Tennessee Williams turns 100: The Chicago years

March 23, 2011

This Saturday (March 26) the world will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Tennessee Williams, whose friends called him “Ten.” I had the pleasure of meeting him four or five times over the years, and he liked me so much he said I could call him “Eight.” Tennessee (real name Thomas Lanier) Williams bestrode the theaters of the Western World like a colossus throughout the 1940's, the 1950's and the 1960's before his star began to fade, although he never stopped writing. Late in life he bitterly commented to a rising young playwright, “They’ll burn you out before your thirty.” An odd comment for a man who led a truly bohemian young adulthood and didn’t achieve lasting success until he was 33. That lasting success first occurred in Chicago, setting the stage for Williams' long if irregular association with our city, which hosted the world premieres of his first great hit and his last completed play, and several in between.

“The Glass Menagerie,” the play that brought Williams money, fame and critical adulation, had its world premiere at the Civic Theatre in Chicago on a very cold Dec. 26, 1944, and was championed by local theater critics Ashton Stevens and Claudia Cassidy. Williams returned to the Civic Theatre in 1961 for the world premiere of “The Night of the Iguana,” starring Bette Davis. His next Chicago world premiere was not as fortunate: it was the two-character “Out Cry“ at the Ivanhoe Theatre in 1971. The production was the occasion of an explosive argument that ended the relationship between Williams and his agent of 30 years, the redoubtable Audrey Wood. In his last years, Williams was nurtured by the Goodman Theatre under artistic director Gregory Mosher. Three Williams one-act plays were premiered in the old Goodman Studio Theatre in 1980, and Williams expanded one of them into his final full-length play, “A House Not Meant to Stand,” which was staged at the Goodman in 1981. Williams died in 1983.

Williams was a friend of several notable Chicago theater figures, especially director George Keathley and producer Hope Abelson. Keathley was artistic director of the Ivanhoe Theatre in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. He also was Williams’ neighbor in Key West, FL, so it wasn’t surprising that Keathley staged several Williams plays and also was able to score the coup of the “Out Cry” world premiere. Abelson had been a young assistant producer in New York in the early 1950’s, working on the Broadway production of Williams’ non-realistic play, “Camino Real.” The production was a “succes d’estime” at best, but Abelson and Williams remained life-long friends.

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