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Encountering Tennessee Williams in St. Louis’s Central West End

St. Louis The Glass Menagerie Set

Luck landed us in St. Louis during the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. It’s August. The heat is as oppressive as we expected, though we’re bearing it well. I’m delighted by the coincidences of being in the city at this time and choosing an apartment in the Central West End, an area of town Williams spent a great deal of time in. We didn’t know about the connection prior to our arrival. While out to dinner one night, we noticed a bust of Tennessee Williams on a street corner. Later, I Googled his name and St. Louis. My search led me to the festival, which takes place within walking distance of where we’re living for the month.  We’re moving every month this year

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

On Friday night, we saw The Glass Menagerie performed behind the apartment building that served as the setting for the memory play Williams wrote. Seeing the play performed on the fire escapes just as they were, in the reality Williams pulled from in his memories, is magical. It’s also exciting to be familiar with other St. Louis settings mentioned in the play. When Laura says, “I went in the art museum and the bird houses at the Zoo… Lately I’ve been spending most of my afternoons in the Jewel Box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers,” We know those locations. They’re all in nearby Forest Park and free to take in at times. The St. Louis Zoo is always free.  

Tennessee Williams and the Mummers of St. Louis

On Saturday morning, I went to a panel discussion called “Tennessee Williams and the Mummers of St. Louis” on my own. Chris’s interest in theater and literature is limited. It was held in Link Auditorium where Williams’s career as a playwright began back in 1937. Everyone was well-spaced out and masked. Theater people and literature lovers tend to be thoughtful, think-beyond-themselves sorts, a considerate lot. Perhaps I’m biased, but I haven’t seen any evidence to prove me wrong on these points. 

Gold curtains hang above the theater’s proscenium stage. Its seats are the color of fresh basil simmered with cream. Their black-painted wooden armrests are held up by decorative wrought iron. Old utilitarian ceiling fans hang above and sconces that might be art deco are on the walls surrounding the auditorium seating. 

The discussion given by Thomas Mitchell and Henry Schvey was my favorite sort, the kind of intriguing that leaves me wanting to know more and more. The depth and breadth of it impossible for me to capture despite my pen moving throughout much of it.

A few of my favorite gems from the discussion:

  • Williams was a part of the Mummers, an amature theater group taking on serious issues, from 1936 – 1937. Its actors were working class folks with intellectual interests. His first play, Candles to the Sun, was performed by the Mummers on the Link Auditorium’s stage.  
  • The Wednesday Club, a group of women interested in intellectual conversations, used the Link’s upstairs rooms and allowed the Mummers use of the stage. At the time, their intellectual conversations included the goings-on in Russia, what was new in theater, etc.
  • Candles to the Sun is a play about miners trying to unionize and is “leftist” in sentiment. The International Ladies Garment Union sold tickets for the show. 

Tennessee Williams Central West End Walking Tour

St. Louis Tennessee Williams Central West End Walking Tour

I’ve never gone on a literary walking tour before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was hot, humid, and we wore masks to keep one another safe. Along with learning much about Williams, I learned to appreciate the shade provided by a large oak tree like never before. 

What I loved most about the tour was seeing the “write what you know” adage come to life. It appears to be as true and challenging as the dictum to “be yourself.”  As a writer, to see where and how a great writer pulled from what he knew, was somehow reassuring. I don’t know why. Only that it is. 

For example, in The Glass Menagerie, Laura is nicknamed Blue Roses by a young man. In the story, she tells him she has Pleurosis. He thinks she said blue roses. A similar, real-life incident was told to Williams by one of his closest childhood friends. I learned about it while on the tour.  

Another highlight was talking with people who know much more about Tennessee Williams and expressionism in theater than me. I asked about the potential influence of Stanislavsky on Williams and learned the names Piscator, Meyerhold, and Vaktongov, men who had a great deal of influence on expressionism in theater. Now I want to read and learn so much more about all of it. 

The curiosity-inducing fun that I’ve had during Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis thrills me. They’ve been made all the richer by living in the city for a couple of weeks prior to the festival’s start. Our month in St. Louis is ranking right up there in my list of all-time favorite travel experiences. What’s your favorite? 

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