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In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

By Christine Lee

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as “what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

Tragic play ending transformed into happier film version in "Sweet Bird of Youth"

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Sweet Bird of Youth.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Sweet Bird of Youth.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center concludes tonight with Richard Brooks’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), featuring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. The series features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Chance Wayne (Newman), returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in order to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, whose father ran Chance out of town years before. Chance left to become a movie star, but he never made it big. Instead, he supported himself largely by becoming the lover of older, wealthy women. One of them, the aging movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Page), accompanies him on this trip. As Chance feels his youth and good looks fading, he becomes more and more desperate to seize his dreams of happiness with Heavenly.

For the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Newman and Geraldine Page reprised their Broadway roles. As with all adaptations of Williams plays from stage to screen, significant changes were made. In the play, Heavenly refuses to run away with him; in the final moments, Heavenly’s brother Tom and a group of his friends prepare to attack, and possibly kill, Chance. Several of Williams’s drafts of this final scene depicted Chance being castrated. In the film, however, Heavenly does leave with Chance. The final image is of the couple, along with Alexandra Del Lago, driving into the distance, presumably to live a happy life. This ending removes the aura of perpetual failure that surrounds Chance in the play and turns him into a more traditionally empowered hero.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Method actor Karl Malden stars in both stage and film version of "Baby Doll"

By Elana Estrin

Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'
Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series continues tonight at the Ransom Center with Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), featuring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Malden) looks forward to finally consummating his two-year marriage with Baby Doll (Baker) on her upcoming 20th birthday. When rival Silva Vacarro’s (Wallach) cotton gin burns down, Vacarro plots revenge against Archie Lee through Baby Doll.

Karl Malden was an American method actor who created both the Broadway and film roles of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire as well as the role of Archie in Baby Doll. Malden had a long and full career and was considered, from a casting agent’s point of view, “the ideal Everyman,” as he was remembered in his obituary in The New York Times. Malden’s performances in Williams’s Streetcar and Baby Doll are two of his strongest, and he flourished as an actor under the direction of Elia Kazan. As Malden put it, critics applauded him for being “No. 1 in the No. 2 parts I was destined to get.”

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" helps propel Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor to stardom

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center continues tonight with Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Despondent ex-athlete Brick Pollitt (Newman) resists the affections of his enticing wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Taylor). Tensions climax during cotton tycoon Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration on the Pollitt Plantation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped propel Newman and Taylor to stardom. Although Taylor did not fit Williams’s own “idea of Maggie the Cat,” she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal and was praised by Walter F. Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Williams offered his literary agent Audrey Wood a list of eight “acceptable” directors for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. MGM, however, preferred to work with a director they already had under contract. MGM offered George Cukor the directorial job, but Cukor turned it down when he realized that the Hollywood version of the story cut out most of the play’s implications of Brick’s homosexuality. The changes also infuriated Williams, who is said to have cautioned audiences to stay away from the 1958 film, charging that “this movie will set the industry back 50 years!” Richard Brooks, whom Wood identifies as “maybe!” qualified for the job, was eventually chosen to direct the film.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Vivien Leigh takes a mad turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

The Harry Ransom Center kicks off the Tennessee Williams Film Series tonight with Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1951 film adaptation of Williams’s 1947 play, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. No other play of Williams’s rivaled A Streetcar Named Desire for its intensity, insight, or impact, and it was Williams’s favorite because it embodied “everything I had to say.”

In the story, Blanche DuBois (Leigh) moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law (Brando) while her reality crumbles around her.

British actress Vivien Leigh was the only leading member of the screen cast not originally in the 1947 Broadway production of the play. Leigh was given the movie role because the film’s producers felt Leigh had more box office appeal than Jessica Tandy, largely for her Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Leigh’s performance earned positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “haunting,” adding that “Miss Leigh accomplishes more than a worthy repeat of the performance which Jessica Tandy gave on the stage…Blessed with a beautifully molded and fluently expressive face, a pair of eyes that can flood with emotion, and a body that moves with spirit and style, Miss Leigh has, indeed, created a new Blanche Du Bois on the screen—a woman of even greater fullness, torment, and tragedy.”

Later, Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder for much of her life, would claim that the part was responsible for her illness following the film’s production. She was hospitalized multiple times and treated with electroshock therapy.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

By Courtney Reed

The first major production of a Tennessee Williams play, Battle of Angels (1940), was a complete failure and scandal. The play was poorly received; one critic compared watching the play to being “dunked in mire.” Boston City Council members called for the play to be censored, and it ran for less than two weeks there. As Williams biographer Robert Bray wrote, “the haphazard decision to move the opening from New Haven to Boston in December of 1940 left Williams faced with a priggish audience unprepared to entertain his juxtaposition of sexual and religious themes.”

At the production’s end, Williams left Boston with the intention of finding a quiet place to recuperate. In a letter to his friend, Joe Hazan, Williams writes that he is sickened by the failure of his play, laments that the audience could not recognize the “poetic tragedy” of his work, and calls the critics who reviewed the production second-string “prissy old maids.”

After its failed Boston debut, Williams continuously revised and rewrote Battle of Angels with the hope that the play would be reproduced. He confesses in an “Imaginary Interview” with himself, “there was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart, that never let go, and I kept re-writing the play, I guess I must have re-written it once every two or three years since 1940.” The play embodied a theme central to his writing—“a prayer for the Wild at Heart Kept in Cages.” The play eventually reemerged some 16 years later, transfigured as Orpheus Descending (1957).

