Show and Tell: 2 Centennial Exhibits Shed Light on the Playwright's Conversations and Characters

American Theatre, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Show and Tell: 2 Centennial Exhibits Shed Light on the Playwright's Conversations and Characters


The Museum: The Historic New Orleans

Collection

THE EXHIBIT: "Drawn to Life: Al Hirschfeld and the Theater of Tennessee Williams,"

JAN. 11-APRIL 3, 2011

THE WILLIAMS RESEARCH CENTER AT THE HISTORIC NEW Orleans Collection (named after our founders, Lewis Kemper and Leila Williams, so it doesn't have any connection with Tennessee Williams) is devoted to the history and culture of New Orleans. Our holdings range from colonial manuscripts to materials related to early jazz musicians to a War of 1812 collection--but Tennessee Williams is definitely our biggest literary collection. Williams's first apartment when he came to New Orleans in 1938--722 Toulouse Street, which was the setting for Vieux Carre--is part of our complex of buildings.

Our collection started in 2001 with the acquisition of the Fred W. Todd Tennessee Williams Collection from San Antonio, Tex.-- probably the largest collection of Tennessee Williams memorabilia--and we've been growing super fast since then. We're one of the host institutions for the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and we publish the Tennessee Williams Annual Review and host the annual Tennessee Williams Scholars' Conference. So we're at the center for Williams scholarship.

The Al Hirschfeld Foundation approached us about doing an exhibit. We pulled from our collection things to show how Williams drew from his own life to create the characters in his plays, and then we show how Hirschfeld used his talent to capture the universality of those characters. The strength of our collection is that we collect a lot of peripheral things--old movie posters, stills from films, posters from revivals of his work. Since we are primarily a museum, our collection is much more visual than traditional archival holdings. Among the drawings, I really love the cover image to the exhibit's catalog, which Hirschfeld based just on his reading of A Streetcar Named Desire. Hirschfeld's drawing captures the Neanderthal quality in the character of Stanley Kowalski. Part of why the Hirschfeld exhibit was so perfect for us is that Williams scholars, who are so knowledgeable about correspondence and manuscripts, hadn't seen a lot of these drawings before.

-- MARK CAVE, curator of manuscripts/oral historian

HIRSCHFELD AND WILLIAMS BOTH RELIED ON SYMBOLS.

Hirschfeld interpreted performances through a sophisticated palette of graphic symbols to capture the essence of what the playwright wrote as translated by actors, directors and designers, for Hirschfeld believed that the theatre was primarily the province of authors, not directors. Hirschfeld looked with an artist's eye but with a journalist's intent to capture Williams's unique brand of stage magic. Like Williams, Hirschfeld was also unconstrained by reality, merging literal details with the playwright's poetic vision. ...

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Hirschfeld's great gift was to distill a complex production into a few strokes that many could understand. Both playwright and penman shared a disarming accessibility. Lines in both artists' work that at first appear humorous often reveal something much more poignant and eventually insightful. As with Williams's plays, one seems always to find something new when looking again at a Hirschfeld drawing.

-- Hirschfeld archivist DAVID LEOPOLD, from the "Drawn to Life" catalog

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE MUSEUM: The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

THE EXHIBIT: "Becoming Tennessee Williams,"

FEB. 1-JULY 31, 2011

I WAS TRYING TO GET ACROSS A COUPLE OF DIFFERENT things with this exhibit. One of them is something I always try to do at the Harry Ransom Center - -to help think through the question: Why theatre? …

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