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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

“Sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tennessee Williams

“I did four plays with [Neil Simon]: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn’t even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: ‘You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.’ ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.’ And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

“I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn’t a great play in the world that doesn’t have funny parts to it — as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”
Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
As told to Stephen Galloway/ 2012 Hollywood Reporter

Related Posts:
The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) “The truth is your friend.”—Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan
Hunting for Truth “Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”—Novelist Paul Lieberman
Telling the Truth=Humor “Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.” Phil Foster via Garry Marshall
Insanely Great Endings Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts The Graduate (written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on the novel by Charles Webb) on his short list of movies with “insanely great endings.”

Scott W. Smith

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Tennessee Williams felt that ‘apparent failure’ motivated him. He said it ‘sends me back to my typewriter that very night, before the reviews are out. I am more compelled to get back to work than if I had a success.’ Many have heard that Thomas Edison told his assistant, incredulous at the inventor’s perseverance through millions of aborted attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ ‘Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks…’ read part of the rejection letter that Gertrude Stein received from a publisher in 1912.”
Sarah Lewis
The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Related posts:
Embracing the Near Win (part 1) 
Embracing the Near Win (part 2)
Tennessee Williams’ Start
Writing Quote #45 (Tennessee Williams)
Commitment in the Face of Failure
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams

New York actress Tory Flack in front of the house Grant Wood used for his painting "American Gothic." Eldon, Iowa (2009)

New York actress Tory Flack in front of the house Grant Wood used for his painting “American Gothic.” Eldon, Iowa (2009)

Yesterday we went global big, today we’re going local small. Well, at least small scale in the big city. In one of the many posts I did on playwright Tennessee Williams this month I mentioned that his worked continues to gain in popularity since his death in 1983. So I wanted to tell you about an opportunity you have to support Bedlam Ensemble in their Kickstarter campaign for The Tennessee Williams Project.

They have three days remaining to raise an additional $1,000 to meet their goal and I’d love to have a few Screenwriting from Iowa angels help push them toward their goal of presenting “A unique twist on the one-act plays of Tennessee Williams” directed by Daniella Caggiano.

Bedlam Ensemble didn’t contact me, but I do have a connection with them. About five years ago I worked with one of the Bedlam actors, Tory Flack. First on a video project I produced for an economic development group and then on a short film I wrote and directed. Tory graduated with a theater degree from the University of Iowa—the same college where Tennessee Williams himself earned his college degree.

I took the above photo of Tory in front of the house in Eldon, Iowa Grant Wood used in his painting “American Gothic”—one of the most recognizable paintings in the history of art. It was zero degrees when I took that photo. Consider giving to The Tennessee Williams Project just because Tory not only gave her lines when it was zero degrees—but could smile as well. Here’s an updated photo of Tory by Chicago photographer Johnny Knight. (Throw Johnny a little kindness if you need some photography work done in Chicago, and consider Tory for that film you’re casting.)

1093791_10201755872881331_639476731_o

Tory’s a very talented actress and I’m glad she’s found her way to New York where her acting gigs include the Brooklyn Shakespeare Festival. So while I’m not familiar with the Bedlam Ensemble, my hunch is Tory has connected with some like-minded actors. I saw the Bedlam Kickstarter campaign on a  Facebook post last night. Bedlam Ensemble is in its fourth season and according to their Kickstarter page:

“We chose to present the one act plays of Tennessee Williams because of their beautifully poetic language, striking characters, and the great potential for ensemble work. However, these wonderful plays are not in the public canon, which means we have to pay for the right to perform them. Your support will help us pay for those rights, as well as the cost of renting The Gene Frankel Theatre—an appropriate venue since Gene Frankel in fact knew Tennessee Williams. We also need to cover the expense of putting together the lights, costumes,set, and sound design that bring the world of the play to life; and the funds for advertising our show to the world so we can get the word out and have the best possible audience.”

Lastly, I heard an interview with Tennessee Williams last week (probably from the ’60s or ’70s) where he talked about the importance of smaller regional theaters around the country as being very important for the development of writers. So seek out and support groups like Bedlam Ensemble. And if you have some plays, contact Bedlam’s literary manager Daniella Caggiano (dcaggiano@gm.slc.edu) about submitting your script.

