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15 June 2017

A chat with Tennessee Williams that ultimately sounds more like jazz than words

In audio from 1959, Frankly Speaking quizzes the playwright on his Mississippi childhood.

By Antonia Quirke

“We live in an age where everything seems to be in dire danger of extinction, don’t we? Where nothing may survive at all.” Not a quote from this year – but from 1959. It was delivered by Tennessee Williams, on a brief visit to the UK, while submitting to an intense and unrehearsed interview for the BBC (broadcast in an archive slot on 10 June, 2.10pm).

Looming over him, like the Council of Krypton bearing down on the insurrectionist General Zod, a trio of interlocutors quizzed the playwright about his Mississippi childhood (he was the son of a violent, alcoholic shoe salesman) and behaviour as a youth (“Difficult years,” Williams admitted, “shocking fiascos”).

As he talked, his three questioners – you can imagine them narrowing their eyes into Nancy Drew slits – patently melted, so rewarding were his answers. When asked what he did while waiting for first-night reviews, the response was immediate: “I just sit and die.”

His voice. So distinct. As though he’d mostly forgotten he was an American, he would go long stretches sounding flintily English, like a chipped kerbstone, only to swoon suddenly into the full Blanche DuBois. The questions were gorgeously direct. “Are you frightened of pain?” might faze someone on Graham Norton’s couch now, but Williams was open in response, unportentous. At one point he blithely revealed that he was gay, quite in passing ­(remarkable for 1959).

None of it sounded like an effort; it was as though to him all of this was mere small talk, which perhaps it was. So many of his answers sounded like lines from a play of his, tossed away for free. “Friends?” he frowned, “I have a few. But a few is a very great many.” To the question “Do you live alone?” he offered a shard of a smile: “Not always.” It was one of those interviews that ultimately sound more like jazz than words, played by a musician capable on a broad range of unusual instruments.

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His staccato use of the word “no”, in particular, was unforgettable. “Do you like the films of your plays?” “No.” “Do you like working in the movies?” “No. I hate it.”

And the interviewers were briefly silenced, wondering if this was the beginning, middle and end of the answer.

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel