Tennessee Williams: A St. Louis success story to inspire Generation Z

Written by Lizi Watt, TWStL Managing Director

Poster image by Peter Shank

When Tennessee Williams was (unhappily) living in Missouri, attending a local high school and going by his given name “Tom,” it’s unlikely he thought that his daily engagements with St. Louis’ citizens, locale and culture would one day be a repeating thread through his prize-winning plays. I often hear young St. Louisans ask me why I came back to St. Louis after living in colorful Colorado and glamorous Los Angeles. They are eager to get out of here, to flee the provincial, to escape their hometown, to find bigger and better things. And why not? The decision to spread my proverbial wings was certainly essential in my path towards an eventual love affair with St. Louis when I returned as an adult. 

While his canon of work (and the history of his life) is not widely taught in high schools, Tennessee Williams could easily inspire some struggling young person if they were to discover his work. As a St. Louis local, Williams listened, observed and wrote, even as he conducted the sometimes mundane aspects of life: studying, eating, working. He lived not just as a dutiful citizen but as a poet, in the wider sense of the word: staring at the Mississippi and seeing a giant, walking the streets of The Hill and gleaning from looks and gestures a whole narrative. Eventually, when he conjured his plays, he wrote with passion, capturing the tidal waves of emotion that come over his characters in the most difficult and triumphant moments of their lives. 

Tennessee Williams explored the world, perhaps on the hunt for acceptance, a sense of identity, a place that could assuage his feelings as an “outsider.” As he explored, he soaked in the idiosyncrasies of the people he met and their particular trials and tribulations, triumphs and titillations. And he wrote, creating stories that were reflections of the specific people and places he encountered. By doing so, he made his world (and by default, our worlds) bigger. He had a special love for Italy and fascination with Italian-American immigrant communities. This summer, TWStL is bringing this particular passion to the audiences and scholars of St. Louis and beyond. Our featured production is Williams’ passionate play, THE ROSE TATTOO, a tale of love, death, and resilience in a downtrodden but hopeful 1940’s immigrant Italian community on the American Gulf Coast. The story follows Serafina Delle Rose, a widowed Sicilian woman, who must face the harsh reality that she may not have known her beloved late spouse as well as she thought she did. At the same time, her teen daughter launches fully into her womanhood, navigating the excitement of young love and a passion for freedom. These themes are universal. Who hasn’t found themselves caught off guard when an idealist impression of a someone or something is met with reality? And most of us get the chance to wrestle the wonderful and terrible event of first love…and the sometime-desire to escape the monotony of our home life. Williams transformed his own battles into artful renditions of the human condition, inviting us, even demanding, that we feel for his characters…and a large percentage of people who experience his work do indeed relate or empathize. Adults and young people alike. 

2022 marks the 7th Annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. We celebrate more than just a man and his theatrical successes. We celebrate the triumph of art over suffering, the way that the travails of our youth can bend and branch into the source of our strength and ingenuity. St. Louis was a place that “Tom” Williams sought to escape, but for “Tennessee,” St. Louis was a place where the frustrations and impatience of youth began to transform into a creative adulthood. 

Join us this August 18 – 28 under The Big Top in the Grand Arts Center to see Williams’ beautiful play, THE ROSE TATTOO. Bring your high schoolers. Then make your way to the Italian Hill where our panelists discuss how Tennessee Williams became who he was: how he traversed the St. Louis streets, how he loved and lost, how he grew from a St. Louis youth to a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.