Orpheus Holds His Own: William Burroughs Talks with Tennessee Williams
May 16, 1977
Although they were both born in St. Louis within three years of each other, William Burroughs did not meet Tennessee Williams until 1960, when they were briefly introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers, by Paul and Jane Bowles. Burroughs had read and admired Williams’s short stories, and later in the ’60s Tennessee was known to quote at length from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But despite their mutual acquaintances (including the Bowleses and the painter Brion Gysin), they were not to meet again until 1975, at a gathering of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Their first conversation of any length took place at a party after a Burroughs reading at Notre Dame University earlier this year, and there they talked and carried on like old friends.
Tennessee’s new play, Vieux Carre, opens tonight on Broadway. Burroughs and I attended a preview two Saturdays ago. The next day we visited him at the Hotel Elysee, where he has maintained a spacious flat on the 12th floor for some time. It was late afternoon, and as I arrived, a few minutes after Burroughs, they were already seated at the opposite ends of a sofa. Tennessee seemed chipper; he got up to show us a pastel gouache he had just completed on his terrace that morning. Two bottles of wine arrived, and Burroughs and Williams resumed their talk. — James Grauerholz
Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobiographical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be on that question?
Williams: My answer is that every word is autobiographical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts. For instance, in my new play there is a boy who is living in a house that I lived in, and undergoing some of the experiences that I underwent as a young writer. But his personality is totally different from mine. He talks quite differently from the way that I talk, so I say the play is not autobiographical. And yet the events in the house did actually take place.
All of them?
There are two characters in it, a boy and a girl, whom I knew later in another house, not in that one. But all the others were there at 722 Toulouse Street, in 1939.
What has happened to that building?
Still there, it’s vacant now. Just as the boy says at the end of the play: “This house is empty now… they’re disappearing — going…”
That’s a strange time-pocket, the French Quarter.
Yeah. I did go there first in 1939. I did have a lot of those experiences then, but I did not leave there with a wealthy old sponsor. [As The Young Writer does in Vieux Carre] I don’t know why I put that in, wishful thinking… I lived there with a clarinet player, broke as I was. And I had to pick squabs for a living on the West Coast — but that’s another play.
What about the character of the landlady?
She was like that. She wasn’t named Mrs. Wire, but she was very much like that. She poured the boiling water through the cracks in the roof, on a photographer downstairs. I think he was a famous one, named Clarence Laughlin. He did give very rowdy parties, which outraged her — maybe because she wasn’t invited.
Well, she was certainly magnificent in the play — Sylvia Sidney.
She is magnificent. I think. she’s one of our great, great actresses.
One thing I would like to comment on, about the play, is the recreation of the past — nostalgia, if you will. It came through more there than it does in a film with all the devices of Hollywood. Of course, the stage sets were spectacular, but it interested me because at times I really felt the period. But then they try something like The Great Gatsby, and there’s not a whiff of the ’20s in it.
You remember the ’20s?
Oh heavens, yes.
I only ask because there are few people living who do… That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn you are confronted with loneliness…
One of the many.
Yes, one of the many — that’s the worst, yes.
After all, if there wasn’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember.
I’m never satisfied to look back on youth, though… not that I ever had much youth.
Writers don’t, as a rule… Would you say this play was an expansion of the short story, “The Angel in the Alcove”?
Oh yes. At first I thought it was a big mistake to transfer a story of mood — you know, mostly mood and nostalgia — to the stage; that it would seem insubstantial. But now we are running the two plays together, you know?
What is it, two and a half hours? I didn’t have the feeling that it was too long.
I have plays of mine that seem to go on forever… You know, actors are not well treated, unless they’re stars.
They lead a hard life. Hitchcock always had a very low opinion of actors.
I have a high opinion of actors — of their intelligence, I mean. I think they’re smarter than they’re reputed to be. Capote says they’re all fools — but I think they’re brighter than him… oh, he’s going to sue me again! [laugh] You know he sued me for $5 million; I’ve never been so flattered. [laughter] I merely expressed some disbelief that he would descend to such a literary level, as a last installment of Answered Prayers. I think these things are so silly… because who wants to spend all that time in a courtroom, or on court fees? It’s the lawyers who get the money, not the plaintiff or the defendant. But I’ll tell you, Truman’s a great self-publicist. He’s quite a theatrical personality, he is.
He is indeed… Where did you write this play?
I wrote Vieux Carre on a ship called the Oronza. My agent booked me out, after a play called Out Cry — some people called it Out Rage; in its longest form it was rather an outrage, of tedium. So I happened to be going to California to see Faye Dunaway play Blanche DuBois opposite Jon Voight, so I said, “I want to get away. I want to get a long way away.” My agent booked me onto this Cherry Blossom Cruise — it turned out to be a geriatric cruise. Everybody on it was 80 or over, and they had huge stabilizers to keep the ship from rocking. You know? The great pleasure in ocean-travel is the rocking, the motion… The sea underneath you. Well, this ship was utterly motionless, and yet these old people were breaking hips right and left. The doctor’s office was always full of them. And three died before we hit Yokohama.
Any burials at sea?
