We all got something in us from Tennessee

Journalist Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint returns in an impressive biography on the romantic life of Tennessee Williams. To discover when Johnny plays it on the boards.

Paris Match. When did you become passionate about Tennessee Williams?
Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint. I fell in love with him as a teenager, taking acting lessons. There, I discovered a work that was both very poetic but also violent and sensual. I was also struck by the universality of this American author who, through pieces deeply rooted in the southern United States, in a pivotal period of the twentieth century (from the 1940s to the 1960s), was able to move and to jostle a little French girl like me, half a century later. Finally, after reading it, I felt the need to know more about his life. I discovered that he had had an incredibly romantic, excessive, dizzying existence, just like his characters.

When he was 12, he asked for a typewriter. Is he a born writer?
Yes, from his early childhood he started to invent little stories. He was certainly saved by writing. Shackled by religion, morality, Puritanism and the madness inherent in his family origins, he had only dreams to escape. And it was to get out of a stifling reality that he threw himself headlong into writing. This is why it has a considerable production: more than one hundred plays, novels, short stories, poems, a very voluminous correspondence, a private diary, essays …

You say that the lobotomization of his sister Rose will become the glue of his work to come. Why ?
It is indeed the drama of his life. Very close to his sister in his youth, he turned away when she began to show the first signs of schizophrenia. Then, quite busy becoming “Tennessee Williams” and assuming his artistic life and his homosexual love, he could not prevent his mother from orchestrating this fatal operation, which he will evoke on several occasions, from “La glass menagerie ”to“ Suddenly last summer ”.

“His transgression of taboos forged his singularity”

Has his homosexuality influenced his work?
Tennessee Williams has never claimed to be a homosexual writer; he thought it was too narrow a category. On the other hand, he has never been afraid to approach the sexuality of his characters, and particularly of his heroines, who can be by turns frigid, nymphomaniacs, even “cougar”. A transgression of taboos that forged his singularity as a writer.

When he comes to Paris, he meets sacred monsters, such as Arletty or Jean Marais. Does this have an impact on the course of its existence?
It is true that he often came to Paris to see the creations of his pieces: whether it was the “Tramway” adapted by Cocteau or “Doux oiseaux de jeunesse” played by Edwige Feuillère in a version by Françoise Sagan. He was also very impressed with Sartre. Her love for European culture, especially Italian culture, inspired her with one of her most original pieces: “The Tattooed Rose”, written for Anna Magnani.

Tennessee Williams has not always been successful. How did he come back to the fore?
Indeed, from the 1960s, he experienced a series of resounding failures. “The night of the iguana” is one of his last masterpieces. He drinks more and more, he takes a lot of medication, he gets lost in multiple romantic relationships; on the other hand, he never stops writing.
There is a vital impetus in him which drives him to creation, and if, at the time, his pieces are criticized, today we recognize that, behind the excess, the caricature, the experimental, hides a writer who has never ceased to renew himself.

What will remain of his work?
His work still resonates today because it stages the great human dramas: the thirst for love, the anguish of loneliness, the violence of power … But, above all, the question that haunts the writings of Tennessee Williams is that of God, and that is an eternal theme …

To eds. BakerStreet: “Tennessee Williams. A life ”, by Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint, 340 pages, 21 euros.
“From you to me”, unpublished by Tennessee Williams, 279 pages, 19 euros.

Any reproduction prohibited

Michael Lonsdale tells Marguerite Duras

Michael Lonsdale is sitting in a corner of a Parisian cafe. In a few hours, he must play the role of Turgenev, but for the moment he evokes the one for whom he has played so much: Marguerite Duras. In the hubbub of the establishment, her soft, slow, low voice is barely distinct and yet very audible. She was his great friend.

How did you know Marguerite Duras?

In 1968: the Barraults were driven out of the Odéon and took refuge in a small theater, Impasse Récamier. They were going up The English Lover, and it is Claude Régy who proposed my name. I remember that Marguerite was present at the rehearsals. She was constantly changing the text. A piece was always for her “a work in progress”. A few days before the performance, I asked him to stop: I no longer knew which version was the right one to play.

Were you familiar with his work at the time?

I had seen Hiroshima my love which I had found with incredible artistic nerve. And I read his novels, Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia, Whole Days in the Trees, etc. His work interested me for its novelty.

What woman was she?

I had childish relationships with her. We had a lot of common tastes. For example, a passion for the film The Night of the Hunter, or the novels of Virginia Woolf. It seems to me that we laughed a lot together. Everything could be light with her. She had unearthed somehow an anthology of letters that people sent to Social Security and that she had read to me. On one of them, a woman wrote: “My husband is dead, but since then I have not been able to get him out of the cash register.” When she spoke politics, on the other hand, she was difficult to live with. She always wanted to be right. I remember one evening at her house in Neauphle. After an endless political discussion, she had gone upstairs to bed. We saw her come down a few minutes later and relaunch the conversation: “I forgot to tell you …” She could also talk for hours about feminism with Delphine Seyrig. Once she was talking about a book of poetry that she had liked very much, she blurted out: “Too bad it’s written by a man.” I did not comment.

What is your best memory with her?

I played The English Lover for thirty-five years. And then Destroy, she said, in 1969, when Marguerite was making her film debut. I also have fond memories of filming India Song (1975). She had little experience. She started by filming the ball scene. We started playing and the sound engineer put on the music. Then he stopped everything: “Either you are talking or there is music.” Duras thought for a moment and decided: “You will not speak.” And we shot in voiceover. I have always liked her tone, her style, a wonderful freedom. She spoke of passion in love in the most intense way possible.

His avant-garde genre didn’t bother you?

On the contrary. I refused several times to enter the Comédie-Française. Shining in a big classic role doesn’t interest me. What I like is creating. That’s why I was happy to play Beckett, Ionesco, Duras. It was the happiness of my life.

How did she fit into the literature of her time?

I don’t think she liked her contemporaries very much. I heard her say: “There are only two writers in France: Simenon and me.” One day, we opposed because she was denigrating Chekhov. This author speaks like no one about the evil of love between beings. She knew very well that he surpassed her. Over the years, she began to have a strong opinion on everything. I remember that she had interviewed a prison director whom she had violently attacked, implicating her, with brutality. She mixed her work and reality. She became interested in the Villemin affair because of The English Lover (taken from a similar news item, Editor’s note). She went to see the drama house, met the examining magistrate. But she refused to see the mother, on whom she nevertheless passed judgment in a famous text. She preferred to dream her characters.

Isn’t there a Marguerite Duras from before L’Amant and one after?

We formed a very happy little band with Marguerite, until the day when Yann (Yann Andrea, his last companion, Editor’s note) arrived. He saved her, but he also cut her off from her friends. She had become difficult. The day she received the Goncourt Prize, we went to celebrate at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, at the Barraults. She settled accounts with everyone. She attacked a present criticism by throwing at it: “You murdered me.” She had a bad experience with the success of L’Amant – not her best book, because she writes “I”. She also wrote L’Amant de la Chine du Nord to rectify the situation after the film adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud, which she did not like.

Were you talking about God with her?

No never. She said, “God, I don’t believe it, but I talk about it all the time.” I know she read the Bible. In his work, I like to find many characters, as in Beckett, the poor, the unhappy, who are signs of the presence of God.