Drama and decadence

Ten­nessee Wil­liams drew inspiration from the char­ac­ters who lived in Amer­ica’s deep south

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - CHRIS COPLANS

ON a glo­ri­ous balmy af­ter­noon, with the mer­cury hov­er­ing around the 25C mark, I sit, iced tea in hand, un­der the shade of one of the sweep­ing oak trees that grace the lawns of many of Clarks­dale’s his­toric homes. I am wait­ing for the first of the porch plays, the high­light of Clarks­dale’s an­nual Ten­nessee Wil­liams Fes­ti­val.

Wil­liams, who was born a cen­tury ago on March 26, 1911, is the play­wright cred­ited with sav­ing Amer­i­can theatre in the 1950s. He spent his for­ma­tive years in Clarks­dale, at the heart of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta. He lived in the rec­tory of St Ge­orge’s Epis­co­pal Church on Sharkey Av­enue with his grand­fa­ther, who served as rec­tor. It was in Clarks­dale that the young Wil­liams min­gled with an ar­ray of bizarre South­ern ec­centrics who later mor­phed into some of his best-known char­ac­ters: Blanche DuBois, Big Daddy and Baby Doll.

I have ar­rived in Clarks­dale af­ter a cou­ple of nights at nearby Un­cle Henry’s Place, over­look­ing Moon Lake. Con­cealed in a maze of coun­try back­roads, it’s a rus­tic delta B& B run by a Mis­sis­sippi ec­cen­tric. As a child, Wil­liams vis­ited Henry’s Place with his grand­fa­ther, and later re­ferred to it as Moon Lake Casino in many of his plays. More re­cently, it’s at­tracted the likes of Robert Plant and other rock­ers in search of the blues.

Clarks­dale hon­ours Wil­liams with a fes­ti­val ev­ery Oc­to­ber. Ac­tors from across the south per­form scenes from Wil­liams’s plays on the front porches of some of the town’s most im­pres­sive an­te­bel­lum homes. The first of these is de­layed slightly on my visit when it turns out that the acting part­ner of the ac­tor Johnny McPhail, from Ox­ford, Mis­sis­sippi, is a no-show. With true south­ern style, McPhail takes a solo turn on the columned porch and en­ter­tains us with spicy Wil­liams mono­logues.

Then, on a Vic­to­rian clap­board porch at a nearby home, girls from a high-school drama group per­form mono­logues. They are fol­lowed by two boys who per­form the piv­otal scene be­tween Big Daddy and Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. With their sonorous south­ern tones, the young ac­tors per­fectly cap­ture the spirit of Wil­liams’s melo­dra­matic char­ac­ters.

Fi­nally, as the shad­ows lengthen on the lawns, Sher­rye Wil­liams — who, I am told, is the real south­ern deal — gives us some spir­ited scenes from The Glass Menagerie. An­swer­ing ques­tions af­ter­wards, she tells us in an in­tox­i­cat­ing drawl laced with un­spo­ken south­ern in­nu­endo: ‘‘My aunt was Baby Doll, who Ten­nessee took such lib­er­ties with.’’

The next day I head south to the city most associated with Wil­liams: New Or­leans. I take High­way 61, that most iconic of Amer­i­can roads, which cuts through the heart of the pan­cake-flat Mis­sis­sippi Delta, de­scribed by Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as ‘‘the rich­est land this side of the Val­ley Nile’’. Cross­ing the Mis­sis­sippi river into Louisiana, I fol­low a small back­road to the south’s largest sur­viv­ing plan­ta­tion home, Not­toway. The pro­duc­ers of Gone with the Wind tried and failed three times to use it as Tara. Re­cently, it was used in the film­ing of a long­for­got­ten Ten­nessee Wil­liams screen­play, The Loss of a Teardrop Di­a­mond. Set on 2800ha, this grande dame of plan­ta­tion homes oozes south­ern grace and is per­fect for a night of Ten­nessee grandeur. It’s sep­a­rated from the Mis­sis­sippi only by the levee.

New Or­leans is where God­fear­ing Amer­i­cans come to for­get both God and fear­ing in equal mea­sure. In­stead, they grav­i­tate to Bour­bon Street, the French Quar­ter’s best-known fo­cus, which can some­times seems like a bad night in Benidorm, but with larger, louder rev­ellers.

I have been se­duced by the ex­otic charms of New Or­leans from the mo­ment I set foot on its jazz- in­fused streets many years ago. This lit­tle bit of the Caribbean, laced with an African beat and fused on to main­land Amer­ica, cap­ti­vates all who walk its j asmine-scented cob­bled lanes and wide, leafy boule­vards. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see how Wil­liams was in­stantly smit­ten. When he first ar­rived in 1939, he promptly lost his vir­gin­ity, com­ment­ing later: ‘‘I en­tered the deca­dent world of New Or­leans and dis­cov­ered the flex­i­bil­ity of my sex­ual na­ture.’’

Ini­tially, Wil­liams rented a num­ber of sleazy rooms and flop­houses, but I am more for­tu­nate. I stay in the Ten­nessee Wil­liams Suite at the stately Ho­tel Monteleone, the French Quar­ter’s old­est and finest ho­tel. Wil­liams stayed here with his grand­fa­ther, but only af­ter the suc­cess of A Street­car Named De­sire. The Monteleone’s lobby houses a re­mark­able lit­tle shrine to the lit­er­ary gi­ants who have graced its rooms, in­clud­ing Wil­liam Faulkner, Ernest Hem­ing­way, Eu­dora Welty and Richard Ford. Most of them drank co­pi­ous amounts of liquor in the ho­tel’s re­volv­ing Carousel Bar, which may have led to Tru­man Capote’s claim to have been born in the ho­tel. (A slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion: al­though his mother was liv­ing in the ho­tel, she gave birth in a nearby hos­pi­tal.)

My lit­er­ary itin­er­ary con­tin­ues with Ken­neth Holditch’s Ten­nessee Wil­liams tour of New Or­leans. Holditch, a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of New Or­leans and a lead­ing Wil­liams scholar, could him­self have walked straight out of a Wil­liams play.

Ap­par­ently he not only knew Wil­liams but was at school with Elvis in Mem­phis. ‘‘We call New Or­leans ‘the city that care for­got’,’’ Holditch says, ‘‘be­cause we don’t care what you do here as long as we can talk about it.’’

I start Holditch’s tour in Jack­son Square, where Wil­liams’s me­mo­rial ser­vice was held in St Louis Cathe­dral. The wrought­iron bal­cony of the Pon­abella

PIC­TURES: CHRIS COPLANS (MAIN); PHOTOLIBRARY (BE­LOW LEFT); COR­BIS (BE­LOW RIGHT)

A porch play dur­ing the Ten­nessee Wil­liams Fes­ti­val in Clarks­dale, Mis­sis­sippi, above; the

Ten­nessee Wil­liams

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