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From Streetcar to a Hot Tin Roof

05/02/18

library-writing

Tennessee Williams was one of the most prolific and important American playwrights of the 20th century. But as so often happens with fortune and fame, the more popular he became, the more chaos he endured. After writing his soon-to-become masterpieces A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, Williams lived a life which he referred to as “the catastrophe of success.” 

But with success also came impermanence, as Williams bounced from city to city during the majority of his writing years. The changing surroundings in Williams’ personal life quickly became fodder for his plays, as demonstrated by the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibit, No Refuge but Writing. The curated collection of memorabilia maps out the various links between the dramatic events Williams experienced first-hand, and the ones he invented for the theatre.

During the first two weeks of May, you can visit Williams’ original drafts, private diaries, and letters collected during the years in which he wrote and created some of his best and most beloved plays. From his early life in St. Louis, to his time in New Orleans, Key West, and finally his apartment on E 37th street in New York, his diverse writings give an emotional and geographic timeline to the evolution of his work.

Most notably, the exhibit demonstrates how Williams used writing to cope with a tumultuous life and career at a time when he was poorly understood by the peers of his generation. Williams referred to his work as ‘emotionally autobiographical’ and in many cases, the struggles he fought internally were the same battles his characters enacted onstage.  

With no refuge but writing, Williams found a way to maintain control of the creative process even after he’d entered the final words on his blue typewriter. Deep involvement during rehearsal and production time was standard for the writer, who assumed personal responsibility for the immediate impact of his plays. When a new work or premiere flopped, Williams continued to fight for the piece. As detailed by the exhibit, Williams would rework and revise every play in hopes that one day they would all receive the same notoriety and recognition on the Broadway stage.

What also becomes clear through the collection are the intimate themes that thread the majority of Williams’ works together. Two of his early muses included his mother Edwina and sister Rose, who were inspirations for the characters in Glass Menagerie and others. Williams’ friends and lovers also inspired famous characters, as shown through several of the paintings and portraits on display.

So how did Tennessee Williams shape the future of American drama? “No Refuge but Writing” offers insight into how the writer’s personal history deeply affected his work, and how in turn it has forever affected the landscape of our theatrical canon.