I was told there were secret ones at midnight, yes. And when we arrived at Yokohama, the Japanese customs officials grinned; they said, “How many this time?” Meaning, how many had been collected by the Reaper? And we said, “Only three we know for sure.” He said, “Usually it’s double that many before they reach Yokohama.” Heh heh heh. We jumped ship at Yokohama, although we were booked on a round-the-world pass. I doubt if there were any passengers left living by the time they completed their trip. There was nothing to do on the Oronza but play bridge or write. And I do love bridge, but I was kicked out of every bridge game, I was so incompetent. I learned how to play bridge in a psychiatric ward. My brother tried to teach me how to play chess, in the psychiatric ward, but I couldn’t learn.
I notice you don’t drink hard liquor?
I allow myself one drink a day of hard liquor. While I’m working. Otherwise, I do drink wine. Because I really prefer wine, it’s not much of a deprivation.
That story of “The Angel in the Alcove” was written quite a while ago, wasn’t it?
Oh God, yes. Must have been the ’50s…
Paul Bowles had a first edition of that book of stories. I remember I borrowed his copy to read. I was on junk at the time and I dripped blood all over it, and Paul was furious. [laughter] It should be quite a collector’s item — first edition, and with my blood all over it.
Do you ever take drugs at all anymore?
No, not that kind. No, I don’t have a habit or anything like that.
I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolving it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling… Do you ever take goof balls?
Ummm, I have, of course, yes. But, I’m not an aficionado. You know, De Quincey reports that Coleridge had to hire somebody to keep him out of drug stores, and then he fired him the next day when the man attempted to obey his instructions. He told him, “Do you know that men have been known to drop down dead for the timely want of opium?” Very funny indeed.
It’s all a big joke. Maybe a black joke, but its a big joke. And if they told me the play was closing tonight, I’d go “Ha haaa!”
Tennessee, have you written film scripts?
Yes, I’ve written one called One Arm, which has been floating around, I don’t know where it is. I wrote it one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that. You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?
Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.
I am a downer man.
I don’t like either one very much.
Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?
Ummm, well, you know… of course, cannabis in any form is—
Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.
Did you do any work on the screenplay of Suddenly Last Summer?
Thank God, no. In fact, when I first saw it I walked out on it, begging Mr. Vidal’s pardon. But, he did a wonderful workmanlike job, yes… The person who fucked it up, if you’ll excuse my language, was Joe Mankiewicz. I wrote the play, but you know — the play was an allegory, and consisted mainly of two monologues.
What did you feel about the film?
I walked out. Sam Speigel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs. Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill — I thought it was a travesty. It was about how people devour each other in an allegorical sense. But that’s what a character says in one of my stories: “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” [laughter] It’s possible to make it that. Taylor Mead succeeds, at least… I come close. [laughter] I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing. Don’t you, Bill?
Yes, to some extent. But I don’t go as far as the English do. You know this English bit of never talking about anything that means anything to anybody… I remember Graham Greene saying, “Of course, Evelyn Waugh was a very good friend of mine, but we never talked about writing!“
There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad… Anyway, I’m leaving America, more or less for good. Going to England first.
For good or for bad.…
Well, when I get to Bangkok it may be for bad, I don’t know — [laughter] And after I get through with this play in London, I should go to Vienna. I love Vienna in the summer. I love sitting out in the wine gardens.
I was there in 1936. Remember the Romanische Baden?
The Roman Baths, I went to them… they’re lovely, too.
Right near where the Prater used to be.
I’ve ridden on that ferris wheel in the park.
The one that was used so beautifully in The Third Man. I first went to Vienna in, it must have been 1949 or ’50. I went alone… oh, but you can’t be lonely in Vienna, you know. Not in summer. [pause] I’m just coming out with a new book of poems, Androgyne, Mon Amour. They’re not as good as the first ones, naturally. But, there’s one, or two or three…
I did some I Ching with this poetry this afternoon.
What is I Ching?
Well, you know — like the Book of Changes. You open it at random, pick a phrase out, write it down, then shift them around and hook them up.
Oh, I would love that! You might come up with something better, that way.
Yes, it is interesting.
Would you like to hear a poem about a junky?
All right. This was during my depression period. [reading]:
I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile then ever and her eyes
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money to pay the drugstore…”
This lady was the mistress of a famous man who threw her over; she died of liquor and pills.
Deadly combination. Because as you know, the alcohol potentiates the toxicity.
I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And you’re strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…
Old Aleister Crowley, plagiarizing from Hassan i Sabbah, said: “ ‘Do what thou wilt’ is the whole of the Law.”
Regarding drugs, you mean.
Regarding anything… And then Hassan i Sabbah’s last words were: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” In other words, everything is permitted because nothing is true. If you see everything as illusion, then everything is permitted. The last words of Hassan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Master of the Assassins. And this was given a slightly different twist, but it’s the same statement as Aleister Crowley’s, “Do what you want to do is the whole of the Law.”
Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.
Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.
Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?
I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.
You do believe it?
Well. I do what I can…
I don’t think it’s true.
We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.
I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.
Yes, there is that consideration.
I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.
I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?
Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said. “How do you know you’re not dead already?”