery to where the mind has already arrived, to that supernal place where nightmares subside, dreams are never disturbed, and the kindness of strangers is no stranger.

Image courtesy of Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books, with our thanks.

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