Speaking at Mississippi University for Women”s Carrier Chapel on a day that would be capped by “An Evening with Olympia Dukakis,” the Academy Award-winning actress lauded for her performances of Tennessee Williams” leading female roles, two preeminent students of Williams” work shared their musings on the legendary Southern playwright.
The Scholars Panel concluded the academic portion of the 2009 Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour, which wraps up today with a service and luncheon at St. Paul”s Episcopal Church, tours of Victorian Homes and performances of scenes from Williams” work at the Rosensweig Arts Center.
Dr. Robert West, associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, was up first with his presentation: “As Though They Wished to Stay: Tennessee Williams” Love Lyrics,” an examination of Williams” poetic themes and styles, much of which predated his dramatic work.
“If he had never written plays, (Williams”) body of work in lyric would still deserve our attention,” said West.
In fact, Williams had been recognized for his acclaimed poetry via his inclusion in anthologies highlighting young, promising, American poets before anyone knew him as a playwright.
His musings on love and lust, in particular, are of note. A recurring theme in his poetry is the attempt to absorb and inhabit fleeting moments, thereby extending them as long as possible.
His poem “Across the Space” captures a scene between two lovers following sex and the complex blend of thoughts and emotions, not all of them positive, that accompany the moment.
“Williams was saying, ”This moment won”t last and you must cherish it,”” explained West.
While much of his work focused on soberly capturing existential moments, other pieces, such as “Life Story,” painted comedic, cynical pictures of typical moments between lovers.
Williams” fluctuation in the severity of his subject matter is matched by his employment of various techniques. Some of his poems utilize rigid meter and rhyme schemes while others are written in free verse.
”Wrote lovingly” of state
Speaking also on the topic of Williams” subject matter Saturday was Dr. Kenneth Holditch, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Orleans and author of several books on Williams.
Holditch”s interest isn”t as much on what Williams wrote, but rather, where — specifically, the landscape of Mississippi in Williams” plays.
“I”ve always said Tennessee Williams should have been hired by the chamber of commerce of Mississippi. He”s always written so lovingly of the state,” said Holditch.
He says that sense of love and culture inevitably found its way into the characters Williams created.
“It”s hard to imagine how (his characters) could have been shaped by any other landscape,” said Holditch.
But the influence isn”t a literal reflection, as Holditch points out the settings of Williams” first two major plays, “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” are not real-time representations of Mississippi, but “enhanced recollections.”
Although Williams spent only his early childhood in Mississippi and his family left Columbus when he was 2 years old, Holditch said Williams insists he remembers living in Columbus and Clarksdale.
He says subsequent return visits likely refreshed Williams” memories and inspired his writing.
“Tennessee came to the Delta at such an early age that his memory of other environments may have become dim,” said Holditch.
Dr. Serena Blount, an English professor at the University of Alabama who presented “Tired of Speech and Action: The Poetry of Tennessee Williams,” Thursday at MUW, said Saturday”s presentation lent greater depth to the understanding of Williams” body of work.
“Dr. West”s presentation was conversant to the one I did,” said Blount. “And Dr. Holditch is a transcendent speaker.”
Arslan Arshad, a junior at Mississippi School for Math and Science, whose family is originally from Pakistan, said the presentations served to deepen his understanding of Columbus and Mississippi in addition to shedding light on Williams” work.
“It”s interesting to find out about his past. How he grew up and the funny things he had to write about,” said Arshad. “He had a way of portraying things that”s interesting to me. He portrays a lot in allegory. There”s a lot of symbolism in his plays.”
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.