I was first introduced to the work of the brilliant playwright, Tennessee Williams, in 11th grade American English. We were learning about several of his works, including A Streetcar Named Desire.
I was immediately gripped by the writer’s desperate, and often destitute characters. I found their ever longing nature, true-to-life dialogue, and the sadly ironic beauty of his plotlines highly intriguing. His books would often take place in New Orleans, or other parts of the South, which I also found very relatable.
I spent much of my time off from bike delivery for The Royal Street Grocery in the center of the French Quarter reading. I spent my days barely averting death by mule, airport shuttle, and drunk driving or lost tourists. My evenings were spent in my Irish Channel apartment reading and memorizing soliloquies (many of which were later used in auditions, sometimes successfully) from such plays as The Glass Menagerie, Cat On A Hot Tine Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire (this time at my leisure), Suddenly Last, Summer, Summer And Smoke, and A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur.
I purchased a copy of the latter after the now late Joan Goode of Joan Goode Jewelry and Antiques informed me that Williams was a friend of hers when she was young and used to stop into her shop regularly. She claimed he had used her name in A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur. In the play, as I discovered upon reading it, two close friends reside together, and one is hopelessly infatuated with a married male coworker. While planning a picnic, their Sunday is rudely interrupted by a pretentious woman who is trying to convince the one that she will have a chance with the man if she moves into an upscale building far beyond her means. At one point, as a selling point, the intruder mentions that “Joan Goode just got back from Egypt.” Perhaps Tennessee Williams thought too highly of her to base any of his hopeless, hapless, often downright pitiful characters upon her. So as I read his plays, I pictured the rich tapestry of the French Quarter in which I spent my days where it suited as the characters richly developed in my mind.
Although great actors and actresses have always performed in the film adaptations of Williams’s plays, much of his beautiful writing is lost in the necessary sacrifices for the screen by the FCC and expenses. That is, except for Baby Doll, the writer’s first and only original screenplay (later adapted by Williams for the stage under the title Tiger Tale Road). The film’s promotional poster alone was a scandal. Though the screenplay itself is no racier than any of Williams’s plays or novels, one can only imagine the red tape with which writer, director, and producer alike had to deal with.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26th, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the writer was the elder of two brothers; his brother Dakin was born eight years later, to Edwina and Lanier Sevier Williams. Their sister Rose was the eldest of the three. One may speculate that the writer’s mother and sister were two of Williams’ greatest inspirations, particularly when it came to his female characters. Williams spent his childhood with his parents and siblings in a proverbial tour of the Southern United States. If you were to ask Thomas Williams why he chose Tennessee as his pen name, rather than any other state in which the family spent far more extended periods living, he would explain that he identified with this brief portion of his formative years over any other.
Throughout Williams’ childhood, his mother Edwina worried that her children would too thoroughly take on the habits, manner, and way of speaking (especially that signature drawl to some more rural parts of the South). Edwina Williams’ fears of culture clash came to ultimate fruition when the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, their first experience residing above the Mason Dixon Line. Turmoil fell upon the Williams household. The children’s grandfather, Cornelius Williams also began living with them, bringing forth much disruptive contention between himself and their father, Lanier.
In Williams’s early installations to his “Memoirs”, this period became known as “nine years in limbo.” The six-room apartment at 4633 Westminster Place in St Louis has been rumored to be the basis for the standard stage set for later productions of The Glass Menagerie. It was also in St Louis that Tom Williams met Hazel Kramer, who proved to be a long time friend and, according to “Memoirs,” the greatest love of Williams’s life, far more than any later male companions. The two formed a unique, long-standing bond. Hazel herself had a girlfriend named Mary Louise Aide, a name assigned to a character in the short story “Summer Games”. Williams later reconfigured elements of the story into the play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
It was in their St Louis family home when the writer, unaware of the existence of homosexuality, was setting out to watch his sister, Rose, in bed with a young man named Richard. Unlike the other men who called upon Rose, whom Tom disapproved of as too brutish and common, Richard, he found beautiful, even Adonis-like. He was confused by his feelings. Such terms as “homosexual” were omitted from the children’s vocabulary. It was something of which their highly reserved mother, Edwina would certainly never discuss.
Tom enrolled in Washington University in 1936, but his “Memoirs” include no mention of his time and studies there. These years would later be known as “The Lost Years Of Tennessee Williams.”
Though Laura of The Glass Menagerie is probably somewhat inspired by Rose Williams, Rose was pretty, and because of this, her experiences with numerous “gentlemen callers” were disappointments of an even more tragic nature. One suitor even ran to his death in front of a truck, taking what her brothers observed as a tremendous toll on their sister’s mental well being.
