About The Film from director Karen Kohlhaas

This documentary started at the last possible minute. As a theater director and teacher, I have loved the plays of Tennessee Williams for decades, but it was not until I visited the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale that I began to learn the extent of his history there. At first it seemed too late to make this film, but during the town’s Tennessee Williams 100th birthday celebration a few years ago, two ladies approached me at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where Williams’ grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, had been a beloved priest. One lady said, “I’m Brick’s niece!” The other, “I’m Stella’s granddaughter!” And so filming began.

Since then, I’ve been on a fascinating journey, tracing Williams’ childhood and teenage years in Mississippi towns, and in the memories of Mississippi people. The whole time, I have been the recipient of Mississippians’ continual generosity: they have given their stories, family photographs, lodging, meals, equipment storage, and their companionship. They have let me comb through attics, church basements, and library archives, and have made it possible to interview over 50 members of their communities. Williams’ Mississippi story also spread to interviews in New Orleans, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Cambridge, and to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where I had the honor of interviewing former US Poet Laureate William Jay Smith, author of My Friend Tom, who wrote with Williams in college and befriended him throughout his life. I have also had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kenneth Holditch, whose book, Tennessee Williams and the South, is essential reading.

Williams embedded the Mississippi Delta in his writing more than most people realize. Williams lived in Clarksdale for a few years as a child, and as he grew up, returned regularly to visit his grandparents after moving with his parents and sister to St. Louis. He immortalized his Delta neighbors by naming characters Blanche, Stella, Brick, Wingfield, Venable, Cutrere, and Baby Doll. Most of them were his grandfather’s parishoners, and are listed in Mr. Dakin’s old parish register (see right). There are two Delta families in particular who appear in some of Williams’ greatest plays in various ways, and this film will tell their stories. The story of another famous namesake begins in Williams’ birthplace of Columbus, Mississippi, and ends tragically in Clarksdale.

Williams used many Delta landmarks and towns as settings, such as Moon Lake, the Sunflower River, Lyon, and Friar’s Point, as well as the Carnegie Public Library, the Alcazar Hotel and several other businesses. He referred to actual events and people, such as the Delta visits of famed evangelist Gipsy Smith (KINGDOM OF EARTH, THE GLASS MENAGERIE) and the tragic death in Clarksdale of blues legend Bessie Smith (ORPHEUS DESCENDING).

Those people, places and events are all factual, but there also are town stories that the film will speculate on, such as a lonely music teacher falling in love with her neighbor, the town bad boy (Summer and Smoke); a glamorous young woman from a prominent family who was a political activist and scandalized her family (Orpheus Descending);  and a young man’s drunken attempt to hurdle the bronze elk in front of the elk’s club resulting in a broken ankle (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof); which may have inspired plots Williams plays.

 


The span of ages during which Williams was most often in the Mississippi Delta: approximately ages 6—20. Later, he returned with, or sent, artists working on his plays and films, such as actress Barbara Bel Geddes and director Elia Kazan.


Detail of Rev. Dakin’s parish register from St. George’s Episcopal Church showing Williams’ parents Edwina and Cornelius, and their neighbor Mr. Wingfield.


William Jay Smith
US Poet Laureate, friend of Williams, and author of “My Friend Tom.”


Detail of 1917-1921 registration book from Clarksdale’s Carnegie Public Library. At the time, Thomas Lanier (later Tennessee) Williams lived in the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church, at 106 Sharkey Avenue.

This is a film for history lovers. Williams was immersed in the Delta’s grandeur, grittiness, and frontier-like atmosphere in the time of World War I, economic booms and busts, Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, Jim Crow laws, and the approach of the Great Depression. In the Delta today, it seems like history sits on the surface, in plain sight. The weathered downtown buildings were regular sights for the young Tom Williams and his sister Rose, and they played in many of the Victorian houses that still stand near St. George’s Episcopal Church. In the acres of surrounding fields, reminders of the tenant farming system can be seen in the skeletons of overgrown sharecroppers’ shacks and seed houses that are etched into the landscape. At night, you can hear the best, most authentic Blues music, because the Delta is “where the Blues was born.” At Clarksdale’s Carnegie Public Library, I found an old registration book from 1921, with the young Tennessee Williams’ name and address written on the last page (see above).

