We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Tennessee Williams was not the world’s biggest fan of the town he grew up in. But that’s not stopping the first-ever Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis from happening here in tribute to one city's greatest playwrights and most beloved iconoclasts.
“I think we should assume he did hate [St. Louis], but I think we confuse hatred with lack of connection,” said Henry Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University. “Williams was deeply connected to St. Louis. The fact that he did or did not like it is not irrelevant, but it is a more complicated picture than like or dislike. I grew up in New York City, I hate it, but it is part of who I am. The fabric of St. Louis, even as [Williams] resisted it, was something essential to his writing and to his character.”
Carrie Houk, executive artistic director of the festival and the reason why it exists, grew tired of seeing festivals and conferences celebrating Williams for years and years everywhere but St. Louis. After producing the first staging of “Stairs to the Roof” (Williams’ most St. Louis-centric play) in 67 years in 2014, Houk felt she had gained enough acumen to pitch the idea of a festival.
“The play was so quintessentially St. Louis,” Houk said. “I think it was, in a way, a love letter to St. Louis, depending on your point of view. I realized there was a hole. New Orleans had been doing a festival for 30 years, Provincetown for 10 years and I never quite understood why we didn’t have one here. I believe his years here, 19, I’ve just always felt that St. Louis—whether he loved the city or not—it informed so much of his work. I thought it was important for us to preserve his legacy here as America’s greatest playwright.”
Williams moved to St. Louis when he was eight years old and stayed here through most his young adult life—leaving for a while to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia. He returned to work at the International Shoe Company after dropping out of Mizzou and would later start coursework at Washington University before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he completed his degree.
Brian Hohlfeld, the director of “A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot,” a performance at the festival, said that the St. Louis influence on Williams’ was unusual.
“I happen to love St. Louis still but it makes sense how it does inform his work in a way he probably didn’t realize,” Hohlfeld said. “When you sit down to write a play, even if it is semi-autobiographical, it is unusual to be so specific.”
Monuments like Forest Park, the Jewel Box, the Coronado and Famous-Barr make their way prominently into Williams’ works. His personality left an indelible mark on many St. Louisans as well.
Hohlfeld recalled a time from his studies at Saint Louis University when he heard Williams had returned to St. Louis to give a talk at Washington University. He skipped class to hear him talk at Graham Chapel.
“He was up at the podium, it was 11 a.m., he had a bottle of wine he was pouring and drinking as he spoke,” Hohlfeld said.
“That sounds about right,” said Schvey.
Houk said that the attraction of Williams’ work lies in “his need to be an individual and for the world to treat individuals kindly.”
In Schvey’s mind, there isn’t a single playwright in the mid-to-late 20th century who wasn’t influenced by Tennessee Williams.
“He is the most important American playwright who ever wrote,” Schvey said. “He was a compulsive writer. He wrote all the time. His works are vast. He writes about the disposed, people who are lonely…the qualities we associate with modern life and being a contemporary person. He is the connective tissue that allows us to remember how fragile people are, how delicate people are. He has increased our humanity in the widest sense.”
The inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis runs from May 11 to 15 in the Central West End and in Grand Center. There are many events to partake in—from bus tours, to plays, to “Hey Stella!” shouting contests and you can find more information about each here.
What: Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis (TWFSTL)
When: May 11 – 15, 2016 at various times
Where: Various locations
What: Upstream Theatre presents: “The Glass Menagerie”
When: May 5-8 and 12-15 at 8 p.m., May 15 at 2 p.m.
Where: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand
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