Mid-South News
4:28 pm
Mon March 21, 2011

Tennessee Williams Centential

Columbus, MS – On March 26, cities throughout the South will fete the 100th birthday of the late Tennessee Williams, the playwright who won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Perhaps nowhere is the centennial more anticipated than in Columbus, Mississippi.

It's a small, picturesque town dotted with literally hundreds of antebellum and Victorian homes. The welcome center, at 300 Main Street is also the house in which the infant Tom Williams spent the first three years of his life with his mother and grandparents. His father was a traveling salesman.

Brenda Caradine can be found here most Sundays giving tours. She's been instrumental in bringing awareness of the playwright to a town that for years barely acknowledged his legacy.

After moving to Columbus in 1993, the occasional actress launched an annual staging of a different play each fall. She befriended Williams' late brother, Dakin Williams, and other scholars across the country. Now, when Caradine looks around, she can point to dozens of things that may have influenced the future Tennessee Williams.

"The beautiful stained glass window in St. Paul's Episcopal Church is mentioned in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Caradine said. "I have been told this story: There is a plantation nearby. He was at a party there with his grandfather and they were all taking. One of the guys said, I own the largest plantation this side of the river Nile.' That line showed up in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I heard that they said, He was listening to every word we said!' He came back later and absorbed even more when he visited with his grandfather."

Among the artifacts that Caradine has obtained is a poet's laurel wreath that was on Williams' chest at his funeral. Dakin Williams bequeathed Williams' grandfather's cross to the house. Caradine says that a similar one can be seen in the film version of Night of the Iguana.

Later on, his family moved to Clarksdale, then St. Louis. Of course, historical markers in each of those cities speculate on how he translated his experiences into plays.

But another resident of Columbus can verify what was, perhaps, the most significant moment of his writing career. In the summer of 1934, Williams visited his retired grandfather at his home in Memphis. He lived near Southwestern University which is now Rhodes College. Because his grandfather was friends with the president, Payton Rhodes, Williams was allowed to use the school's library. There, he discovered the works of the playwright Anton Chekhov. More importantly, the struggling writer of short stories decided to try his hand at drama.

Ann Palmer, 93, may be the last living person to have seen Williams' first play, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay, staged in the backyard garden of a local woman who ran an amateur theater troupe called the Garden Players.

"As I remember we sat on the grass," Palmer said. "We watched it. They always had a nice crowd. Of course, Tennessee himself wrote that everybody laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy it."

The playwright described it as a "farcical but rather touching little comedy about two sailors on a date with a couple of 'light ladies.'"

Palmer's future husband, Ed, also happened to be in the show. "Ed was only 16 years old and he took part in some of those plays," Palmer said. "I think he was one of the sailors who was just making a lot of noise and boisterous."

Palmer, as it turns out, bore witness to a turning point in the playwright's career. In his memoirs, Tennessee Williams later wrote, "Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it's the only thing that saved my life."

Williams died in 1983, in New York City at age of 71.

Here is a list of some events surrounding the Centennial Birthday of Tennessee Williams.

Major Tennessee Williams Centennial Events:

In Columbus, MS:

For full list visit:

March 24: Tennessee Williams' Big Band Birthday Concert and Dance at Trotter Convention Center: A performance of the playwright's favorite tunes at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. Call 662-329-1191.

March 24 & 25: One act play A Strange Kind of Romance from the Provincetown, Mass. Tennessee Williams Festival. Tickets to the matinee performances both days include lunch ($15) or $7.50 for the evening performance, March 25. The show is one hour. Call 662-329-1191.

March 26: Birthday Celebration Day includes a party, free museum tours, the screening of the film The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond followed by discussion with director Jodie Markell, a Memphis native, and the unveiling of historical plaques. The Columbus Arts Council's spring gala and fundraiser that night is a costume party of characters from Williams' plays. Call 662-328-2787.

March 27: Scholars' Seminar Lecture: Staging Williams Mother, Edwina Dakin Williams at 2 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. 1-800-327-2686.

In Clarksdale, MS:

March 26: Spring Festival: Screening of the new Tennessee Williams documentary, The South is Everywhere. Lecture: From Delta to Beyond: America's Greatest Playwright by University of Alabama scholar Ralph Voss. Tours of St. George's Episcopal Church and porch plays featuring scenes from Williams' plays. Click here.

Oct. 14 and 15, 2011: Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival The 19th annual festival, sponsored by Coahoma Community College, will feature a mini-film festival of his films set in the Delta (Summer and Smoke, Orpheus Descending, Baby Doll and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Click here.

March 23-27: The 25th Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Major Events: World premiere of one-act plays (March 23); performance of The Glass Menagerie (March 25), various panel discussions and plays 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Tom and Rose: My Sister was Quicker at Everything than I and a birthday party for Tennessee Williams (March 26); Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest and panel on The Humor of Tennessee Williams (March 27). Events are in various locations. For information, visit tennesseewilliams.net or call 1-800-990-3378.