Scholars from England, Belgium and across the United States will descend on the Hilltop Campus Feb. 12-14 for “Tennessee Williams: The Secret Year,” an international symposium focusing on the playwright’s life and early career.
The conference will be hosted by the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, in conjunction with the world premiere of Me, Vashya, a broad, anti-war farce Williams wrote while he was a student here in 1936-37. The play, which has never been published or produced, will debut in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in Mallinckrodt Student Center Feb. 6-8 and 14-15.
“Perhaps the last thing one associates with Williams’ writing is politically charged theater,” said Henry Schvey, chair of the PAD, who is co-director along with Michelle Orr, lecturer in English in Arts & Sciences. “Me, Vashya 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.”
The story centers on Vashya Shontine (senior Daniel Hirsh), a corrupt, self-made arms dealer, and Lady Shontine (junior Tara Neuhoff), his mad, Blanche DuBois-like wife, who comes to believe that the men her husband has sent to their deaths are returning for vengeance.
Ironically, the play’s obscurity is largely the result of its fourth-place finish in a 1937 campus playwriting contest. Williams, who described the episode as “a terrible shock and humiliation,” subsequently struck Me, Vashya from his list of works and the University from his 1975 Memoirs.
Still, Schvey said Me, Vashya’s mix of expressionist and realist techniques represents “a remarkable experiment for the young Williams” and should not be dismissed as merely a novice work.
“The character of Lady Shontine prefigures a host of delicate, neurasthenic female victims in Williams’ work,” Schvey said. “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.”
In short, Schvey added, the play is “a postage-stamp-sized sketch in which Tennessee Williams begins to express the preoccupations and obsessions that would haunt him throughout his career.”
Performances of Me, Vashya — which will be presented as part of a single evening with the Williams classic The Glass Menagerie — will begin at 8 p.m. Feb. 6-7 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 7-8. Additional performances will begin at 8 p.m. Feb. 14 and 2 p.m. Feb. 15.
Tickets are $12, or $8 for seniors, students and WUSTL faculty and staff. For more information, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 935-6543.
‘The Secret Year’
The symposium, meanwhile, will begin with a reception at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Jewel Box in Forest Park. Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton will present opening remarks. Christopher Bigsby, director of the Arthur Miller Centre and Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, will present the keynote address.
At 9 a.m. Feb. 13, Robert Bray, editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, will lead a bus tour of Williams-related historical sites. At 10:45 a.m. that day, Bray will host a discussion with Dakin Williams, the playwright’s brother, who lives in Collinsville, Ill.
Afternoon events will include a special 1 p.m. performance of Caged Hearts: Five Early Plays of Tennessee Williams, directed by Tom Mitchell, associate professor of theater at the University of Illinois. At 3:30 p.m., R. Barton Palmer, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson University, will introduce a screening of the 1950 film version of The Glass Menagerie.
At 5 p.m., Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences, will speak at a reception for “The Secret Year” Photo & Manuscript Exhibit, on view Feb. 8-15 at Olin Library Special Collections. Early also is a professor of English, of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAS), and of American Culture Studies, and director of The Center for the Humanities and interim co-director of AFAS, all in Arts & Sciences.
The day will conclude at 8 p.m. with a special performance of Me, Vashya and The Glass Menagerie.
Feb. 14 events will begin at 9 a.m. with a second bus tour, also led by Bray. At 10:30 a.m., Felicia Hardison Londré, the Curators’ Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, will present the first of six talks on Williams’ life and early career, in the Lab Sciences Building, Room 300.
Other speakers will include Bray, Mitchell and Palmer, as well as Gilbert Debusscher, professor of English and American language and literature at the Free University of Brussels; and Allean Hale, adjunct professor of theater at the University of Illinois.
At 4 p.m., Schvey will present closing remarks at a reception for the speakers in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge
Cost for the complete symposium package, which includes all events, is $75. Cost for just the Feb. 14 lectures is $15; $10 for seniors and students; and free for WUSTL faculty, staff and students.
Additionally, a limited number of tickets for individual events, such as the bus tour and film screenings, are available. For more information or to register, call 935-7025 or 935-5858.
“Tennessee Williams: The Secret Year” is made possible by generous support from the University’s Sesquicentennial Commission, the American Culture Studies Program in Arts & Sciences and The Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.