Tennessee Williams made no secret of his disdain for St. Louis — he dubbed the hated city his family moved to when he was 7 “St. Pollution.” The acclaimed playwright would surely be pleased that most fans of his work associate him more closely with New Orleans, Key West or even Mississippi.
But should they? In his eye-opening new book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams,” Henry I. Schvey argues that the Gateway City was absolutely indispensable in shaping Williams’ work and launching him as an artist. He notes that Williams not only lived in St. Louis longer than any other place, for 20 years, but that the city continued to exert a powerful hold on his imagination after he left — and ultimately claimed him in death.
Henry Schvey is a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University.
“Williams was addicted to escaping St. Louis from first to last,” Schvey writes. “It was the great triumph of his life that, unlike his sister, he did manage to literally leave it behind. … However, it was his life’s tragedy that for all his desperate attempts, Tom Williams never really left home. The imagination and willpower that allowed him to devote his life to writing also kept forcing him to return home again in his imagination.”
Schvey’s book fleshes out this oft-neglected period in Williams’ development, exploring not only his stints at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University (yes, he studied at Wash U — a fact Williams himself studiously omitted from his memoirs) but his work writing for the Webster Groves Theatre Guild.
Schvey also examines why Williams hated St. Louis with such passion, tracing his anger to the family problems that were exacerbated by leaving Mississippi, where Williams’ father worked as a traveling salesman, and coming together under one roof in a city that at the time was, yes, extremely polluted. By studying Williams’ forgotten works, along with hit plays inspired by his family like “The Glass Menagerie” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” he allows the reader to understand just how much St. Louis meant to Williams’ work, even though he himself could only derisively acknowledge the city’s influence.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Schvey will join us to discuss his new book and the remarkable primary sources he drew on in exploring Williams’ life and work.
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“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 hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.