Tennessee Williams’ St. Louis Blues

Theater critic Judy Newmark wrote a piece in the St. Louis Jewish Light on Henry Schvey's new book, Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams, a version of which she features on her blog, Judy, Act II, which we highlight below.

Seventeen years ago, browsing in a New Orleans bookstore, Henry I. Schvey made a once-in-a-lifetime discovery: An unpublished, entirely unknown poem by Tennessee Williams.

Smoke pollution over St. Louis at mid-day on Black Tuesday, 11 November 1939. Photograph, 1939. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints collections. St. Louis Views. n14587.

Today, the title of that poem is the title of Schvey’s new book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams” (University of Missouri Press, $40).

“I didn’t know it then,” said Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University. “But that poem (“Blue Song”) brought Tennessee Williams in St. Louis to life for me.

“In some way, I identified.”

Washington U. made the first, and most obvious, connection. Schvey has served on its faculty for 34 years; Williams wrote the poem, by hand, in the “blue book” in which he took his final exam in Greek.

The Greek class was not a highlight of his brief career on the Hilltop Campus. In his journal the night before the test, Williams sounds despondent. “I will undoubtedly flunk,” he predicts. He was right. 

But the sad, lovely poem, evidently unnoticed by the Greek professor, instantly struck Schvey as “poignant and powerful.”

There are more connections, too, including a coincidence that Schvey discovered while researching his book: He and the playwright once shared a Manhattan address, 15 West 72nd Street.

A teenager at the time, Schvey lived with his family on the twenty-fifth floor. Williams lived on the thirty-third. They didn’t know each other. Still, Schvey loves the idea that they may have shared a smile or a “hello” on the elevator.

The biggest coincidence, though, is that both of them embraced a New York-St. Louis trajectory – though in opposite directions.

For Williams, St. Louis was a heartless trap that would sooner or later destroy him, just as it destroyed his beloved sister, Rose. (She was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy.) Yet it was here that he became a poet and a playwright, developing themes and imagery that he would continue to explore throughout his life.  

 

Continue reading here.

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