In 1961, when Tennessee Williams turned 50, he had two Pulitzer prizes and four New York Critics’ Circle awards under his belt, and 17 of his plays had opened in New York in 16 years. By the time In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel opened in 1969 – a dark play full of stammering speech, which The Stage called “Tennessee Williams’ study of a first-class bitch” – he was in the depths of depression, alcoholism and drug addiction from which he never recovered.
Towards the middle of the 1960s, Williams entered what he called his “stoned age”. It was a period of depression sparked by the death of his partner, Frank Merlo, and exacerbated by a frustration with his own writing. In this period, he wrote what some have called his greatest failure. About to receive a rare revival at the Charing Cross Theatre with Linda Marlowe, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel sees artist Mark in a hotel room struggling to find a new mode of expression through his paintings, while his lascivious wife Miriam sits in the hotel bar and tries to seduce the barman. In his comprehensive biography of Williams, John Lahr called the play “an unusually raw and baldly autobiographical meditation on the problem of self-envy, of the artist whose best work may be behind him”.
Williams himself was aware of the sorry state he was in, explaining in his memoirs that “during rehearsals… my condition was verging on mental and physical collapse”. For many, and certainly for the critics who reviewed the premiere in New York in 1969, the play marked the beginning of Williams’ inevitable decline.
The damning verdict of Time Magazine was: “It is more deserving of a coroner’s report than a review.” Its sister magazine Life took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, huge letters surrounding a picture of Williams’ face, that claimed: “Williams has suffered an infantile regression from which there seems no exit. Almost free of incident or drama… nothing about In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel deserves its production.” Later, academic Foster Hirsch wrote: “I don’t think anyone should be allowed to see it.” According to Williams’ memoirs, even his own mother said after the premiere: “Tom, it’s time for you to find another occupation now.”
Paranoid, defeated and depressed, Williams escaped to Japan with Anne Meacham, who had played Miriam in the production, and Gigi, his beloved bulldog. There, he drank and slept, with no recollection of meeting Yukio Mishima, the celebrated Japanese playwright, who wrote: “He was just a big baby with beards drinking alcohol instead of milk.” He was further devastated when Japanese customs separated him from Gigi, and, not long after he returned to the US, he was institutionalised.
It had been an earlier meeting with Mishima in 1959 that had sparked Williams’ idea for the play. Williams was struck by Japanese Noh and Kabuki drama, which contained philosophical lessons on the folly of human passions, little plot development, and highly stylised action and speech. Indeed, what had turned so many people off the play was its spare, clipped use of stylised language – a conscious move away from the poetry that characterised his most famous works. Barely any line is completed, a technique that led many to think that Williams was simply no longer capable of finishing a sentence.
The kinder interpretation is that these jolting, intercutting lines that end abruptly mid-thought are an expression by Williams of his frustration with the tool he wielded so deftly throughout his career: words. He is both underlining their failure and using them to express a new form, a “warning that for the artist not to be able to change his art can mean artistic death”, as one academic put it.
Just as the character of Mark the artist – possibly inspired by Jackson Pollock, whom Williams met in 1940 – is attempting to develop a new form with his painting, so Williams was breaking from the past. Williams recognised the autobiographical elements in the play. “Writers are paranoid,” he said in an interview in 1973, “because they’re living two lives – their creative life, of which they’re most protective, and their life as a human being… I put a premium on the creative life. One risks one’s personal life in order to work.” Mark puts the premium on his creative life too, and in his relationship with his wife Miriam, there are echoes of Williams’ own relationship with his partner Merlo.
Lahr’s assessment is that both Mark and Miriam embody different aspects of Williams’ personality. “Through the character of Miriam, Williams introduced the unsparing, objectifying voice of his own self-loathing.” At the same time, “the ravaged and rumpled Mark is a doppelganger for the derelict Williams at the time of writing”. The stammering sentences are disconcerting, but in their uneasy symbiosis, Mark and Miriam finish each other’s sentences and the two characters – described in the play as “the constant unbearable” of each other – become one.
When the play reached London in 1971, premiering at St Mary Abbots Theatre, it received very little attention. The Stage praised Celia Gregory’s performance as Miriam, saying that she had “something of compelling power, full of undisguised sexuality yet like a bird of prey”. When it opened at the New End Theatre in July 1983, this was the assessment: “It was not a nice play.”
Overlooked and infrequently performed, it has become a black mark of failure against Williams’ name. Yet it was the playwright himself who, looking back on this period and this play, judged it most shrewdly. “I was obviously quite ill when I wrote that play,” he remarked, “but stripped to its essence, it could have an original quality and a degree of poetic power.” It may not be one of his masterpieces, but in its exploration of an artist’s connection with his work and how that estranges him from the outside world, it is, perhaps, unparalleled.
In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel runs at the Charing Cross Theatre  from April 4 to May 14
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive  offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15.