Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2021. Pp.236, including notes, bibliography, index, and 36 photographs.
Tennessee Williams continues to attract biographical and critical studies from all over the world. John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014), Brenda Murphy’s The Theatre of Tennessee Williams (2014), James Grissom’s Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog (2015), Annette J. Saddik’s Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess: The Strange, the Crazed, the Queer (2015), and Dirk Gindt’s Tennessee Williams in Sweden and France, 1945-1965 (2019) stand as but a few of the more recent and important books to explore the life and works of Williams. Add to that list Henry I. Schvey’s Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams (2021), a beautifully written and illustrated book, one brimming with fresh critical insights. What immediately stands out is Schvey’s utter command of his material. The book will appeal to theatergoers and scholars interested in one of America’s greatest playwrights and his complicated relationship to a city he called home for some two decades, St. Louis. Although I have been teaching Williams and enjoying productions of numerous Williams plays for years, I still came away from this book with a much deeper appreciation of the plays, the playwright, and, especially, the extraordinary influence St. Louis exerted on Williams’s imagination. “This book is an attempt,” Schvey explains, “not so much to correct the record about Williams’s dislike of St. Louis, but to argue that the city was—for a plethora of reasons—absolutely indispensable to his formation and development as a person and an artist.” Schvey then makes the observation that both animates his study and powerfully shapes its thesis: “. . . Williams remained emotionally tethered to the city for the rest of his life.” (4) Indeed, although Williams would live in various cities—Key West, New Orleans, New York, Provincetown, Tangier—Schvey discovered in writing Blue Song that Williams “never really left” St. Louis “at all.” (xv)
Blue Song may seem like an odd choice for the book’s title, but that oddity quickly dissolves when Schvey reveals that while browsing in Faulkner House Books in New Orleans in 2004, the store owner showed the author “a folder of ephemera from Williams’s days in New Orleans” (xiii), and readers can sense the excitement a scholar feels when making an unexpected and important discovery.
After his concise Preface and Introduction spell out the scope and aims of the book, Schvey notes early on how most critics have long minimized the impact St. Louis had on the young Williams when, in fact, “Saint Pollution” and Tennessee Williams had “an extraordinarily complex relationship” and that the very “city that imprisoned his psyche . . . nourished and helped him liberate his art. . . . For better or worse, St. Louis was always with him.” (4) In 2011, theatergoers enjoyed the Tennessee Williams centennial, with countless special events appearing in North America, Europe, and elsewhere but, Schvey reminds us, “. . . there was literally nothing done to celebrate Williams’s legacy in the place he called home longer than any other: St. Louis, Missouri.” (3) Thus, early on, Schvey announces the purpose of his book: “. . . to clarify the importance of a city in the life and works of Tennessee Williams.” (5) By the time readers finish Blue Song, they recognize that Schvey has brilliantly succeeded in fulfilling that purpose. As Schvey observes, Williams’s “burial at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, however bizarre and ironic it might appear at first glance, was, in fact, not merely predictable but entirely appropriate. The writer who despised the city with unmatched ferocity was always destined to return to it in the end. Throughout his life, he had expressed his unequivocal hatred towards its conventionality. But, as Stanley says to Blanche, the two had this date from the very beginning.” (205)
Blue Song may seem like an odd choice for the book’s title, but that oddity quickly dissolves when Schvey reveals that while browsing in Faulkner House Books in New Orleans in 2004, the store owner showed the author “a folder of ephemera from Williams’s days in New Orleans” (xiii), and readers can sense the excitement a scholar feels when making an unexpected and important discovery. As Schvey explains,
To my amazement, there, among a sheaf of miscellaneous photos and documents, was a blue examination book of the kind still used at most universities. The booklet had its author’s name (“Th. Williams”) written on the cover in pencil, and upon opening it, I realized I was holding the failed Greek-examination booklet that was partly responsible for Williams’s leaving the [Washington] university. Stunned, I opened the pages of the blue book and saw something even more extraordinary: on the page following the exam was an original poem, scrawled in pencil, entitled “Blue Song.” An earlier title, I saw, lay underneath but had been erased: “Sad Song.” I trembled as I held this piece of literary history in my hands (xiii).
Thus, Schvey discovered the perfect title for his book. The passage above also captures the excitement and beauty of uncovering material that leads to original scholarship. “This short, unhappy, and discarded lyric offers a remarkable snapshot into Williams’s pivotal St. Louis years,” Schvey argues, especially in context of the playwright’s time at Washington University. (69)
Schvey proceeds, broadly speaking, in chronological order, tracing in Chapter One the Williams family move from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to St. Louis, Williams’s troubled and troubling home life, his checkered record as a slightly older college student at three universities (Washington University, the University of Missouri, and, finally, the University of Iowa, from which Williams graduated in 1938 as an English major). Schvey does an excellent job of capturing the traumatic nature of the family’s relocation to St. Louis: “As the Williams family emerged from the vaulting brick edifice of Union Station that July morning in 1918, they would have been greeted by the unfamiliar stench of coal dust and smoke, and the alien sight and sound of motorcars. It is not unlikely that Edwina [Williams’s mother] and Tom felt they had been uprooted from paradise to be transported into hell.” (16-17) Weaving biographical details with numerous references to Williams early poems such as “Cried the Fox” (1939) and “Demon Smoke” (1925) and early short stories, such as “Oriflamme” (1944) and “His Father’s House” (circa 1937), Schvey vividly recreates what it must have been like for the young Tom and his beloved sister Rose to grow up in St. Louis. Throughout Blue Song, he also weaves in numerous references to and perceptive analyses of Williams’s first major success, The Glass Menagerie (1944), which is set, of course, in St. Louis and which draws heavily from Williams’s own family. Readers of The Common Reader will especially enjoy Schvey’s accounts of Williams’s time at Washington University. By Chapter Eight, the last chapter, readers learn much about the last days of Williams’s troubled life.
