“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”
“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.
Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable. “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”
He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.
“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.
Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today. If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.
But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”
Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.
Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.
When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)
It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”
And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.
As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)
Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.
During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.
Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.
Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.
Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.
Other screenwriters born in Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.
So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.
“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.“
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)
The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book
Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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