Jewish professor WashU literally wrote the book about Tennessee Williams, whose festival kicks off at STL next week

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The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis (TWStL) returns for its seventh year, giving center stage to a newly revamped and sultry Fellini-esque production of the romantic Sicilian love story of William rose tattoodirected by David Kaplan and presented under the marquee of the Grand Arts Center.

The festival begins August 18 and runs through August 28, with events taking place at the Grand Center in the St. Louis Hill neighborhood. Events include:

  • Engaging panels, moderated by Tom Mitchell, TWStL Scholar-in-Residence
  • Free screening of an iconic film based on the works of Williams – Mrs. Stone’s Roman Source
  • Tennessee Williams Tribute: Selections from Williams’ Italian-inspired songwriting
  • Walking tour of the Saint-Louis hill
  • Petanque competition

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Each year, the festival honors Williams, who spent much of his formative years right here in St. Louis. Born Thomas Lanier williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, williams moved to St. Louis at the age of seven, when his father was made an executive of the International Shoe Company (where the city museum and last hotel are now located).

He lived here for more than two decades, attending the University of Washington, working at the International Shoe Company and producing his early plays at local theaters. He attributed his sometimes difficult experiences in St. Louis to the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his art. When asked later in life when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.”

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And although most people are familiar with the famous works that have won numerous Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Academy Awards, such as Glass factory, A tram called Désir, Cat on a hot tin roof and Suddenly last summer. He also wrote hundreds of additional plays, stories, essays and poems, many of which have connections or influences to the many people Williams met throughout his life.

“There is no doubt that Tennessee Williams (or ‘Tom’ as he was known as a young man growing up in St. Louis) shared the prejudices of many white, Protestant men in the 20th century Midwest,” said Tom Mitchell, Tennessee Williams St. Louis Scholar-in-Residence. “He was, however, also interested in the experiences of those whose lives were different from his own. He wrote about characters who had racial, national, economic, and religious backgrounds different from his own, often trying to imagine their feelings as they faced great injustices.

The Jewish professor WashU who literally wrote the Williams book

Eighteen years ago, browsing a New Orleans bookstore, Henry I. Schvey made a unique discovery: an unpublished and totally unknown poem by Tennessee Williams.

Today, the title of that poem is the title of Schvey’s new book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams” (University of Missouri Press, $40).

“I didn’t know it then,” said Schvey, a professor of theater and comparative literature at the University of Washington. “But this poem (“Blue Song”) brought Tennessee Williams to life in St. Louis.

“In a way, I identified myself.”

The University of Washington made the first and most obvious link. Schvey, who is Jewish, served on the faculty of the University of Washington for 34 years; Williams wrote the poem, by hand, in the “blue book” for her Wash U finale in Greek.

In his diary the day before the exam, Williams looked crestfallen. “I will undoubtedly fail,” he predicted. He was right.

But the sad and charming poem, obviously unnoticed by the Greek professor, immediately struck Schvey as “poignant and powerful”.

There are also more connections, including a coincidence Schvey only discovered while researching his book: He and the playwright once shared a Manhattan address, 15 West 72nd Street.

As a teenager, Schvey lived with his family on the 25the floor. Williams lived on 33rd. They didn’t know each other. Still, Schvey likes the idea that they might have shared a smile or a “hello” in the elevator.

The biggest coincidence, however, is that the two of them kissed a New York-St. Louis’ trajectory — albeit in opposite directions.

The son of a father straight out of “Mad Men” and a mother who was an extreme hoarder, Schvey detailed his often unhappy youth in a memoir, “The Poison Tree.” But things got better, especially after meeting a classmate at the University of Wisconsin, Patty Cohn of University City. The Creve Coeur couple will marry at 52 in August.

When Schvey fell in love with her, he fell in love with her whole family – a close family whose members loved and supported each other. The couple were excited to move to St. Louis for their work at Wash U, but also for the Cohns.

Over time, Schvey explains, he developed a private emotional geography: New York, cold and exhausting; Saint-Louis, warm and expansive.

Williams’ emotional card was the exact opposite. It’s been a tough life – but for great art.

For Williams, St. Louis was a heartless trap that would destroy him sooner or later, just as he destroyed his beloved sister, Rose. (She underwent a prefrontal lobotomy.) Yet it was there that he became a poet and playwright, developing themes and imagery that he would continue to craft throughout his life.

