Well, I've done most of the FUN Tennessee Williams reading:
Lyle Leverich bio
brother Dakin's bio (mainly rehashed material from co-writer)
massive "Notebooks" (ton o' interesting material, but better for just browsing around in)
Am currently working my way around the first volume of plays. "Cheated" by starting in the middle with the "good stuff" -- "Glass Menagerie" (his first hit) and "Streetcar" -- then forcing myself to go back and start at the very beginning... Just for knowledge's sake, but also, as it turns out: Reading BAD stuff by Tennessee Williams is actually pretty heartening, as in: "Oh my god, he didn't just spring upon the world with the subtle and brilliant 'Glass Menagerie'! He wrote a bunch of trite crap to get up to that point!"
His first full-length play "Spring Storm," (written in 1937 while in college) for instance, was kind of silly: Beautiful, sexy society girl has rich intellectual boy and poor, dumb sexy boy in love with her. (Rich, intellectual boy also has a poor intellectual girl in love with him, but he's not into her. She ends up killing herself after he rebuffs her.) The beautiful, sexy young-uns have secret sex, but then it turns out the boy wants to be free and run off to join a riverboat crew or something, and the girl doesn't want to go with him because the idea sounds kind of silly to her. The young Williams is trying way too hard to be risque (oooh!premarital sex!) and socially relevant (ode to the working man, and the Lawrencian "natural man") here, and the dumb, sexy guy is especially poorly characterized--Williams later enacts the type much more interestingly and powerfully with Stanley Kowalski.
His next full play, "Not About Nightingales," is similar in triteness: Good girl forced to work in a prison because of the Great Depression meets pure-at-heart criminal with evil, sleazy boss who physically abuses his prisoners and tricks girl into sleeping with him (she kinda likes it, but remains mentally true to her prison sweetheart). Again, very unsubtle characters. (The only subtle thing in the play is the girl's kinda liking the sex with the sleazy boss!)
1940's "Battle of Angels": Kinda like Lawrence's "The Fox": Sexy drifter in snakeskin jacket claiming to be a Christian saunters into town and seduces all the sex-starved ladies there before being burned to death by a mob. (Williams actually won a Rockefeller Fellowship for this and it was produced in Boston for 2 nights, before being shut down because of public outrage at the sexuality. It was re-worked and became 1957's "Orpheus Descending.")
Speaking of D.H. Lawrence: Williams wrote a one-act play in '41 called "I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix" about a dying Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Lots of "Though you are big and strong, you cannot dominate me, woman!" and "You are the night, woman, trying to put out the burning flame of my masculinity!" stuff. (I left the book at work, so can't quote directly, but that's the general idea.) Williams actually admired Lawrence in real life (I can't stand him), but what's interesting is that, despite Williams' attempts at having Lawrence spout his philosophy on his deathbed, Williams is also kind of making fun of him. For instance, a female friend of the couple comes over and is wailing over Lawrence's impending demise; she says to Frieda, "You must think he's a god!" Frieda dryly replies: "Having slept with him, no." So the overt admiring of Williams for Lawrence was annoying and poorly done, but then little things like the Frieda remark sneak in and give hints of Williams' later much more astute psychological observations.
The 1941 one-act "Lady of Larkspur Lotion" features a "faded lady" with delusions of grandeur staying in a decrepit New Orleans hotel, pestered by the landlady for rent and mocked for her pretensions, with only a sympathetic young writer for company. Blanche du Bois precursor!
The '46 one-act "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" was the 10-page inkling of the later movie "Baby Doll," with an extremely obese, extremely childlike, extremely sexualized wife aroused by both her crude husband and a sadistic stranger...
What was the most interesting to me about Williams' one-acts that I've read so far: They were NOT that well done, overall--and extremely short, 10-15 pages--yet they were clearly seedlings of longer, later, more important works. Reading them helped me out a bit psychologically:
(1) I once wrote poetry constantly as a younger woman, but if the muse doesn't come it doesn't come.
(2) I currently have a "grand idea" for a full-length historical screenplay, but I don't think my creative/intellectual well is full enough at the moment to delve into that whole-heartedly. (Unlike poetry, a screenplay can be cranked out with 85% craftsmanship, but there's still the bit of inspiration that's needed--and in this particular case, the actual hard-core research--and I am not there mentally at all right now.)
(3) But a 10-page one-act play? Ha! I basically come up with more than enough material for a one-act play every couple of weeks right here! :) My next question to myself was: "Who the heck even wants to read a one-act play once it's done?!" (Other than high-schoolers acting in school competitions?) Just for the hell of it, I did a search online for "one-act play contest" and look at the very FIRST thing I found!:
Thanks, Tennessee! :) I have seriously had a stupid mental block for most of my life: "If I can't do something GREAT, then I shall do NOTHING!" Which is an idiotic, unrealistic way to think. For instance, when first an undergrad in college, I kept dropping out every other year because I "wasn't feeling it." I kept expecting some profound intellectual revelations from just about every class I took and, yes, got peeved when they weren't constantly forthcoming! I finally did have an epiphany of sorts: "Fuck! Just GET the damn degree, just to prove to yourself and others that you were able to jump through that particular set of hoops." Ohhhhhh.....
Reading loads and loads of Tennessee Williams has opened up a similar realistic view of a writer's work: The man was not constantly besieged with profound revelations, yet he trudged on always, from his earliest years to his latest, as a craftsman, grinding out the damn work in bits and pieces, in whatever form, always gratefully accepting the rare gift of being a conduit when lightning DID deign strike and provide more lasting illumination through his words, and, when it didn't, being humble and simply ABLE enough to cobble together SOMETHING.
And what brings me cheer also is that his life-philosophy mirrored his theory of writing: En avant! (Forward!)