Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tennessee Williams

Then there's playwright Tennessee Williams, known for such works as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending,, Small Craft Warnings, The Red Devil Battery Sign, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Though he was born and raised in Mississippi and lived most of his adult life in NYC, he got a little place in Key West and spent his happiest times there. Today the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West pays tribute to him.

Throughout his life, Williams was very close to his sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1943, as her behavior became increasingly out of control, she was subjected to a crude lobotomy by barbaric doctors and shrinks, and the results were (as you can expect) disastrous. She was subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her days.

The one enduring romantic relationship of Williams' unhappy life lasted fourteen years: one Frank Merlo, who became Williams' gay lover and personal secretary, provided a period of happiness and stability as well as a balance to the playwright's frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would go insane. Soon after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with cancer and Williams returned to Florida to take care of him. He died on September 21, 1963.

As he had feared, following Merlo's death Williams descended into a period of near-catatonic depression and drug use, which eventually led to insanity and commitments to mental health facilities. He got injections of increasing amounts of amphetamines from the infamous Dr. Max Jacobson – known as "Dr. Feelgood" – and combined these with prescriptions for the dangerous Big-Pharma sedative Seconal to relieve his insomnia. Williams' mental state, always fragile, became a full-blown mess after these mental hospitals and quack medicos got ahold of him.

And just as with Ernest Hemingway, the "treatment" Williams received not only failed to improve his condition, it made it far worse, resulting at last in a massive pharmaceutical overdose that some believe was a suicide. Another version of his death scenario states that he choked to death on the cap to a bottle of eyedrops, but Williams' friend Scott Kenan believes that someone in the coroner's office invented the bottle cap story to cover up the role prescription drugs played.

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