The Tennessee Williams Festival puts on a production of The Rose Tattoo.

Get a Sneak Peek of the 8th Annual Tennessee Williams Festival in St. Louis

Tuesday August 1, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

“When I stop working, the rest of the day is posthumous,” Tennessee Williams wrote. “I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”

Best known for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, the American playwright and screenwriter moved to St. Louis at age seven. He lived in the Gateway City for more than two decades, attending University City High School, followed by Washington University in St. Louis, working at the International Shoe Company, where City Museum and The Last Hotel are now located, and staging his first productions at local theaters.

Williams credits his St. Louis experiences for the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his artistry. Asked, later in life, when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.”

Celebrating his timeless work and strong influence, as well as his connection to the region, the annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis takes place in late summer, featuring artistic and educational events that help to enrich the cultural life around us.

Tennessee Williams smoking a cigarette.
A portrait of Tennessee Williams

Held from Sept. 7 to 17, the eighth annual Tennessee Williams Festival will spotlight Suddenly Last Summer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act play written by Williams in 1957, which opened on Broadway in 1958 as part of a double bill with Something Unspoken, another one-act by Williams.

The retelling of Suddenly Last Summer centers on the life and death of closeted gay poet Sebastian Venable, who is brutally murdered during a trip to Italy with his cousin Catherine Holly. After the tragedy, Violet Venable will stop at nothing to keep her son’s – and her own – secrets safe. Generally accepted as a modern-day horror story, the play has autobiographical roots in Williams’ own family life.

The setting of the play – the Garden District of New Orleans – acts as a man-eating jungle, complete with a Venus flytrap, which Williams called “a devouring organism, aptly named for the goddess of love” in the text. Some believe that the carnivorous plant suggests the general predatory nature of unlikely suspects.

Suddenly Last Summer is drenched in Southern Gothic humidity, sexuality, passion and insanity,” director Tim Ocel, who previously directed A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana for the Tennessee Williams Festival, says. “It threatens tyranny and lobotomy. It talks of God and man. It reveals tormented souls and aching hearts.

“As a gay man, I connect with the veiled queer subject matter of Williams’ writing,” Ocel continues, “but the stories are universally compelling, especially in terms of his characters and their actions.”

Williams created female characters such as Catherine and Violet with total empathy, capturing their oppression in the male-dominated American society of the 1940s and 1950s. These marginalized figures have to cope with a sense of despair and doom throughout the scenes, and audiences can often relate to such emotions.

“Tennessee Williams’ writing has a certain cadence that no one else can achieve – it’s practically poetry,” Ocel says. “The rhythm of his lines has a way of cracking open the souls of his characters, and that’s what I love most about his work – I get to see inside of people. In Suddenly Last Summer, the beauty of the writing and the shocking nature of the story collide, taking us to a whole other level.”

Scholar-in-residence Thomas Mitchell will offer commentary after each show, encouraging audiences to move beyond their first impressions of the performance. Providing historical and cultural context, Mitchell will also address larger themes of Suddenly Last Summer and identify topics of humanistic concern that might be raised by Williams’ writing.

“Tennessee Williams understood the human condition in a truly profound way,” executive artistic director Carrie Houk says. “He celebrated the beauty of being unique, but he also addressed the challenges that come with that.”

Panel discussions, including Tennessee Williams, St. Louis and the Blues, will further illuminate the themes of the play while drawing connections between Williams’ experiences in St. Louis and his work. Tennessee’s “Madness,” another panel in the lineup, will examine how mental health was understood at the time of the play, how “madness” was used as a weapon against women, artists and the LGBTQ+ community and how psychological challenges impacted Williams’ life.

A scene from The Night of the Iguana plays.
A performance of The Night of the Iguana at the Tennessee Williams Festival

The eighth annual Tennessee Williams Festival will also focus on Williams’ time in University City, considering the influence of its colorful history, iconic architecture and impressive education in the 1920s when Williams was a youth.

Suddenly Last Summer will be presented at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), and prior to select performances, Mayor Terry Crow will host readings of Something Unspoken in the grand entry of his home on Delmar Boulevard.

Mitchell will host walking tours of the area, as well. “Tennessee Williams lived in University City during high school, and from all accounts, he had very effective English teachers who encouraged his writing,” he explains. “He published his first story, ‘The Vengeance of Nitocris,’ an Egyptian fantasy piece, during that time, and I think he was partly influenced by the architecture of University City.”

The walking tours will pass some of the architectural wonders of the area, including spaces that Williams frequented.

“Tennessee Williams represents a lot of what was happening in the U.S. in the mid-20th century,” Mitchell says, “and he expressed those stories with a great deal of passion, emotion and insight.”

Additional activities throughout the festival include a book signing of Caterpillar Dogs: and Other Early Stories, late-night poetry slams at Blueberry Hill and film screenings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in collaboration with Cinema St. Louis.

The Tennessee Williams Festival puts on a production of The Rose Tattoo.
A performance of The Rose Tattoo at the Tennessee Williams Festival

Before the Tennessee Williams Festival kicks off in September, the organization will broadcast “Something Spoken: Tennessee Williams on the Air.” The radio series will feature four one-act plays by Williams, along with commentary by Mitchell. Listen live on Classic 107.3 on Aug. 5, 12, 19 and 26. The recordings will also be available online, so you can listen in between festival events.

Throughout its iterations, the Tennessee Williams Festival has attracted thousands of theatergoers from across the country to its productions, readings and panel discussions, keeping Williams’ lyrical prose, complex characters and particular brand of drama alive. This year, don’t miss the opportunity to join the menagerie of fans and festivities.

“The Tennessee Williams Festival has become a destination event,” Houk says. “I can’t think of a better way to welcome visitors to St. Louis and show off our communities, including our outstanding arts-and-culture scene.”