Echoes of Tennessee

By Mel Gussow
08 Jul 2004

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams

The life of Tennessee Williams is mirrored in the three great works that the Kennedy Center presents as part of Tennessee Williams Explored, a four-month-long festival that began in April

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When I asked Tennessee Williams if his female characters were based on the women in his life, he answered, "Oh, my God, yes." He said that especially in his early plays he drew portraits from his family, beginning with his mother and his sister, Rose. Blanche DuBois, he said, was his Aunt Belle, who was a Sunday school teacher. "She was the prototype of Blanche," he said. "She talked like Blanche hysterically, with great eloquence." The summer of 1926, which Tennessee and Rose spent with Belle, was a turning point in his life. When he spoke about that time, a plaintive look came into his eyes, expressing his feeling that things never would be the same in the years to come.

Blanche, as we know, also had more than a touch of Williams himself. As he said, "I can only write about what I experience intuitively or existentially." And he added, "More often I have used a woman rather than a man to articulate my feelings."

Williams was one of the most autobiographical of playwrights, although the facts were often so transmogrified as to be unrecognizable except to Williams himself and to the people who knew him intimately. But so many of his plays, including, most notably, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are inspired by events and characters in the life of the playwright.



His plays are inseparable from the places where he lived, especially during his formative years the Mississippi Delta, St. Louis and New Orleans so much so that if one follows the playwright's journey, as I have, one can also follow the path of his plays.

He was born in Columbus, Mississippi, and grew up in Clarksdale, where his grandfather Walter E. Dakin was the rector of St. George's Episcopal Church. Although he lived in Clarksdale for only two years, beginning in 1915, he was, as his mother once said, "a small pitcher with big ears." Even at a young age, he took everything in and stored it up until he was mature enough to turn it into stage poetry.

At the time, Williams (then known by his birth name, Tom), his mother, and his sister lived in the rectory while his father was traveling through the South as a salesman for a St. Louis, Missouri, shoe company. Williams himself called his boyhood in Clarksdale "the most joyously innocent time" of his life, attributing that fact to the home provided there by his maternal grandparents.

Later when he wrote about Clarksdale, he combined people and places, honoring his favorites and occasionally getting even with those he disliked, such as a local bully named Brick, whose name was given to Big Daddy's embittered son in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who boasts that his property in the Delta is "the richest land this side of the Valley Nile," was partly based on Williams' father and on Jordan Massee Sr., a rich southern gentleman he met in Georgia. The Reverend Dakin was himself ennobled as Nonno, "the oldest living practicing poet" in The Night of the Iguana.

The Cutrer family, longtime wealthy residents of Clarksdale, appear in variant form in several plays. In Orpheus Descending, there is Carol Cutrere. The Cutrer mansion, still standing, figures prominently in Williams's early play, Spring Storm, and may also have been one of the models for Blanche DuBois's fondly remembered Belle Rive.

Williams' work is filled with references to Clarksdale and neighboring towns. More than any other site, Moon Lake and Moon Lake Casino in nearby Dundee are at the center of the playwright's work. Speaking about her gentleman callers, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie remembers Moon Lake, and Blanche DuBois talks about it most movingly in A Streetcar Named Desire. The casino is where Blanche would go dancing on a summer's night, until the evening she discovered that her young husband was romantically involved with a male friend.

The Moon Lake Casino, or club, has had several incarnations, on and off stage. The Reverend Dakin would often take the family there for dinner, which in the southern tradition came at midday. But the place also had its moments of notoriety, and in Summer and Smoke Williams suggested that it had once been a brothel. As Alma Winemiller says to a stranger at the end of the play, "There's not much to do in this town after dark, but there are resorts on the lake that offer all kinds of after-dark entertainment. There's one called Moon Lake Casino." Today it is a quaint bed and breakfast known as Uncle Henry's Place.

The dance floor is still there, a small wooden square with room enough for only about eight or ten couples. The place is resonant with memories of Amanda and Alma. And here comes the ghost of Blanche, the belle of the ball, in shimmering chiffon, her party dress.

When Williams was seven, his father brought the family to St. Louis, and except for a brief time when he returned to Mississippi, he lived there for the next 20 years, during which he began writing plays and also worked for his father's shoe company. It was St. Louis that later gave birth to The Glass Menagerie, the most personal of all Williams' works. He is there in the character of Tom, who eventually leaves his mother and sister for his new life in New Orleans, abandoning his sister in his rush to freedom.

New Orleans, of course, is the setting for A Streetcar Named Desire, Vieux Carre and other plays. For Williams, the city played a role similar to that of Paris in the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Places took on an imaginative life when he incorporated them into his work, for example, Galatoire's restaurant, where Stella and Blanche had supper while Stanley and his friends were playing poker (Williams took the name of Stanley Kowalski, but apparently not the character, from a friend of his in the shoe factory in St. Louis). The streetcar named Desire no longer exists, but there is a bus named Desire. "If I can be said to have a home," Williams said, "it is in New Orleans." And walking the streets of the French Quarter, one can feel Williams' continuing presence and hear echoes of Stanley, Stella and Blanche.