[NEH / Public Domain]

Tennessee Williams and the Festival Inspired by Him

07:00 March 18, 2024
By: Reine Dugas

The Man, The Writer, The Festival

New Orleans isn't only about Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and good food—it also has a cozy bookish side.

For some time, New Orleans has been a literary hotspot and remains a creative destination where writers come to live and write—often about the city itself. Noted authors such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Kennedy Toole, Kate Chopin, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams have spent time here, feeling inspired by the history, culture, and bohemian quality of the city.

Tennessee Williams was certainly drawn to New Orleans, notably saying, "America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland." Williams left an indelible imprint on the city and writers who would follow him. But who exactly is Tennessee Williams?

Tennessee Williams [public domain]

The Man

Tennessee Williams, named Thomas Lanier Williams III, was born and grew up in Mississippi. Despite a difficult relationship with his father, Williams said he had a happy childhood. When the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, however, the young Williams had difficulty adjusting and turned to writing. As time went on, he suffered from depression and eventually had a nervous breakdown.

He was very close to his sister Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and whom he cared for when he was financially able. In 1938, Williams moved to New Orleans after graduating from the University of Iowa.

Once here, Williams changed his name and style, feeling drawn to the city in a life-changing way. He'd go on to write some of his most well-known plays during his time in New Orleans. Though Williams dated women in his early years, he embraced his homosexuality in the 1930s and would have several dramatic, tumultuous relationships with men until he fell in love with Frank Merlo, the man he'd spend 14 years with.

Always a sensitive and often troubled person, Williams' later years were especially difficult, and he began to use alcohol and drugs to such a degree that his brother had him admitted to a hospital in 1969. Williams died in 1983 in a hotel in New York City, with toxic levels of Seconal ultimately found in his system.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams [Signet Books]

The Writer

Upon first arriving in New Orleans to write for the Works Progress Administration, Williams lived in the French Quarter (431 Royal St. and 722 Toulouse St. were two of his abodes). More than just a place to live, the 722 Toulouse St. apartment served as a source of inspiration for Williams and turned up in his writing on more than one work.

More than a playwright, Williams also wrote short stories and poetry. Williams' style is decidedly Southern Gothic, with a strong sense of place, crumbling old buildings, themes of destitution, decay, and isolation. Perhaps his overriding theme is the notion of how people handle human confinement and the search for communication and love. His characters often display symptoms of psychological problems and trauma.

Williams was not nationally known until he found success in 1944 with The Glass Menagerie. Following that were A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and a string of successful plays thereafter. Several of Williams' plays were produced on Broadway including Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Sweet Bird of Youth, and more. For his work, he received several New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, a Tony Award, and two Pulitzer Prizes.

Some of his plays were made into movies, but the most famous must be Streetcar, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The iconic "Stellaaaa!" shout that Brando belts out is well-known and has even become part of the festival celebrating Williams in its kick-off event—the Stella Shouting Contest.

"Stella" shouting contest winner [courtesy Tennesssee Williams Festival]

The Festival

Not many writers have festivals in their honor, but Williams was so important and beloved as a playwright and a New Orleans' resident that each March, the Tennessee Williams and New Orleans Literary Festival (TWFest) celebrates all things Tennessee Williams. A five day literary event, the festival is a lively mix of literary and scholarly panels, author readings, master classes, musical events, and theater performances.

Managing Director Tracy Cunningham says, "The TWFest was never designed to be a typical book festival but instead embodies the spirit of Tennessee Williams and the bohemian nature of our city. As it has grown over the decades, the festival has added events to meet the desires of its diverse audiences and also promotes artists whose work exists beyond the boundaries of traditional theater."

People come from all over the country (and some from outside the country, too) to participate in this event. Unlike some festivals that can be impersonal or difficult to navigate, the TWFest is intimate, accessible, and warm. Taking place mostly in the Hotel Monteleone, participants and guests mingle as they walk from one session to the next and then catch a play or music set later in the evening.

This year's festival features Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, National Book Award winner Justin Torres, Maureen Corrigan, Margot Douaihy, Colm Toibin, Wendy Chin-Tanner, Anya Groner, Adrian Van Young, Jess Armstrong, Louisiana Poet Laureate Alison Pelegrin, and many more.

As part of the TWFest, which runs March 20-24, the LGBTQ+ Saints and Sinners Fest is from March 22-24 and the Last Bohemia Fringe Festival happens from March 21-24. There's something for everyone, with the unifying thread among the festivals being a focus on literature, community, and fun.

Young Adult Fiction Panelists [courtesy Tennessee Williams Festival
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