International symposium on Tennessee Williams Feb. 12-14

Will include world premiere of *Me Vashya*

Tennessee Williams lost a playwriting contest?

It happened in 1937, when Williams placed fourth in a Washington University competition, behind classmates Shepherd Mead (who would go on to write How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and A.E. Hotchner (author of Papa Hemingway, among others).

It was a brutal blow for the shy, young Williams, who uncharacteristically stormed into his professor’s office before storming out of St. Louis altogether. He would go on to expunge the play — a broad, antiwar farce titled Me Vashya — from his list of works and the University from his 1975 Memoirs.

In the years since, Me Vashya has become something of a legend among Williams scholars, representing a pivotal moment, both artistically and personally, in the playwright’s life. Still, the work — which tells the story of corrupt, self-made arms dealer Vashya Shontine and his mad, Blanche DuBois-like wife — has languished in obscurity and has never been published or produced.

Until now.

In February, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences will present the world premiere of Me Vashya as part of an international symposium focusing on Williams’ early career. “Tennessee Williams: The Secret Year” will be held Feb. 12-14.

In addition to Me Vashya — which will be introduced by the playwright’s brother, Dakin Williams — the symposium will include performances of The Glass Menagerie and a program of five early short works; lectures by Williams scholars; an exhibition of photographs and manuscripts; and a bus tour of Williams-related historical sites.

Shock and humiliation

Literary St. Louis: A Guide was edited by William H. Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, and Lorin Cuoco for the International Writers Center (now The Center for the Humanities) in Arts & Sciences and published in 2000 by the Missouri Historical Society.

According to Literary St. Louis, Williams spent much of the 1936-37 academic year drafting short sketches of his mother and sister, foreshadowing his early masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. These sketches were highly praised and often read aloud to the class by Professor William Carson, and it was generally assumed that they would win the University’s annual playwriting competition.

When it came time to actually submit work, however, Williams surprised everyone with the untested Me Vashya, which chronicles Shontine’s futile efforts to control Lady Shontine and her belief that the men her husband has sent to their deaths are returning for vengeance.

The reception was devastating.

Hotchner reported that, when read aloud to Williams’ classmates, Me Vashya was met with “considerable half-suppressed laughter.” According to Carson, the judges initially ranked the play third — generally, the top three finishers were given full production by the University drama club, Thyrsus.

But in the end, Me Vashya was awarded only an honorable mention because the judges thought the role of Lady Shontine could not be properly cast.

Williams, writing 30 years later, recalled the episode as “a terrible shock and humiliation … a cruel blow. I had always thought I was shy, but I discarded all humility.

“I stormed into Carson’s office. (He was a good professor.) I screamed at him. I surprised myself.”

Williams did, however, exact mild artistic revenge in The Glass Menagerie, which includes the following quip:

Tom: I’m going out to smoke.

Amanda: You smoke too much. A pack a day at 15 cents a pack. How much would that amount to in a month? … Enough to give you a night-school course in accounting at Washington U.! …

Tom: I’d rather smoke.

Registration for the symposium is required. For more information or to register, call 935-7025.

Public performances of Me Vashya and The Glass Menagerie will take place at 8 p.m. Feb. 6, 7 and 14; and at 2 p.m. Feb. 7, 8 and 15. Tickets are $12, or $8 for seniors, students and University faculty and staff.

For more information on the performances, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 935-6543.