P.S. Performance is scehduled for January 15th-26th 2014 at the Gene Frankel Theatre in NYC.

Related posts:
Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams) Tennessee is buried in St. Louis.
Postcard #66 (Sewanee) Where Williams’ willed his literary works.
The Catastrophe of Success (Part 1)
The Catastrophe of Success (Part 2)
Don’t Quit Your Day Jon (2.0) One of the great characters in theater came from a job Williams hated.
Postcard #64 (Columbus, MS) Where Tennessee Williams was born.

Scott W. Smith

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“How weak is man? How often do we stray from the straight and narrow?”
Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton in the movie version)
The Night of the Iguana written by Tennessee Williams

suwanne“Have you seen the cross?” I had no idea what the lady was talking about. On Monday I made a quick stop off I-24 in Sewanee, Tennessee to take a couple of photos at The University of the South campus.  I read recently that the school was willed the literary rights to the works of Tennessee Williams and I was intrigued.

I was trying to get a photo of the large Gothic chapel on campus but the setting sun was too low for me a shot I liked. That’s when the lady asked me if I had seen the cross. She seemed to think it was something I should see, so I followed her instructions and five minutes later I pulled up to the cross which is 60 feet tall.  Now the setting sun was working in my favor and I got the above shot. (The Sewanee War Memorial Cross was constructed in 1922.)

So why did Tennessee Williams leave has literary rights to a school which sits atop the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga, and that was founded in 1860 by Episcopal priests?

It’s because that’s where his grandfather, an Episcopal priest, graduated from the School of Theology. I’ve read that Tennessee Williams is only second to Shakespeare in frequency of plays produced today so that literary estate must be doing quite well. Check out the link The Tennessee Williams Legacy on the school’s website.

“I was born a Catholic, really. I’m a Catholic by nature. My grandfather was an English Catholic (Anglican), very, very high church. He was higher church than the Pope. However, my ‘conversion’ to the Catholic church was rather a joke because it occurred while I was taking Dr. Jacobson’s miracle shots. I couldn’t learn anything about the tenets of the Roman Catholic church, which are ridiculous anyway. I just loved the beauty of the ritual in the Mass. But [my brother] Dakin found a Jesuit father who was very lovely and all, and he said, ‘Mr. Williams is not in a condition to learn anything. I’ll give him extreme unction and just pronounce him a Catholic.’

I was held up in the Roman Catholic church, with people supporting me on both sides, and I was declared a Catholic. What do you think of that? Does that make me a Catholic? No, I was whatever I was before.

And yet my work is full of Christian symbols. Deeply, deeply Christian. But it’s the image of Christ, His beauty and purity, and His teachings, yes . . . but I’ve never subscribed to the idea that life as we know it, what we’re living now, is resumed after our death. No. I think we’re absorbed back into, what do they call it? The eternal flux? The eternal shit, that’s what I was thinking.”
Tennessee Williams
Interviewed by Dotson Rader for the Paris Review

Williams’ play (and the movie that followed) The Night of the Iguana is about a defrocked Episcopal priest.

P.S. A little Night of the Iguana trivia; The cross that Richard Burton wore in the movie belonged to Williams’ grandfather and is on now on display at the former house that Williams lived in in Columbus, Mississippi where his grandfather used to minister. It was donated by Williams’ nieces.

P.P.S.
At the base of the Sewanee cross it reads:

WWI
To the sons of Sewanee who answered their country’s call to service win the World War 1917-1918
.

WWII
To those from the University, the Military Academy, Sewanee, and all Franklin County in World War II. 1941-1945.

Related post: Postcard #64 (Columbus, MS)

Scott W. Smith

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“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks! The world thirsts after sympathy, compassion, love.”
Don Quixote character in Camino Real 
Play written by Tennessee Williams
(The first part is engraved on Williams’ headstone.)

Tennessee Williams Gravesite

It just so happens that in the midst of this run of posts on the life and work of Tennessee Williams I drove through St. Louis, Missouri yesterday and basically had enough time to stop and take the above photo at Calvary Cemetery north of I-70.

