Research at the Ransom Center: Tennessee Williams
By Albert J. Devlin
A decade's work on The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams (two volumes, published by New Directions, 2000–2004) and subsequent work on the correspondence of Elia Kazan (forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf) has required on-site research at major and not-so-major libraries from Boston to Los Angeles. The majority of my stops, however, have been in the middle, or nearly the middle, at the Harry Ransom Center, which holds the Williams collection as well as material pertinent to Elia Kazan. It has become a cliché to mark the Ransom Center as preeminent among research libraries and to thank the public services staff—formerly Cathy Henderson and Tara Wenger, currently Richard Workman, forever Pat Fox—for their courtesy and expertise. On more than one occasion Rich Oram, Associate Director, has offered sound advice and encouragement for which I remain thankful.
The Williams collection was partially organized, I suspect, by Andreas Brown, former owner of the Gotham Book Mart, who helped to direct the playwright's voluminous papers to the Center. But what the library received probably bore a greater resemblance to the welter of material that Elia Kazan encountered in directing Camino Real (1953): "I took all the versions from A to infinity on the train with me. I sat down one morning and ripped the covers off and went thru every page. By nightfall I was blind. (I recovered my sight just a few hours ago, in time to write this). The floor of my compartment was a foot and a half deep with your crumpled efforts" (from Kazan's letter to Tennessee Williams, dated December 10, 1952, in the Ransom Center's collection). Smoothed and sorted and dated with astonishing accuracy, well before key bio-bibliographical aids were available, are fragmentary drafts, composite manuscripts, and a multitude of letters that cover the waterfront of taste.
The Center's collection indicates that Williams wrote often and "badly" in order to write well. He tested at least eight titles, including "Electric Avenue," before settling on A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). He did not destroy or otherwise withhold the many drafts of Streetcar—a fellow southerner, Eudora Welty, was loath to have similar "mistakes" revealed—but, like a visual artist, unabashedly used "studies" to probe the dynamics of character and motivation. Especially revealing is an undated draft of the "morning after" scene in which Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski marvel at their sexual performance—however enforced it may have been at first. "Since we're exchanging bouquets," Blanche says, "let me add this one. Everything's been a preparation for you in what I've gone through. I'm really surprised the walls are still standing. There was one moment when I thought we were lying out-doors halfway between this crazy old world and the moon!" Williams has overtly dramatized the allure of the man who will finally be Blanche's "executioner." Traces of the surprising scene, probably related to a draft entitled "The Passion of a Moth," would remain in the production text in Blanche's flirtation with Stanley, as well as her "bouquet," which is refined of its former dramatic excess, endowed with foreboding, and presented to Stanley as a herald of rape: "I said to myself—'My sister has married a man!'" What did Williams test and confirm in this study if not the unstable amalgam of strength and frailty that comprises Blanche DuBois and the power of Stanley to exploit it?
A decision made long ago by the Center's founder, Harry Huntt Ransom, to emphasize modern writers and collect their pre-production materials is perfectly consonant with the inner life of Tennessee Williams's career. The sheer mass and inclusiveness of the Williams collection at the Center eloquently bespeaks the endurance of a writer whose apprenticeship to the theater was prolonged, whose dramatic "attack" was seldom efficient or uncluttered, and whose master works evolved slowly in conformity with alternating moods of confidence and desperation.
Albert J. Devlin is the Catherine Payne Middlebush Professor of English at the University of Missouri and the author of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams (2 vols., New Directions, 2000–2004). Devlin was a recipient of a Fleur Cowles Fellowship.