Ransom Center exhibit celebrates Tennessee Williams at 100
The major collection of the playwright's papers reveal his penchant for a flurry of re-writing
Tennessee Williams would have turned 100 today.
The playwright, who died in 1983, probably would have blushed upon seeing "Becoming Tennessee Williams," the sprawling, yet artfully curated exhibit culled from the vast Williams archive at the University of Texas' Ransom Center (the largest owned by any institution). The exhibit amply celebrates Williams' emotionally brave and poetically powerful voice — a voice that transformed American theater.
The Ransom Center's exhibit is one of the larger celebrations of Williams' centenary in the country. This week, the New Orleans Literary Festival is devoted to the writer's work (the Crescent City is one of the places the peripatetic Williams frequently lived). And among numerous stagings of his plays around the country, the highest-profile production is New York's Roundabout of "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here" starring Olympia Dukakis.
Williams might have blushed for a couple of unexpected reasons.
Take one of the first documents that greets visitors: a 1939 letter from Williams to his grandfather. In his second try for an prize from the Dramatists Guild in New York, Williams felt he would be a better applicant if he seemed to be a poverty-stricken Southern writer and, worried that the Guild would probe, asked his grandfather to mail the application letter from Memphis (a true city of the South) rather than do it himself from St. Louis where the budding playwright lived with his parents. It was at this time that, Thomas Lanier Williams, born 1911, had full transformed himself into Tennessee Williams, born 1914 — his age already "self-adjusted" to qualify for a previous grant for young playwrights.
What in hindsight looks like youthful folly also hints at Williams' fertile imagination, his ceaseless storytelling and his perpetual sympathy for social outcasts. ("I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual," he wrote years later to his agent Audrey Wood.)
What also might make Williams blush with a tinge of discomfort is the evidence of the near manic production he sustained throughout his life.
UT theater professor Charlotte Canning spent more than three years organizing the current exhibit, poring over the multiple — and widely divergent — drafts Williams produced on the way to every single one of his finished pieces, and many never-published works.
And yet even after Canning's considerable selection, one thing remains clear: Williams wrote a lot, he wrote often, and yes, often some of that writing was bad. Yet all that writing — all that work, in other words — led to an enduring roster of plays that remain at the fore of 20th-century literature.
Among the prime examples Canning chose is a detour on the path to "The Glass Menagerie," the playwright's first unqualified success. Williams wrote a five-page prelude to the play, then titled "The Wingfields of America," that recounts the two-century backstory of his protagonists in seriously intoned and sentimental language. Thankfully, that turgid five-page prelude didn't survive Williams' many re-writes.
Neither did the version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that set the play in Chicago with an Italian American family as the protagonists. That also got shelved, though Canning includes it in the exhibit to charming effect.
Still, the exhibit's best proof that Williams was unabashed about his ceaseless revising comes in an imaginary interview the playwright penned in 1952 about his first professional play, "Battle of Angels," which bombed after its 1940 debut. "There was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart ... and I kept re-writing the play... once every two or three years since 1940," he writes. Eventually, "Battle" re-emerged in 1957 as the more critically acclaimed "Orpheus Descending," and then later re-worked into the movie "The Fugitive Kind."
As a live demonstration of Williams' constant re-writing, on April 7, actors from Austin Shakespeare will perform the multiple endings he wrote for "Summer and Smoke," a play that he ultimately re-titled "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale." (See box for event details.)
Williams' papers came to UT throughout the 1960s, the heyday of center founder Harry Ransom's collection-building.
The majority of the center's Williams holdings came as a donation from the playwright himself — mountains of manuscripts for all of his major plays including "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
The current exhibit also pulls extensively from UT's 1964 purchase of the voluminous and unusually frank correspondence between Williams and his longtime literary agent, Audrey Wood.
And, adding an insightful avenue that Canning made good use of for the exhibit, Williams' mother Edwina Dakin Williams sold the center the family papers in 1965 for $7,500, including more than 700 letters and 650 photographs. (Imagine your mother selling your email missives for all of posterity to ponder.)
Still, perhaps the most personally touching letter in the exhibit is Williams' tender goodbye letter to his early lover Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez . "Walk tall, walk proud through this world ... you were wild wonderful," Williams writes. Canning includes the letter in a section of the exhibit that explores how the writer represented gender and sexuality in his characters. She includes another section devoted to the re-workings of many Williams plays for the movie screen, particularly the many tussles the playwright had with censors determined to erase any suggestion of homosexuality — and sexuality in general.
One of the more unexpected facets of the Ransom Center's Williams collection is a trove of materials donated by Robert Downing, stage manager for the original productions of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." From Downing's collection comes the exhibit's most titillating object: Marlon Brando's address book, reportedly dropped on the stage of the Barrymore Theatre during the 1947 premiere run of "A Streetcar Named Desire." "On bended knee I beg you to return this," Brando writes on the fly leaf.
Lucky for us, Downing never did return that address book.
'Becoming Tennessee Williams'
Where: Ransom Center, 21st and Guadalupe streets
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (Thursdays until 7 p.m.), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 31
Information: 471-8944, www.hrc.utexas.edu
What: Commemorate Williams' 100th birthday with gallery tours
When: Noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday
What: Actors from Austin Shakespeare perform some of the multiple endings of Williams' ‘Summer and Smoke.'
When: 7 p.m. April 7 at the Ransom Center