I knew of Williams’ connection to St. Louis, but did not realize he was buried there until doing research on these recent set of posts. Danny Manus in his Script article posted yesterday, Notes from the Margins: Every Article on Screenwriting You Never Have to Read Again, may be correct when he stated that 90% of screenwriting blogs are “regurgitated bullshit,” so the way I try to set myself apart from the hundreds of screenwriting and writing blogs is to take you to places like Columbus, Mississippi where Williams was born and Calvary Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

The stake I put in the ground on January 22, 2008 (with the post Life Beyond Hollywood) was that this blog would be come from the angle of a Hollywood outsider. Of course, along the 1,684 posts I’ve quoted more than 400 Hollywood insiders, but I’ve always been concerned with writers’ origins and a sense of place. You can’t separate Chekhov from Russia, Ibsen from Norway , or Shakespeare from England. And you can’t separate Tennessee from Mississippi, or New Orleans, or St. Louis.

In fact— from the perspective of this blog—if there is a bookend to screenwriter Diablo Cody (who was the inspiration behind starting this blog just a few days after seeing Juno) it is Tennessee Williams. Like Cody, Williams graduated from the University of Iowa. Both achieved awards at the highest level for their dramatic writing (Williams a Tony and a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, and Cody an Oscar). Other commonalities between the two writers are a struggle with depression, an enjoyment of alcohol, and a mixing of the sacred and the profane.

I’m not saying that Cody is on the same plain as the hallowed Williams, just that they make a nice bookend to what this blog is about in hopes that it will help inspire you in your writing. (And to be fair to Cody, when Williams was 35-years old as Cody is now, he was known for just one major play.) As I was driving 25 hours over the last two days I also connected Williams with writers Ernest Hemingway and Pat Conroy, in that part of what shaped them as writers was a love for books at an early age as well as interesting (read highly dysfunctional) dynamics between their fathers and/or mothers.

Circling back to Williams’ gravesite, in one interview I saw he said he wanted to be buried at sea—as close to his poet hero Hart Crane as possible. Yet there he is in a Catholic Cemetary with his mother and sister buried on each side of him. Williams’ sister Rose may be the single person in his life that influenced him the most. She is the basis for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps the most powerful over-arching theme in Williams work is the fragileness of human life. A theme by the way, which will always have an audience.

“Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lighting! Blow out your candles, Laura, and so goodbye….”
Tom in The Glass Menagerie
Written by Tennessee Williams

DSC_4961

P.S. I know Angelina Jolie has a tattoo on her left that are slightly modified words from Tennessee Williams; “A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”
 I don’t have any tattoos, but if I got one right now I think I’d go with, “The world thirsts after sympathy, compassion, love.”

Related Posts:
The Juno—Iowa Connection
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop Library) Neither Cody or Williams did any graduate work at Iowa, but the school has a deep tradition of producing writers.)
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize

Scott W. Smith 

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“Security is kind of a death, I think, and it can come in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were or intend to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about—What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.”
Tennessee Williams
The Catastrophe of Success

Between 1944 and 1961 Tennessee Williams had a run of plays on Broadway that included The Glass Menagerie,  A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Night of the Iguana. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and many of his plays were made into films.

But the Williams’ plays first produced from 1962 though his death in 1983 are little remembered or performed today. The limited runs and poor reviews of plays from his last two decades weighed heavy on Williams.

“[Tennessee Williams] feigned disinterest in reviews, but he was deeply disturbed by them. Unfavorable ones could devastate him. Favorable ones might corrupt him. The most successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as one friend said, as a ‘biological necessity.’”
Mel Gussow
NY Times 1983, Tennessee Williams Is Dead

Some have claimed that critics lead to the destructive path Williams took, and others argue that his drinking/alcoholism, cigarettes, and drug use led to the decline of his writing. Still others point to Tennessee mourning the death in 1963 of his one-time gay partner of 14 years leading to his debilitating depression.

But whatever the reason his popularity declined and  in 1969 his brother intervened and had Tennessee committed into a psychiatric hospital for a few months. Though it strained their relationship, it probably saved Tennessee’s life. Tennessee continued to write the rest of his life, but other than his play Small Craft Warning in 1972 he struggled to find an audience. In 1977 he was quoted in the NY Times saying he was, “widely regarded as the ghost of a writer.” He did experience an upsurge toward the end of his life as is major plays were performed in revival and as a new and young audience discovered his work. (And that continues to this day.)

