Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Sea, Sun and "Quien Sabe!": Tennessee Williams and Spain

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Sea, Sun and "Quien Sabe!": Tennessee Williams and Spain

Article excerpt

In the winter of 1948, after the successful opening of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway the previous December, Tennessee Williams embarked on the first of a series of trips to Europe that would become his customary way to avoid the nervous stress that the theatrical life in New York brought him.1 During the following decade, Williams would spend several months every year - usually during the summer - visiting different countries in Europe and, above all, staying in Italy for extended periods of time. Although he traveled alone on that first trip in 1948, a year later his long-term partner Frank Merlo joined him for prolonged stays in Rome and tours along the Italian coast. Despite their undeniable love and concern for one another,2 Williams and Merlo often underwent phases of estrangement, and both kept casual affairs and regular lovers, a habit that they continued when in Rome. Whenever the strain of their cohabitation became too unbearable, Williams impulsively decided to leave Rome in search of cooler climes, where he could work better. One of the first such getaways took place in July 1951 and was rather ill-fated, as Williams would recall more than twenty years later: "having quarreled with Frankie, I split for Barcelona in my towncoupe Jaguar with a thermos of martinis and wrapped that elegant car around a tree when a truck swung out of a side road and my portable Olivetti flew out of the back seat and hit me right smack on the back of my head, knocking me out for I don't know how long."3

Though only attempted - he would eventually flee to Paris - we could consider this escape as Williams' first trip to Barcelona, a visit that would eventually become necessary every summer from 1953 to 1958, whenever he needed "the shock of something new to keep [him] from sinking into the old summer lethargy and stupefaction".4

During the better part of the 1950s, Williams paid at least one yearly visit to Spain, as his Notebooks attest. Whether he was on his way to or back from Tangier, he would briefly stopover in Madrid or drive through the South of the peninsula. Yet it was the city of Barcelona that became his refuge from the intolerable heat and routine in Rome or the tension in his relation with Merlo. In a country still impoverished by a civil war and the subsequent international isolation after World War II, Barcelona was comparatively attractive as it contained a number of things that were most appealing to Williams at the time: milder weather, cheap wine,5 good swimming facilities, and Spain's most thriving - and scandalous and shameful, in the eyes of the Francoist authorities - homosexual scene.6 Although Williams' visits to Barcelona included some promotional responsibilities when he was invited to attend a few of the rare performances of his plays that were being produced,7 his stays at the Gran Hotel Colón, one of the most cosmopolitan in the city, were mostly for rest and leisure. They had a decidedly therapeutic effect on him, as he explained to his distant cousin Jim Adams in a letter of 21 July 1956: "I tried Rome for a few weeks but got feeling worse all the time, I flew to Barcelona where there is a good beach only five minutes from this hotel and after a week of sun-bathing and swimming I feel much better and think I can get thru the summer without much further disturbance."8

An avid swimmer all his life, Williams enjoyed the nearby Playa de la Barceloneta, where he could avail himself of the pools of Sant Sebastià, what he called the "San Sebastian beach" or "San Sebastiano", a private beach club with separate facilities for men and women. Lunching on the beach and swimming every afternoon not only improved his physical condition but buoyed his spirits as well, especially if his systematic morning work had proved unproductive, which it rarely did, as his work in Barcelona often turned out "better than usual".9 He soaked up so much sea and sun once that he even caught sunstroke.10

Also on the beach, he could soak up another of Barcelona's principal attractions. …

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