"Crazy Night" and the Echoes of Later Works

(Tennessee Williams scholar Augustin J. Correro was given access to a copy of "Crazy Night" by Tennessee Williams and writes a detailed analysis of the short story for mysterycenter.)

Tennessee Williams wrote a lot. Describing him as prolific would be an understatement. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest he was downright compulsive about it. However, he didn’t just write short fiction, poetry, and plays. He also wrote letters and kept journals, giving us a wealth of materials to help us understand him and his creations. Unlike some writers who start on a work and draft and reshape it, Tennessee Williams used versions of his earlier writing as building blocks for future works. Naming these pieces “drafts” fails them. They stand alone, but elements would resurface later in his career. Williams was a mad scientist who loved to experiment, whose earliest writings would serve as raw genetic material for more complex later plays and stories: sometimes monstrous, sometimes gorgeous, and often a combination of the two.

 
 
Sometime in the mid-1930s, Thomas Lanier Williams wrote a short story called “Crazy Night,” in which he explored elements that would echo in several later works. As a young writer, Williams had yet to hone the signature style that many readers would recognize from the 1940s onward, but even in this early story he presents a facility for poetic language and flow that is hard to ignore. He writes candidly one moment and tragically the next, without seeming overwrought or clumsy.

            Williams’sease in writing can be attributed in part to his willingness to steal directly from life and repurpose real events and people into vivid composites. It’s far too simple to say that writers draw from their own experience, and so Williams did nothing special. Conversely, it’s a cliché to say that all Williams’s works are plainly autobiographical—Tom Wingfield is not Tennessee Williams, nor is Phil in "Crazy Night.". Nevertheless, Williams wrote honestly from a place of openness and sensitivity, coupled with a wealth of life experience. The result is writing that was deeply touching and exact. The bird he hoped to catch, as he might say, was a truth more real than reality. Therefore, strict autobiography would not have interested him, and it’s safe to say that Laura and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie are not precisely his sister and mother. Something uniquely transformative always happens between life and page.

            Even so, it is interesting for readers to dig up some of his history to see what inspired “Crazy Night,” set in “that Stygian period of American history between the economic crash of 1929 and the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment” (1933). Williams had experience living through the Depression; he was eighteen in 1929. His family’s situation remained stable, so he was not deprived of his first college experience at University of Missouri, Columbia, which may serve as the model for the “small, mid-western university” where the story takes place. He lived in a fraternity house, and sometimes the boys panicked over the prospect of federal raids. He was forced to leave school in 1932 because his father was dissatisfied with his flunking in R.O.T.C., so perhaps his disappointment ran parallel to Phil’s. Since he wrote the story still as Thomas Lanier Williams, his given name that he would continue to write under until 1938 when he adopted “Tennessee,” it can be assumed that “Crazy Night” was written between 1933 and 1938.

            But who is Anna Jean? Exploring Williams’s history further, the real-life Anna Jean O’Donnell, whom Williams appears to have dated briefly during his year at Mizzou, could possibly be a model for the girl in the story. In a poem entitled “To Anna Jean,” he says of her:

                        …Your only use in life is making men your Tool—

                        You precious, lying, loving cheat

                        Your playing, praying, I repeat

                        Is just a pose, a rouse, a Scene—…

If he modeled the vamp in the story after Ms. O’Donnell, perhaps it was her romantic ambivalence he found intriguing. It’s unlikely that O’Donnell took Williams’s virginity, however, since the one supposed sexual liaison he had with a woman was not until 1938 at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, Williams just gave his characters names he liked, such as Stanley Kowalski, which belonged to a roommate at Iowa. Occasionally, the characters were nothing like the real people, and other times he crafted vivid characters from film archetypes.

So why care about this seemingly saccharine short story about a fraternity boy weak in his knees over some hot-and-cold broad across the quad? Does “Crazy Night” exhibit the kind of grit and deep understanding of the human spirit that his later writing would? Of course not. Here is the crux: In much the same way as he would take from life to model characters and scenarios, Williams explored scenes in his early works that would gradually become his masterpieces. "Crazy Night" is an early example of Williams exploring unrequited love, blossoming sexuality, and that wrenching moment when something miraculous is on the verge of taking place, and then falls mournfully short—a theme that is echoed in The Glass Menagerie's broken unicorn, Streetcar's no-show savior, and Summer and Smoke's suffocated flame. Furthermore, the situation at the end of “Crazy Night” is similar to the one recounted by The Writer in Vieux Carre about his sexual encounter with a paratrooper who dropped in on New Year’s, a celebration not unlike college’s “Crazy Night.” The theme recurs in the story Catharine Holly describes in which a married man tells her “We’d better forget it” after having slept with her in a public place during a Mardi Gras ball, another gay celebration, in 1958’s Suddenly Last Summer. It’s this unique brand of archaeology that makes the reading of early Williams a treat.

            Short fiction always held a special place in Williams’sheart. It’s in a magazine of short fiction, Weird Tales, that his first story was published. In “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” an Egyptian queen takes revenge on her brother’s murderers with a deadly dinner party. In “Crazy Night,” a lovelorn youth tastes both the sweet and bitter of his first carnal encounter. At these points in his development, there was a lot of work yet to be done, and much to learn—but they are the beginnings of some of America’s most stunning works. It’s all there, somewhere—and he put it all down on paper. Tennessee Williams wrote a lot.

Photo: New Directions Publishing

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