This is a film for theater artists, teachers, and students. Though his great Delta characters are loved and understood by artists and audiences all over the world, I think it’s essential to study the people, history, society and sounds of the Delta in order to fully do them justice.

“This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts.”
—CAROL CUTRERE
ORPHEUS DESCENDING

The Delta was one of the very last southern regions to be cleared and farmed. The early pioneers and the slaves forced to come with them faced dense, primeval forests, animal predators, disease, and isolation in the quest to clear “the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.” The fertile land had been created from centuries of flooding by the Mississippi River, which regularly distributed topsoil from 30 northern states into the Delta’s floodplain. By the time Williams and his family moved there in 1917, Clarksdale was called “The Golden Buckle On the Cotton Belt” and “Little New York”. There was plenty of grand living done by the planters who reaped cotton’s profits, but the Delta’s atmosphere in the early 20th century was still closer to the Wild West than to Gone With the Wind.

Williams’ story is inspiring to young people, and to all artists. Williams was quiet as a kid, the classic outsider and observer. He was often branded a ‘sissy’ by other children—and by his own father. From age 12 or 13, when his mother gave him a typewriter, he developed a ferocious work ethic. By the time of his breakthrough success of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, he had been writing for about twenty years. To comprehend the sheer amount of writing he did, through failure and intense self doubt, and then through enormous success and everything that came with it, is moving, inspiring, and empowering. Williams made regular observations about his life as a writer, several of which will be featured as motifs throughout the film.

EUNICE: You come from Mississippi, huh?
BLANCHE: Yes.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

The full story of Williams’ Mississippi years has not yet been told. When you ask them, most people still seem to know who Tennessee Williams was. Many have heard of Blanche DuBois and the kindness of strangers. But even some theater people don’t know that, like Blanche, Tennessee Williams came from Mississippi. To date, no biography or documentary has focused exclusively on Williams’ Mississippi background. In this film, I want to explore the place he lived in and returned to as he grew up, during a very particular time in history, and how deeply its atmosphere and people inspired some of his greatest writing.

His plays are about the “love of things irreconcilable.”  The film’s subtitle is a line Williams loved, from his idol, the poet Hart Crane. Williams observed and experienced the best and the worst of human behavior in the culture around him and within his own life with his family. His most cherished and most painful impressions of his Mississippi childhood became fuel for the raw and sensitive lyricism he developed as a writer. The results were plays that astonished audiences and forever changed the American and world theater. Tennessee Williams’ deep sense of the yearning for tenderness and understanding of the human heart was forged in a time and place of both brutality and elegance.

—Karen Kohlhaas

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Moon Lake, a large and beautiful ‘oxbow’ lake, is featured in most of Williams’ Delta plays.

During an interview with Williams done while one of his plays was in rehearsal, he overheard the director instructing the actor to be angry about his losses at gambling. Williams said, “Do you think I should interrupt them? No Southerner should be angry in that situation. He would think it was funny. But that’s something the North doesn’t understand.”


Blanche Cutrer
Williams’ grandfather officiated at her opulent wedding in 1921, while Williams was living in Clarksdale.

The recipient of countless awards, Williams said, “The greatest honor one can confer upon a writer is a good morning’s work.”


Mrs. Corneille Miles
Baptized by, and the goddaughter of, Williams’ grandfather Mr. Dakin; music student of Mrs. Dakin.


Mr. Frank L. “Rat” Ratliff
Rat owned the Riverside Hotel, a Mississippi Blues Trail landmark and the site of the death in 1937 of blues singer Bessie Smith.