When I wrote recently about John Lahr’s marvelous Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, I didn’t mention one of its odder and more intriguing secondary characters. Williams himself is, of course, front and center. But Lahr devotes a significant portion of the book to Maria Britneva (known later, through a marriage that made her wealthy, as Lady St. Just).
To give a brief sense of Lahr’s take on each, here’s an edited version of his closing comments on Williams in Mad Pilgrimage:
Williams turned his own delirium into one of the twentieth century’s great chronicles of the brilliance and the barbarity of individualism… Out of the sad little wish to be loved, Williams made characters so large that they became part of American folklore… Williams allowed words to live like anthems in the national imagination: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”; “Sometimes— there’s God— so quickly”; “Nowadays the world is lit by lightning.”
And here is Lahr on Britneva, from an exposé he wrote for The New Yorker:
Lady Maria St. Just, who, it was said, was neither a lady nor a saint nor just, died, in England, on February 15, 1994. She was famous for her high spirits and her high-hat ways, which won her many friends and many enemies. She was a resourceful hostess and a good cook, but humble pie was not on her menu.
In Mad Pilgrimage, Lahr has much more to say about Britneva, most of it vitriolic. She was conniving, duplicitous, self-aggrandizing, disloyal, and (as an actress, at least) without talent. But why does Lahr care? That Britneva had a long-term, complicated but deep and devoted friendship with Williams shouldn’t be so irksome. In at least one sense, all Williams’s fans owe Britneva a debt – she was the inspiration for Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The problem is that, through various circumstances (including poor judgment on Williams’ part), Britneva became the great playwright’s literary editor. Her influence was considerable and catastrophic.
To summarize just a few of Britneva’s bad actions – withholding Williams’ materials from scholars; discouraging and subverting potential good biographers (as well as encouraging a few unqualified ones); attempting to control casting of Williams’ revivals; removing works she disliked from circulation (and specifically prohibiting the posthumous publication of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, because the “homosexual play” offended her). Her motivations seem to have little to do with protecting Williams, and are instead primarily self-serving – she would, for example, remove from the archives any Williams’ letters with negative references to her.
Britneva’s vice-grip on the Williams’ canon lasted till her death in 1994. Since the playwright was famous when he died in 1982, and is probably more famous now, we might wonder how much her influence really hurt his legacy. But Lahr is convinced – near the end of Mad Pilgrimage, he offers as evidence some box office figures – 246 productions of Williams’ plays in 2000, versus 309 in 2011.
I’m not entirely persuaded by this, but I am ready to believe that a more qualified executor – one with better artistic taste, and less personal investment – could have helped encourage more and better mountings of Williams’ plays. In any case, I find the world of literary estates and executors very intriguing. This story reminds me of one my favorite books, Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman. Ostensibly, The Silent Woman is about Sylvia Plath – but really, it’s about Plath’s literary legacy, her biographers – and the difficulties of biography more generally. The controversial figure here – The Silent Woman‘s Britneva – is Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, who in a supremely ironic twist of fate became Plath’s executer. Hughes was anything but a disinterested party, and not much of a literary scholar. Plath scholars almost universally vilify her, but Malcolm approaches her (and several Plath biographers) with more distance and nuance.
However you feel about these writers and their subsequent legacies, I heartily recommend The Silent Woman and Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh – both will give you a lot to think about in the last weeks of summer.