20 years after his death, a Tennessee Williams work is staged for the first time

Tennessee Williams lost a playwriting contest?

It happened in 1937, when Williams’ broad, anti-war farce “Me Vashya” placed fourth in a student competition at Washington University in St. Louis.

It was a brutal blow to the shy young playwright — then known as Tom — who uncharacteristically stormed into his professor’s office before storming out of St. Louis altogether, expunging “Me Vashya” from his list of works and his time at Washington University from his 1975 “Memoirs.”

In the years since, the episode remained little-known even amongst scholars of Williams’ early work. The play went into storage at the Washington University archives and has never been published or produced.

Until now. In February 2004, Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present the world premiere of “Me Vashya” as part of “Tennessee Williams: The Secret Year,” an international symposium focusing on Williams’ early career.

“ ‘Me Vashya’ is a surprising little play,” says Henry I. Schvey, PhD, professor and chair of the PAD, who co-directs the production with Michelle Orr, a lecturer in the Department of English in Arts & Sciences. “The broad, anti-war perspective will certainly shock those who associate Williams’ dramatic voice with quiet lyricism. The play’s humor will likewise surprise those who are unaware of Williams’ often-overlooked comic sensibility.”

Shock and humiliation

According to “Literary St. Louis: A Guide” — edited by William Gass and Lorin Cuoco for Washington University‘s International Writers Center (now The Center for the Humanities) in Arts & Sciences and published in 2000 by the Missouri Historical Society — Williams (1911-1983) had 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 tells the story of corrupt, self-made arms dealer Vashya Shontine and his futile efforts to control his mad, Blanche DuBois-like wife, Lady Shontine.

The reception was devastating.

Classmate A.E. Hotchner (who would go on to write “Papa Hemingway,” among other books) reports that, when first read aloud, “Me Vashya” 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 awarded only honorable mention — behind works by Hotchner and Shepherd Mead (later author of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) — because they did not think the role of Lady Shontine could be properly cast.

Tennessee Williams (second from left) and A.E. Hotchner (far right) in a 1936-37 yearbook photograph showing the staff of the *Eliot Review*, the campus literary magazine of Washington University in St. Louis.
Tennessee Williams (second from left) and A.E. Hotchner (far right) in a 1936-37 yearbook photograph showing the staff of the *Eliot Review*, the campus literary magazine of Washington University in St. Louis.

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,” with the following quip:

Tom: I’m going out to smoke.

Amanda: You smoke too much. A pack a day at fifteen 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.

‘Tragic farce’

Still, says Schvey, “Me Vashya” should not be dismissed as merely a novice work.

“It is as though we had discovered an early drawing by Rembrandt,” Schvey says. “ ‘Me Vashya’ is an extremely valuable document that brings new insight and perspective to what we know of Williams’ later development.

“ ‘Me Vashya’ might best be classified as a ‘tragic farce’ and in some ways it foreshadows the Theatre of the Absurd, which came a decade or more later,” Schvey adds. “At the same time, the character of Lady Shontine prefigures a host of delicate, neurasthenic female victims in Williams’ work and Vashya Shontine, the vulgar peasant who has risen to marry an aristocratic princess, is a rude preliminary sketch of Stanley Kowalski in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ who has dragged the similarly finely bred Stella down from the columns of Belle Reve to ‘get the colored lights going.’

“What we have in the rough scratches of ‘Me Vashya’ is the outline of important work,” Schvey concludes, “a postage stamp-sized sketch in which Tennessee Williams begins to express the preoccupations and obsessions that would haunt him throughout his career.”

Symposium schedule

“Tennessee Williams: The Secret Year” runs Feb. 12-14. In addition to “Me Vashya” — which will be introduced by the playwright’s brother, Dakin Williams — the event includes 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. For more information or to register, call (314) 935-7025.

Additional public performances of “Me Vashya” and “The Glass Menagerie” 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 Washington University faculty and staff. For ticket information, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 314-935-6543.