In Williams’s tongue and cheek “Imaginary Interview” Williams, the interviewer, struggles to get a straight answer from Williams, the playwright, about the theme of Battle of Angles:

“Question

I still wish you would tel [sic] what it’s a prayer for, this play.”

Williams, playwright, finally answers Williams, interviewer, that the prayer is for “More tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

Williams was the “primitive poet” of Battle; his prayer for the “Wild at Heart” was one against censorship and for artistic appreciation. He asserted that his work dealt with the “wild at heart kept in cages:” those who struggled against conventions, relationships, expectations, or prejudices that at the very least tamed them and at the worst crushed them beyond recognition.

This typed interview can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

By Courtney Reed

Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

In 1938, Tennessee Williams entered Candles to the Sun in a competition sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in New York City. Williams wrote Candles to the Sun, a play about striking coal miners and the powerlessness of the individual against the collective consciousness, at a time when his sister Rose’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. His work was singled out as having a “pronounced” individual style but was not selected for an award.

Williams was keen to present himself to the Guild as more poverty-stricken than he was. Worried that the Guild would investigate his family’s finances if they knew his real address, Williams asked his grandfather to mail the application letter from Memphis rather than St. Louis. The letter can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31 at the Ransom Center.

Williams’s relationship with his maternal grandparents, Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin and Rosina Otte Dakin, in many ways proved more stable and supportive than his relationship with his own parents. During the first years of his life, while his father traveled for business, Williams lived at his grandparents’ home in Mississippi. As a result of his father’s absence, his grandfather came to play the role of surrogate father, one that he would never really give up. Even after the family moved to St. Louis, Williams remained close to his grandparents, writing to and visiting them frequently. He grew to resent St. Louis and wished he could spend all his time in his grandparents’ happier home in Mississippi.

In 1940 the Guild awarded him $1,000, which allowed him to return to New York and attend a playwriting seminar taught by the renowned professor and critic John Gassner (1903–1967), whose archive is also at the Ransom Center.

Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

By Elana Estrin

Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.
Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.

In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.

How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?

Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.

Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.

I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.

What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?

I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do The Glass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.

In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.

Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.
Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.

What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?

I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.

How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?

Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.

I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.

As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.

I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.

Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?

I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.

Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.

You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?

I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.

One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.

Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.

John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”

Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.

I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.

What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?

I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.

I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which A Streetcar Named Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Inspired by the 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition, students in Carrie Kaplan’s Theatre History class perform in the galleries. Photo by Pete Smith.
Inspired by the 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition, students in Carrie Kaplan’s Theatre History class perform in the galleries. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley is interviewed by Mason Jones, videographer with the university’s Office of Public Affairs, about the arts and humanities. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley is interviewed by Mason Jones, videographer with the university’s Office of Public Affairs, about the arts and humanities. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Ransom Center hosted the Poetry on the Plaza event 'Singers and Songwriters.' Photo by Pete Smith.
The Ransom Center hosted the Poetry on the Plaza event 'Singers and Songwriters.' Photo by Pete Smith.

In the galleries: The "Ruins of a Play" evolve into "The Glass Menagerie"

By Courtney Reed

'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most people know Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as the least disguised and most deeply autobiographical of Williams’s plays, the positive reception of which elevated him to immediate celebrity. He was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his previous play Battle of Angels. Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater. Theater audiences of the 1940s, fed on a steady diet of “realism and prosaic dialogue,” eagerly embraced Williams’s presentation of a “plastic theatre” that employed multi-media elements suggesting an allusion of reality. Combined with Williams’s poetic prose, it offered up a novel voice that continues to transport audiences into a private world of the human condition.

After his disastrous experience with the 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams traveled around the country in near penury for two years before signing a promising but briefly held contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. As Williams recalled: “From a $17.00 a week job as a movie usher I was suddenly shipped off to Hollywood where MGM paid me $250.00 a week. I saved enough money out of my six months there to keep me while I wrote The Glass Menagerie.”

Just prior to his arrival on the West Coast, his sister Rose was lobotomized. His anxiety and guilt over her fate may have impelled him to concentrate on completing The Glass Menagerie over other plays he was working on at the time.

On an early draft of The Glass Menagerie, then titled by a hesitant Williams, due to the negative reception of Battle of Angels, as The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play, are various doodles of flowers and faces. The central point of the title page is a poem of Williams’s:

“A witch and her daughter
received a caller
A gentleman caller was he!
He sprinkled the daughter
with holy water
and dandled the witch on his knee!”

Williams was perhaps daydreaming about the uncertainty of this “play in ruins.” In a letter to the Texas-born director and producer, Margo Jones, Williams, still gun shy from his traumatic experience with Battle of Angels, writes about Eddie Dowling’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie. Williams says he will keep his distance during rehearsals so “they won’t plague me so much about little changes that occur to them. . . You know how frightened I am of everybody! Especially people in the theatre.”

As we all know, the final product of The Glass Menagerie blasted Williams into stardom. He would later write masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Lyle Leverich writes in Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995) that “for the first thirty years of [Williams’s] life, he was living The Glass Menagerie, and it was from that traumatic experience that his masterpiece—this ‘little play,’ as Williams disdainfully called it—evolved.”

This manuscript can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.