Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

"Violets & Carnations Sold on Every Corner": Tennessee Williams, Europe and Flowers

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

"Violets & Carnations Sold on Every Corner": Tennessee Williams, Europe and Flowers

Article excerpt

The rectory of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Tennessee Williams' first home in Columbus, Mississippi, is on the South Side of town, a neighborhood of Antebellum, Victorian and Craftsmen homes. Nearly each of these has a garden, a window box or at least a collection of mixed annual and perennial potted plants dotting their lots.

Plants and flowers affected Williams, their natural beauty a part of his upbringing, both in the visible landscape and in his soul. This was yet another trait that Cornelius would not have liked in his son, but 'Tommy" was encouraged by Ozzie, the family's nursemaid, his mother Edwina, Grand, the Reverend Dakin and his sister Rose. Flowers in the garden and in the domestic environment remain a necessity in the southern home. The arrangement of fresh flowers indoors and the care of flower gardens remains a vestige of the cults of domesticity and tranquility.1

Flowers represent nature at its most pristine and its most promiscuous: they are the sexual organs of the plant kingdom. Commercial flowers, those selectively grown by producers and improved upon by breeders and hybridizers, are usually the least costly to grow and make the showiest floral designs. They are the Vegas showgirls or the French Can-Can dancers of the flower bucket theatre.

Tennessee Williams loved flowers and knew the emotions they could arouse. He saw his characters as flowers, flaunting their attractions with wavy, rhythmic petals and delicious colors promising sweet nectar and scent, luring pollinators to aid in genetic perpetuation, sexual reproduction. He would have also seen the irony of a voluptuous orchid corsage on Edwina's shoulder as part of her Mother's Day church ensemble.

When Williams traveled to Europe, he undoubtedly enjoyed seeing flowers and plants displayed in every fashion, from massive floral arrangements in hotels to those sold on street comers, service-oriented floral shops and possibly nurseries. There was much science behind that transient beauty. The post-World War II unification of Western Europe was cemented in the Counsel of Europe's 1948 Hague Conference. Through these strengthened international alliances, commerce was able to grow, meeting market demand for agricultural products, including cut flowers and potted plants. Applied research data helped improve agricultural practices, and French, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian and Italian flower growers prospered. As an example, the Italian Riviera's San Remo flower growing region helped Italy experience a rise of over fifteen-hundred per cent in floriculture production from 1950 to 1978.2

An illustration of the rise in European floriculture consumption can be made by using one of Williams' favorite flowers, the daffodil (Narcissus sp.), known in the American South as the jonquil. It is recommended that their bulbs be planted six inches (fifteen centimeters) apart in commercial production.3 It would take just under a million daffodil bulbs to plant a hectare, and, with about three blooms per healthy bulb, nearly three million flowers would be produced on that amount of land.

In 1950, when Williams tried to convince Anna Magnani to star in the stage production of The Rose Tattoo, he could have seen 435,000,000 daffodils. This takes the liberty of turning all Italian floriculture away from the production of roses, gladiolus, carnations and other mid-century European favorites. By the time A Lovely Sunday in Creve Coeur premiered in early 1979, 7,305,000,000 daffodils would have been produced. That's a lot of gentlemen callers.

Professional floral designers preparing sets for movies or television, or those designing for museums, research appropriate flowers for period settings. For instance, what flowers are appropriate for a 1840s' parlor or a 1950s' cocktail party? The answer is deceptively simple: modem consumers enjoy the same genera as those purchased decades ago. The differences are twofold: newly bred varieties and availability. …

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