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How did Tennessee Williams write his plays? Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing, an exhibition currently on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, has two answers. The first is a sage-green Olivetti Lettera 32 from 1963, which Williams kept until his death in 1983.
Of course, that’s only the literal answer. Drafting and revising were a constant in the famed playwright’s life, and at the Morgan Library we catch more than a glimpse into early and alternative versions of some of his most notable works. The exhibition mainly relies on the display of written materials, such as telegrams, booklets, letters, and highly annotated drafts.
Of the six works that are given the most attention, the most famous may be The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The exhibition shows that these plays emerged gradually from one-act plays, extended scenes, short stories, and even journal fragments.
It is both comforting and endearing to witness first-hand how plays came to life, and to be made aware that not everything Williams wrote was Broadway and Hollywood material. Framing the exhibition are two of his best-known flops: we learn that he relentlessly tried to fix his debut play, Battle of Angels, for 17 years: even though it never made it onto Broadway back in 1941, he kept revising it and, in 1958, presented it as Orpheus Descending. It was “slaughtered by the furies of the press” and ran for only two months.
The “bigger plays” all started small: what we know as The Glass Menagerie, for example, began as one-act plays and scenes called The Spinning Song and The Paper Lantern. On one page of The Paper Lantern, a mother and a doctor discuss how to care for the ailing Ariadne, who became Laura in the The Glass Menagerie. Williams’s fixation with unhinged female characters may have started with his beloved sister Rose, who spent most of her life institutionalized, underwent a lobotomy, and unwittingly acted as one of his main muses.
A Streetcar Named Desire also had its antecedents. The exhibition shows that the character of Blanche started as Belle Wingfield Bowles, who appeared in a one-act play called The Drums. In 1945, Williams wrote to his agent Audrey Wood that he had four possible titles: Primary Colors, The Moth, The Poker Night and Blanche’s Chair In The Moon. “There are at least three possible ends. One, Blanche simply leaves — with no destination,” he continued, “two, goes mad. Three, throws herself in front of the train/in the freight-yards, the roar of which has been an ominous under-tone throughout the play.”
Creative process aside, Williams’s personality emerges in materials not strictly related to his plays. “Of course I started out being very conceited about my work but that was rapidly kicked out of me — now I think I have a fairly complete humility,” he wrote, naively, in an introductory letter to Wood. When the “Catastrophe of Success” befell him, he enjoyed the partying that came with it. “It has been called to our attention you have been in the habit of doing considerable entertaining in your room 1832,” the manager of The Shelton Hotel wrote to him, in a 1945 letter. “We wish to call attention to the fact that under no consideration do we allow any entertaining in the rooms after twelve midnight.” The warning did not stick. Five days later, Williams wrote in his diary, “Quite a lovely sex party last night. Milk fed chicken on toast!”
From a visual point of view, journal entries, letters, and annotated scripts may not be the most appealing. Thankfully, Tennesse Williams: No Refuge but Writing provides some respite from the blocks of text by showing us the playwright’s forays into painting, his longtime respite from writing. His painterly efforts, mostly portraits, are less mediocre than one might expect, with nervous brushstrokes that are reminiscent of the style of pre-World War II painters.
More remarkable are the set designs of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Through the vision of designers such as Jo Mielziner and Boris Aronson, we see both squalor and southern reveries. Aronson’s set for The Rose Tattoo, for example, is a dilapidated cottage that he made as colorful as a carnival booth, with rose-colored wallpaper and carpet actually setting the whole sketch, and subsequently the whole set, aglow. This is how Williams’s words were translated into sights.
Tennesse Williams: No Refuge but Writing is insightful and uplifting for anyone who ever attempted to create something from nothing. Seeing the process, the countless drafts, and the lukewarm reception of Williams’s early plays helps convince the visitor that the struggle to make art can be overcome — and that we should, through the hardship, carry on.
Tennesse Williams: No Refuge but Writing continues through May 13 at the Morgan Library & Museum.