One event dominated Tennessee Williams's life: his sister Rose's bilateral prefrontal lobotomy, performed on 13 January 1943, two years before The Glass Menagerie, the play he forged from her condition, was first produced. He rarely mentions the lobotomy in his private notebooks, the fragmented daybooks which he kept for much of his life, and which have now been edited, with sumptuous photographic and biographical supplementation, by Margaret Bradham Thornton, to whom devotees of Williams should be grateful. By keeping virtually silent about the lobotomy, he maintains its status as incommunicable trauma, an episode outside words or knowledge. A lobotomy is a crime committed against language, emotion and mental agility: that Tennessee's response to Rose Williams's evicted brain couldn't be caught in the net of his notebooks (though the operation - the brutalisation - received explicit acknowledgment in such works as Suddenly Last Summer) suggests that her silencing gave him pause, and turned writing, for him, into a trial. He identified with her wound; and indirectly reinflicted it, in his writing, drinking and pill-popping. Williams sought anaesthesia, but he also wanted something more complicated and enveloping than mere unconsciousness: he wanted recapitulation. And recapitulation - the sensation of going back, through the proxy of words, to the crime - brought with it a measure of thrill, a pleasure he expressed through overstatement, overwriting, each play foraging in the same moraine.
LRB 4 October 2007 | PDF Download