As a co-director and co-founder of the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans, Augustin J. Correro often is asked to give talks about the playwright. The sessions can cover everything from the inspirations for Williams’ most famous dramas and characters, like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to details about his personal life.
Does Correro have a favorite story about Williams’ life in his adopted home of New Orleans?
“I don’t have a favorite story as much as I have a favorite picture,” Correro says. His new book on the playwright notes that in addition to writing numerous full plays and one acts, poems, essays and more, Williams liked to paint.
“In one of the early times he stayed here, he drew a picture of the corner outside of James’ Bar, which is a gay bar around the corner from the place where he was staying. It might have been when he was writing ‘Streetcar,’ or a little before. He drew a street scene and it has a hustler labeled as ‘Rough Trade.’ It has a nervous auntie with a tour magazine shouting ‘Quelle horreur!’ with her wig and her glasses popping off. It has a pious queen out on the balcony looking down on everyone. It has a rat chasing a cat to show how backward everything was in the French Quarter. There was a drag queen who had been hit by a truck. It’s both gruesome and hilarious …
“Williams was so enrapt by the local color that he put it into his writing, and he put it into his drawing.”
Correro has directed many of Williams’ plays, and this week, Pelican Publishing releases his book, “Tennessee Williams 101.” While it sounds like an academic title, it is an entertaining and accessible biography of Williams that works in a timeline of his writing and productions and puts them in greater context. It chronicles Williams’ young life in Mississippi, years with his family in St. Louis, where “The Glass Menagerie” is set, his amazing success on Broadway and in film, and his complicated later years.
Williams’ place among the best American playwrights stems from the success of works including “Glass Menagerie,” “Streetcar,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in the 1940s and ’50s. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other drama awards. Many of his Broadway successes spawned landmark films. Both the Broadway and movie versions of “Streetcar” starred Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter; and Maldon, Hunter and Vivien Leigh won Oscars for their roles, and Brando and director Elia Kazan were nominated.
“Every other year in the ’50s, he had a play or two and a movie being made, and they were blockbusters,” Correro says.
Many of Williams’ plays became vehicles for the most popular actors of the day, including Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in “The Night of the Iguana,” and Taylor and Burton in the aptly named bomb “Boom!” which Williams adapted from his own drama, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”
Before his 1945 breakthrough with “Glass Menagerie,” Williams had a contract with MGM to write work for the studio’s starlet Lana Turner, but it wasn’t a successful match. Correro details Williams’ view of the arrangement in the book.
While the conventional view is that Williams’ successes largely ended with 1961’s “The Night of the Iguana,” there were poorly received productions before that, such as the surreal “Camino Real.” And Correro points out that some of Williams’ later works may have been more successful away from the commercial pressures of Broadway. Late works like “Vieux Carre” have been rediscovered and are finding renewed interest. Though not released until the late 1970s, it’s heavily based on Williams’ first stint living in the city, at a cheap rooming house in the French Quarter in 1938.
The streetcar line that ended in 1948 gained fame through Tennessee Willliams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
While Williams dealt with drinking and drug problems late in his life, he still wrote at a determined pace. Correro has directed several of the later works for his company.
“If you watch ‘The Mutilated’ and ‘Kingdom of Earth,’ he was still able to find the thread of humanity and put it into words, even if they weren’t as tightly pulled together as ‘Streetcar’ or ‘Cat’ or ‘Menagerie,’” Correro says.
The book delves into what elements of Williams’ work stem from his own experiences. Williams once worked at a shoe factory in St. Louis, like Tom in “Menagerie.” Stanley Kowalski, the brute from “Streetcar,” is named after a coworker from St. Louis.
There also is an appendix in the book dedicated to dispelling some rumors, such as whether Blanche DuBois is based on a man.
While the book serves as an excellent quick guide to the plays, it also reveals Williams himself.
“Breaking the glass on the museum case that surrounds Tennessee Williams has always been a guiding principle of mine,” Correro says. “Plays are alive and vital. Putting them under glass is not drama.”