Like the cause of his decline, Tennessee’s death involves a little speculation; the NY Times first said officials claimed the 71-year-old playwright died of natural causes, the original medical examiner’s report said Williams’ choked to death on a medicine bottle cap, others say the drug and alcohol that Williams consumed over his later decades was a form of suicide, and his brother claimed that Tennessee was killed by someone because he wouldn’t change his will.

Whatever the reason, Williams was found dead on February 25, 1983.

But if you step back from his life and career, and just look at the 10 or 15 year period where he wrote some of the most amazing plays in the history of American theater you have to marvel at the output. Fueled by family demons, a poet’s heart, and strong coffee, Williams and his passion to write came along at just the right time to shine. Just as attendance in American movies was declining and television was still in its infancy, American theater was serious business.  (Remember Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949 and ran for 742 performances.)

So let’s go back to November 30, 1947 and look at  The Catastrophe of Success. The essay Williams wrote toward the start of his career after The Glass Menagerie shot him into the spotlight, but just four days before A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. This is how he concluded his essay:

“Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive—that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. ‘In the time of your life—live!’ That time is short and doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Tennessee Williams

Related posts:
“The Catastrophe of Success” (Part 2)
Tennessee Williams’ Start
Writing Quote #45 (Tennessee Williams)

Scott W. Smith

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“With fourteen plays and a novella adapted for the screen, no other dramatist has equaled Tennessee Williams’ record for having plays produced in Hollywood.”
Naomi Greenberg-Slovin
How Hollywood Got Shocked by Tennessee Williams

“I am widely regarded as the ghost of a writer, a ghost still visible, excessively solid of flesh and perhaps too ambulatory, but a writer remembered mostly for works which were staged between 1944 and 1961.”
Tennessee Williams
The New York Times, 
May 8, 1977

When the playwright Tennessee Williams found Broadway success with the The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and  A Streetcar Named Desire three years later he found himself at the pinnacle of success that few writers experience. Wouldn’t you love to go back to 1947 just for a moment and ask Mr. Williams what it was like to go through more a decade as a struggling writer to the top of the mountain? Well thanks to the Internet and Williams being a wordsmith we can discover what was going through his mind.

Four days before the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire (a play for which he would later be awarded the Pulitzer Prize) an essay he wrote was published in the New York Times called A Streetcar Named Success.  He would later retitle the essay A Catastrophe of Success and have it published at the end of the New Direction version of The Glass Menagerie.

I first read that essay as part of an acting workshop in my early twenties which I think is an ideal time to encounter Williams’ thoughts. I hope you do take the world by storm with your writings. And if you do, at least Williams will have given you a warning.

“I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth, the cornerstone of the film industry if not the Democracy itself. I have seen it enacted on the screen so often that I was now inclined to yawn at it, not with disbelief but with an attitude of Who Cares!”
Tennessee Williams

Williams did not become a writer to become rich and famous, but that’s what happened. He appeared to be uncomfortable with the trappings. Of the way people treated him, and how he treated people.

“A well of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded as if they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turn table. Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I too to be inane flattery. I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you any more.”
Tennessee Williams

I’ve read that Olympic athletes after winning a gold medal that they have trained their entire life sometimes fall into a state of depression. Jon Krakauer touches on this theme in his book Into Thin Air writing about mountain climbers after they reach Mt. Everest. Williams was famous for writing every day—sometimes in eight hour stretches. I imagine along with his new-found fame there was much mental and physical exhaustion that he was experiencing (along with a family history of depression).

His cure? After having eye surgery, he “checked out of the handsome suite at the first class hotel, packed my papers and a few incidental belongings and left for Mexico, an elemental country where you can quickly forget the false dignities and conceits imposed by success.” And in Mexico he began work on a new play called The Poker Night.

When that play was completed it was called A Streetcar Named Desire and would star a new actor named Marlon Brando in the Broadway play and the Hollywood film.  It’s hard to fathom that one writer could write The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire back to back. Much less a writer in his 30s who was relatively unknown before that.

Streetcar would put Williams even further into the spotlight and for the next 15 years he would continue to meet the high expectations of audiences and critics. But around age 50 the catastrophe of success would wraps its claws around Williams and not release him until it consumed his life. We’ll look at the final act of his life in part 2.

Scott W. Smith 

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