During that 1936-37 school year, he was still known as Thomas Lanier Williams -- Tom to his friends, of whom there were precious few. At age 26 he was older than most of his classmates, who included such future literary luminaries as Shepherd Mead (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and A.E. Hotchner (crony of Ernest Hemingway and Paul Newman). But already Williams had made a covenant with himself to write. His poems appeared in the school's literary magazine, a short story was published in a national periodical, his fledgling one-act plays found productions around town.
At Wash. U., all semester long in English XVI (which was essentially a playwriting class), Williams submitted sensitive character sketches based on his mother Edwina and sister Rose. It was generally assumed that for the class's annual playwriting contest he would provide those characters with a plot. And a first-place win, or even second or third, would ensure a student production.
But Williams defied expectations by instead submitting Me, Vashya, a blunt anti-war tract ("Death is our chief preoccupation these days") that focuses on a worldly, egomaniacal munitions magnate named Sir Vashya Shontine. Nine times in twenty minutes, this paranoid protagonist boastfully refers to himself as "me, Vashya." Hence the title. Williams placed a distant fourth in the competition, behind both Mead and Hotchner. At the end of the spring term he transferred to the University of Iowa, where, among other things, he acquired the sobriquet "Tennessee."
For decades now, scholars and biographers have sought to attribute Williams' hasty departure from St. Louis to the rejection of Me, Vashya. But it is a tenuous attribution. So many other things were going wrong in his life -- an overdoting mother, a remote father, a sister so mentally disturbed that in the fall of '37 she would undergo a prefrontal lobotomy -- that the son's escape was inevitable, necessary and perhaps even overdue.
Indeed, soon after he removed himself from the confines of his suffocating home, Williams was able to transmute pain into art. Those preliminary college sketches of Edwina and Rose evolved into The Glass Menagerie, the St. Louis memory play that is arguably his supreme and most ethereal achievement.
So it is with a sense of belated symmetry that this week Washington University will stage the world premiere of Me, Vashya as a curtain-raiser to a student production of The Glass Menagerie. Then next week the dual bill will provide the centerpiece for the Performing Arts Department's Tennessee Williams International Symposium (February 12 through 14). Titled "The Secret Year," the symposium, which kicks off with an opening reception at the Jewel Box in Forest Park, will be packed with performances, lectures and exhibits. Some highlights: A February 13 discussion with Dakin Williams, Tennessee's younger brother, and, later that afternoon, a staging of five early Williams plays as well as a rare screening of the 1950 film version of The Glass Menagerie, starring Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, Arthur Kennedy and Kirk Douglas. (The movie has never been released on video or DVD, so this showing registers as an event.) Saturday brings a screening of the 1987 movie version of Menagerie, starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Karen Allen and James Naughton. On both days, bus tours will visit sites linked to Williams' life and works. (For more, see our online listings at www.riverfronttimes.com or call 314-935-7025. And keep an eye out for next week's Night & Day section.)
With so many lectures, surely much will be made of Williams' celebrated dislike of St. Louis. At various times throughout his career, he described the Gateway City as "cold, smug, complacent, intolerant, stupid, provincial, materialistic." But in his later years he came to realize that the burg itself was not at fault for his domestic problems. In 1975 a more meditative Williams acknowledged that because the first seven years of his life, spent in the Deep South, were so idyllic, "Had we gone to Detroit or Cleveland, anyplace, it would have been the same, I suppose. It was just such an awful change in environment from Mississippi."
Two years after he said that, Williams made a triumphant return to Washington University and remarked that he had "really fond" memories of campus life, especially the poetry club, Eliot magazine and the swimming pool. "Actually," the playwright confided, "the only happy times I had in St. Louis were at Washington University."
Other speakers will want to dissect Me, Vashya. But if anyone suggests that Vashya and his deranged, hallucinating wife Lady Shontine are the chalky outlines for better-etched characters in Williams' later plays, try not to notice the stretch marks on those who proffer them. Perhaps a more intriguing comparison is to be made -- not between Lady Shontine and Blanche DuBois -- but between Williams and playwriting rival Arthur Miller. How serendipitous it is, then, that during the same two weekends when Williams' 1937 pre-World War II comedy about a war profiteer is debuting at the A.E. Hotchner Theatre, Arthur Miller's 1947 post-World War II drama about a war profiteer, All My Sons, will be staged by Off Center Theatre Company.
From the time both writers established their Broadway footholds in the 1940s, right up until Williams' death at age 72 in 1983, each of these giants was jealous of the other's strengths. Except for early efforts like Me, Vashya and the occasional late misfire like The Red Devil Battery Sign, Williams' writing rarely displayed a social conscience; wary of Miller's ferocious passion, Williams would dismiss plays like All My Sons as "message dramas." Miller, whose striving for dramatic poetry usually fell short of eloquence, would criticize Williams' writing style as manifesting "a weakness for verbal adornment for its own sake." It was left to critics and audiences to engage in worthless debates about whether A Streetcar Named Desire was superior to Death of a Salesman.
Miller today continues to write; at age 88 he is an almost toothless lion who has fueled his life with anger. Williams, although he died more than twenty years ago, lived to see his unique gifts diluted by alcohol and dulled by drugs. Yet this weekend and next, both of these master playwrights will be restored to youthful vigor. Their young idealism, zeal and perseverance should serve as an admonition to today's fledgling writers: Make the most of your secret years now, because the public years, should they come, might not be as fulfilling as they're thought to be.