This Saturday, the 26th, is the 100th birthday of playwright Tennessee Williams, and is the occasion for a festivals in St. Louis, New Orleans, Albuquerque, Provincetown, and other places. Not here, apparently. A year and a half ago, Clarence Brown Theatre did mount a memorably unusual production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Knoxville native Dale Dickey, since suddenly prominent for her work in the Oscar-nominated movie, Winter’s Bone, and featuring an arresting score by Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conductor Lucas Richman.
Though his paternal family was deeply Knoxvillian, Tennessee Williams never lived here, and most of his visits were short. One was almost exactly 54 years ago, when he attended the funeral and burial of his father Cornelius. Estranged from his wife, the elder Williams had been living here in his hometown, in hotels, as if he knew his stay would be temporary. Williams described his father’s burial in a published essay, “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair.” The Williams stones are near the front of Old Gray, some legible from the Broadway sidewalk: those of the father, C.C. Williams, and the playwright’s dearly eccentric Aunt Ella, and his grandfather, Thomas Lanier Williams II, whose proper name the playwright shared. The Williams family was once prominent here. The John Williams house, handsomely renovated, stands on Dandridge Avenue near the Williams Creek Golf Course. Williamses were soldiers, judges, senators, diplomats. You wonder whether the expectations of the politically prodigious Williams family in Knoxville was one reason why young Cornelius, whose destiny was in shoe sales, left town.
Tennessee Williams never wrote a play directly about Knoxville, but many have claimed to see Knoxville themes and characters in his plays. Aunt Ella ran a downtown dress and gift shop, and her unusual gift to Tennessee’s troubled sister Rose, who did spend some of her youth in Knoxville, is said to have been the model of the original Glass Menagerie. The name of the Louisiana mental institution in Suddenly Last Summer—Lion’s View—is no coincidence. Knoxville’s mental institution was then known as Lyons View, and the Williams family certainly would have been familiar with it.
I’ve written about Cornelius Williams’ 1957 burial before, and how Tennessee Williams was there and appalled some proper attendees when he obliged requests for autographs. I never heard until last week that another pretty well-known author was on hand. Over the last 60-odd years, David Madden has assembled an unusual career. Once mainly a novelist, short-story writer, and sometime critic, in his years as a writer in residence at LSU he became as well known as a Civil War scholar, and lately he’s been enjoying a late-life career as a performance artist of sorts, performing his own lines, portraying characters like the title role of his novel Sharpshooter. Now 77 and retired, sort of, Madden has moved back home, or the general region, to Black Mountain, N.C. He’s lately been spending more time in Knoxville than he has in recent decades, involved with organizations like the East Tennessee Civil War Alliance.
In 1957, Madden was living in a Laurel Avenue apartment with his new wife. At 23 he was already a veteran of both the Army and the merchant marines, and on top of that, a playwright with some reputation. Just a teenager when he’d won a statewide play-writing contest for his script, Call Herman in to Supper, the prodigy got to see it produced at UT. It was only after a local critic said it reminded him of Tennessee Williams that Madden started reading Williams’ plays. He felt some affinity for the famous playwright, in part, because he and Williams were both Southern, and short. At the time, Madden was working on Cassandra Singing, a play produced in several theaters across the country before he made a novel of it.
Recently, he passed around a written memory of that afternoon at Old Gray in March, 1957; he’d gone there just to catch a glimpse. “Standing on the sidewalk outside the iron fence, I saw Tennessee standing just under the tent,” he wrote. “He took one step forward, and one step backward, jerking down the back of his suit jacket, again and again, like a little dance. Short guy, I stood watching this short hero agitating himself.”
When I contacted him for more, Madden recalls it as a small service, only about 30 in attendance. The playwright wore a dark blue suit. Madden says there was nothing remarkable about him except his “agitation.”
“I somehow learned that Tennessee was staying at the Andrew Johnson Hotel—so, being a brash young playwright almost as talented, I thought, as my hero, I called him up....”
Madden deduced the playwright was the guy who registered at Knoxville’s finest hotel as “Thomas Williams,” his real name. Williams had no problem with late-night visitors, so Madden took the elevator up and heard what he thought were party noises in Williams’ room, but then realized it was the TV. “When he opened the door he was wearing the red pajamas that Marlon Brando wore in Streetcar,” Madden recalls. Williams offered to read Madden’s draft of Cassandra Singing; Williams’ own Orpheus Descending had just opened on Broadway, that week, with a main character similar to Madden’s Cassandra. In the room, Madden remembers talking about Baby Doll, the movie recently made from a Williams play. “I asked him many questions and he responded well, and in detail.”
“I saw him only once more,” Madden says, around 1967, when he was working on novel revisions at Random House. “He was walking with Gore Vidal on Fifth Avenue [the other one, in Manhattan] and called me by name, remembering me well, after 10 years. We corresponded a little. When he died, we were set to collaborate on my play Tennessee and Carson, about the time in Nantucket when he and Carson McCullers wrote at the same big kitchen table—he on Summer and Smoke, she adapting A Member of the Wedding.” It might have been pretty interesting.