By discussing not only the major plays but the later and lesser-known dramas and works of poetry and fiction, and by bringing in rich biographical details throughout his book, Schvey’s is a foundational work that changes, for the better, our understanding of Tennessee Williams and his art.
Schvey also does an excellent job of placing Williams within a larger narrative history of the American stage and global politics. Schvey writes perceptively about such well-known plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), The Night of the Iguana (1961), and the ways in which these classic Williams dramas enhanced the American stage. Moreover, when Schvey writes about Menagerie throughout Blue Song, readers will be struck time and time again by just how profound an influence St. Louis had on Williams’s life and art.
But Schvey is also at his best when discussing lesser-known plays, poems, and stories. To cite but one example, his discussion of A House Not Meant to Stand (1980-1982), Williams’s last play, is a model of scholarly excellence. It is a play, Schvey reminds us, where Williams yet again returns “to his own haunted St. Louis family to excavate material for this last play.” (199) It is also a play that stands as “a meditation on Williams’s past—specifically the St. Louis in the 1930s he captured so beautifully in The Glass Menagerie.” (200) By discussing not only the major plays but the later and lesser-known dramas and works of poetry and fiction, and by bringing in rich biographical details throughout his book, Schvey’s is a foundational work that changes, for the better, our understanding of Tennessee Williams and his art. His book emerges as much more than an account of an iconic playwright; it is equally a compelling account of a city thinking (or not thinking) in front of itself, and takes us deeply into the complex world of American politics, art, and culture.
Schvey’s latest book is the achievement of a fine and mature scholar; his work will be read and admired for years to come. Blue Song is, when appropriate, characterized by interpretive audacity, chastened only by sound scholarly scruple. As any serious critic knows, it is difficult to write with authority on such a well-known playwright, but Schvey has done the job with remarkable rigor, tact and critical penetration. His book is a multifoliate endeavor that locates Williams in delightful ways. Schvey has a story to tell, and he tells it with a narrative energy that sparkles, challenges, and educates. In sum, Schvey’s book has the panoptic reach and cultural depth to make it one of the major coordinates in St. Louis history and Tennessee Williams scholarship. As Schvey observes, “St. Louis was always more than a simple geographical location for Williams; it retained its permanent hold on his imagination through his family. . . . In a candid moment in 1974 when he was asked directly why he had left St. Louis behind, he replied simply, ‘I never left.’ Confessing that those unhappy years in St. Louis were far from wasted, he admitted, ‘I’m glad I spent those years there. . . . I was forced to become more and more introspective, and that made me a writer.’” (139-140)
As Schvey reminds us, Williams is, finally and incontrovertibly, a poet of the theater who himself discovers poetry in the broken lives which are the subjects of his plays, and in the broken society which they inhabit.
Schvey’s Blue Song confirms that Williams was, for many, the preeminent playwright of the postwar American theatre. The distinguishing marks of Williams’s dramas lie in his unique uses of language, dramatic form, and characters who struggle with the self and the other. Victims and victimizers, the pursued and the pursuer vie for a metaphorical, psychological, and spiritual space in his plays. Meanwhile, options slowly diminish. There are no real survivors, no remissions of pain. Spaces open up which prove unbridgeable. Necessity rules. Irony is constantly reborn from the frustrated desires of those who obey compulsions they would wish to resist. And yet there is a fractured poetry, there is an energy and a passion to the lives of those whose demons he stages. There is an intensity, a resonance, and a power which lifts them above their social insignificance, just as the plays themselves never compromise with the banality of surfaces. Williams is a mythmaker who deconstructs myths, a storyteller aware of the coercive power of story. As Schvey reminds us, Williams is, finally and incontrovertibly, a poet of the theater who himself discovers poetry in the broken lives which are the subjects of his plays, and in the broken society which they inhabit.
Tennessee Williams betokened to the theater world a body of work whose impact animates as it energizes the American stage. Bringing to the stage, as he did, the ironist’s sense of balance, the absurdist’s sense of futility, and, above all, the poet’s sense of loss, Williams staged original productions that defined selected public issues of the nation as reflected through the private anxieties of the individual. And thanks to Henry I. Schvey’s beautifully composed and meticulously researched book, we have now a deeper appreciation of those issues and anxieties that so haunted and motivated Tennessee Williams.