“No one had really explored, exhaustively, what St. Louis meant to him,” Schvey said. “The idea that became the book – that it could never leave – I discovered as I went along.

“He felt trapped”

We may think we know a lot about Williams’ family, but our insights mostly come from one play, “The Glass Menagerie.” And without a doubt, it offers strong links with the life of the writer. He even gave the son in the room his real name, Thomas; “Tennessee” was Williams’ own invention.

But Cornelius Williams was a very different father from, say, Max Cohn. A violent drinker and gambler, Cornelius Williams lost part of an ear when another man bit him during a poker fight. He and his wife, Edwina, had terrible arguments that scared their children. Sometimes he beat her.

He mocked his son as “Miss Nancy”, pulled him out of the University of Missouri when he failed ROTC, and forced him to take a desk job at the company where he was director, International Shoe. (Eventually, the young man returned to school, first to Wash U, then to the University of Iowa.)

But the Williams family was never as poor as its theatrical counterpart, the Wingfields. In fact, they lived in comfortable apartments in the West End of St. Louis and University City. And Cornelius Williams never gave up on his family – unlike the father in the play who would propel then-New Yorker Tennessee Williams to fame.

Like his father, Tom Wingfield leaves the mother and sister who depend on him. He escapes from Saint-Louis, but not from his memories. In fact, “Glass” is considered a “memory game”, one of the first and perhaps the best of its kind. The drama is partly a love letter to the writer’s tragic sister, Rose, Schvey argues, but it’s “also about the playwright’s quest to extricate himself from St. Louis prison.”

But, observes Schvey, Williams’ writing benefited from those terrible experiences — and good experiences here, too. In particular, he found friends at Wash U, young men with whom he shared ideas about politics and art. And he started writing for a community theater group here, the Mummers.

The Mummers were “controversial and daring community theater,” said Schvey, who encouraged Williams to write politically charged dramas such as “Not About Nightingales” (about prison conditions) and “Candles to the Sun” (about a miners’ strike).

“There’s a lot more to those early plays than critics realized,” Schvey said. “They were rejected as juvenalia. But these are really interesting pieces!

“Even each of the small roles is a big character. That’s when you realize what a genius Williams was. It’s all precisely delineated.”

These plays by Mummers reveal Williams’ strong sympathies for the working class and the poor, as well as the leftist views he shared with his college friends. Today, however, we don’t associate that perspective with a writer we consider lyrical, Southern, perhaps self-effacing.

Plus, Schvey added, “we’re doing the same thing, in reverse, with Arthur Miller,” the New York Jew who won the Pulitzer Price in drama for “Death of a Salesman” in 1949. The previous year, Williams had won it for “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

We recognize the strong political and moral elements in Miller’s work because they seem to emerge from her biography, Schvey said, just as Williams’ biography seems to inspire vivid portrayals of fragile and unstable women like Laura Wingfield in “Glass.” and Blanche DuBois in “Tramway.” But it’s unfair to both playwrights, Schvey believes.

“We want writers to fit into round holes,” Schvey said, “even though artistic geniuses, almost by definition, are square pegs.

Over time, Williams became even harder to classify. The later pieces – mostly surreal, depressing or both – never appealed to the audience that loved “Glass”, “Streetcar” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. Nonetheless, “he always wanted to be appreciated,” Schvey said. “He wanted to have plays on Broadway.

“But it was running out of gas. He burned himself” with excessive drinking, drugs and casual sex. “He lived very hard. When he died (in 1983), he was ready to go.

During her later years, Williams spent a lot of time in Key West, Florida. There he enjoyed swimming and painting – Schvey has already begun his next project, a study of Williams as a painter – while continuing, as always, to write.

One thing he wrote was a will, with clear burial instructions. He asked to be buried at sea, in the Gulf of Mexico.

But his brother, Dakin Williams, brought the body back to landlocked St. Louis. Williams was buried next to his mother in Calvary Cemetery – a cemetery “synonymous with traditional St. Louis”, writes Schvey.

Many people took this as an insult, defying the writer’s explicit wishes. But Schvey thinks that in the end it was perfect.

In his life and throughout his work, Williams constantly tried to flee Saint-Louis, a place he often decried and where he felt trapped by family and societal expectations. Yet he kept coming back, sometimes in reality and always on the page.

“He was very good at escaping,” Schvey said, “until he wasn’t.”

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