Tennessee's Homecoming

By Scanlan, Laura Wolff | Humanities, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview

Tennessee's Homecoming


Scanlan, Laura Wolff, Humanities


LOUISIANA TOM WILLIAMS ARRIVED IN NEW ORLEANS from his hometown of St. Louis the day after Christmas, 1938, looking for a "new scene" to inspiie his writing (and hoping to land a job with the Louisiana branch of the Federal Writers' Project). The twenty-eight-year-old was immediately awestruck by the French Quarter's decaying charm - rust-eaten lace ironwork, flophouses next door to pricey antique shops, dark narrow passages leading to lush courtyards "full of palms, vines and flowering poinsettia," and the "rattle-trap" streetcars - one named Desire and the other Cemeteries.

Two days later, from his small hotel room on Royal Street, he wrote: "I am delighted, in fact enchanted with this glamorous, fabulous old town. . . . Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world." In New Orleans, Tom found his voice, changed his name to Tennessee, and started writing plays that transformed the American stage and made him a household name. Between 1944 and his death in 1983, Williams wrote some thirty full-length plays, two that won Pulitzers.

Williams's characters have taken up permanent residence in American culture, even finding their way into the newest Disney princess feature, where the wealthy sugar mill owner is called Big Daddy and the family dog is named Stella. Williams's stories of lost souls have garnered enthusiastic audiences around the globe, although Bolshoi Pa doesn't quite translate the "Southem-ness" of Big Daddy.

"He changed our idea of beauty," said award-winning playwright and film director John Patrick Shanley at the opening night gala of the 24th Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival supported by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Shanley delivered a moving tribute to Williams on the set of The Night of the Iguana at the Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, just steps away from the St. Peter Street apartment where Williams wrote a major portion of A Streetcar Named Desire. As part of the gala event, actress Lois Smith masterfully performed a monologue from Orpheus Descending, revisiting the role of Carol, which she played in the original 1957 production: "I used to be what they call a Christ-bitten reformer. You know what that is? - A kind of benign exhibitionist. . . . Well, an that was a pretty long time ago, and now I'm not a reformer any more. I'm just a 'lewd vagrant.'"

Every March, those who love books, the works of Tennessee Williams, and New Orleans descend upon the French Quarter - the place Williams called his "spiritual home" - for five days of author readings, walking tours, panel discussions, cocktail receptions, master classes, theater productions, restaurant offerings, film screenings, poetry slams, jazz performances, a scholars' conference, and a wacky Stella and Stanley shouting contest, commonly known as the Stell-Off. …

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