Drama and decadence
Tennessee Williams drew inspiration from the characters who lived in America’s deep south
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
A porch play during the Tennessee Williams Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, above; the