After that event, said to be a lifelong regret, and the torment of their sister after her termination from her first and only job (which lasted only a day), Rose’s sanity deteriorated rapidly; she was later lobotomized.
After submitting several manuscripts by mail from St Louis, Williams left for good this time and traveled to New Orleans penniless and without a plan. This was, nonetheless, the ultimate escape from his family and other haunting memories he associated with his former hometown. Perhaps the privacy and the obscurely progressive nature of the city, unknown to residents of other parts of the South, was a significant part of the appeal the young man saw in his new home. This was where he at last “came out” as a gay man. The economy at the time was also convenient to a newcomer with almost nothing with delicious yet affordable food like Williams had never before tasted.
The city was stated by the author to be his favorite city in America. He spent much of his early time here walking throughout and exploring every street and corner of Le Vieux Carre, as locals referred to the French Quarter at the time, as well as the campuses of Tulane and Loyola Universities.
These early years in New Orleans were not included in “Memoirs” because they stood alone as an almost completely autobiographical short story, “The Angel Of The Alcove.” The story was later adapted into the play, Vieux Carre, which debuted at The St James Theater in New York in 1977. The special attention given to the city in Williams’ literary life perhaps speaks in actuality to the man’s rediscovery of himself.
Upon resuming “Memoirs,” Tennessee Williams wrote candidly of his newfound freedom in socially accepted homosexuality for publication. All the while he sent letters signed Tom Williams back home to his mother, Edwina. What Edwina read mentioned nothing of the carefree, open-mindedness and the “far out gay types,” or of his own antics within the local scene (which was practically tailor-made for the still-struggling writer).
Although New Orleans would seem a happy accident for Williams, a man who had, perhaps, never quite felt that he fit in anywhere, he continued his vast, charismatic writing career across the country. The plays of Tennessee Williams saw incredible success, more so even than his highly prevailed short stories and ongoing Memoirs installations.
The writer, further ahead of his time than he would ever live to know, spent the last bit of his life residing in the then very posh Hotel Elysee of New York, located on East 61st Street. It would seem that, then in such a cultural epicenter, that the writer had reached the prime of his career. One can never be sure; when I was in my early 20s, Le Chat Noir, as part of that year’s Tennessee Williams Festival, unveiled the first production of a previously undiscovered play called Small Craft Warning.
The play was most likely one of Williams’ later works, based on its complexity and far more developed side and other non-lead roles, all carrying their own plights and lamentations. It was named for a harbor radio term, commonly used at the time the play takes place, to indicate tropical storm-like weather. The radio playing in the dock saloon where the play takes place dissuades residents of the nearby area against trying to operate their less-than-steady fishing and other boats. It is a delightful entourage cast of characters, bound together in their local saloon facing, resolving, and in some cases plain calling it quits on their less than ideal situations.
Sadly and strangely, Tennessee Williams met an early death, independently investigated by his brother Dakin who had taken to the legal field. It was, in Dakin’s opinion, foul play made to look like an accident. It would seem that his brother, known in his writing for a keen perspective of human nature, had been betrayed and murdered by two people he trusted more than most at the end of his life.
The schedule to The Tennessee Williams Festival of New Orleans, complete with writer’s workshops, various productions of the iconic writer’s work at the best of local New Orleans venues, as well as special events (including the famous Stella Yelling Contest) can be found here.
In Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Maggie Pollack desperately strives to her marriage to her husband Brick, tainted by a tragedy which Brick blames her. In the meantime, the new that Brick’s father’s impending death is being kept from both of Brick’s parents until after “Big Daddy’s” birthday exacerbates the tension within Brick and Maggie’s guest room. To make matters worse, Brick’s brother Goober along with his wife, Mae, with five disruptive, obnoxious children in tow, resentfully known to Maggie as “no-necked monsters” launch themselves throughout the house. This, of course, is more than enough to test the nerves of a woman such as Maggie who is already hopelessly beleaguered by a longing for a husband who has not made a sexual advance or sense of welcoming since his best friend’s suicide, a consequence of her involvement in the events which preceded.
Though at a more leisurely pace than many other American cities, New Orleans is forever changing from the eccentric haven Tennessee found in our city. However, his stories, characters, passion, and dialogue remain timeless. I will certainly be in attendance for The New Orleans Tennessee William Festival, 2019 and highly recommend anyone to take part in this very well deserved celebration of the author’s work.