St. Louis, Tennessee Williams’ ‘Static City,’ celebrates his legacy for 8th year
Celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams moved to St. Louis as a child. He attended local high schools—Soldan and University City—and it was his experience as a laborer in St. Louis that inspired the settings of his first written works.
Although Williams later described the city with unconcealed disdain, it retains an undeniable role in his life and work. This week, for the eighth year running, St. Louis will celebrate his legacy through the Tennessee Williams Festival.
“There is the story that Williams really didn't like St. Louis. And I think part of that is true,” said Tom Mitchell, resident scholar for the Tennessee Williams Festival. “It was a dirty, smoky city that was unlike the small town in Mississippi where he'd come from. But I think even more, it was the family tension that made him carry really bad memories of St. Louis.”
Williams’ family inspired the characters and conflicts in his many legendary plays, including “Suddenly, Last Summer.” Its plot draws, in part, on Williams’ experience of witnessing his sister being placed in a mental institution, where she later underwent a lobotomy.
This year, the festival is staging performances of “Suddenly Last Summer” through Sept. 17. On Saturday, Mitchell is hosting a panel on the role of mental health in the play — what Williams wrote of as “madness.”
“He was very close to his sister. He was only a year younger than she was, was very clearly observing experience,” explained Mitchell. “He also had what we would call a severe anxiety attack in the mid-1930s. That led him to leave the job that he was working at, at the International Shoe Company, and leave town for several months to sort of pull himself together. It was after that breakdown that he came back to St. Louis and really began his career writing.”
Also on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Mitchell discussed his discovery of seven short stories Williams wrote while living in St. Louis in the 1930s. The stories were published in April as part of a collection “Caterpillar Dogs: and Other Early Stories.”
“There's a great deal to be enjoyed and discovered in looking at the early stories,” he said. “They tell us a lot about Williams, and they tell a lot about what St. Louis was like.”
What: Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
When: Sept. 7-17
Where: Multiple locations. See festival page for information on performances of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “The Glass Menagerie” from Teatr Baza on Sept. 13 and scholar panels on Sept. 9.
To hear more about what Mitchell discovered in Williams’ early short stories and Williams' life in St. Louis, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.
Editor's Note: The on-air version of this conversation incorrectly identified the dates of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. The festival runs Sept. 7-17.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.