University exhumes Tennessee Williams’ first play

By Noah Lenstra

Soot-covered peasants emerge onto a hazily lit stage to a song lamenting the death of miners in an underground explosion “while the miners’ kids and wives wait at the gates,” as the song goes. So begins Tennessee Williams’ first play “Candles in the Sun,” which had its twenty-first century premeire at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts the weekends of Sept. 29 through Oct. 2 and Oct. 5 through Oct. 9.

The play tells the story of an Alabama family struggling and failing to transcend the virtual slavery of coal mines during the Great Depression.

Caroline Holmes, senior in FAA, who played Star Pilcher, said the story tells the struggle between “what is right for you and what is right for the community.” Holmes’ character, one of the strong women that would come to characterize Williams’ writing in plays such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” falls in love with a labor leader who sacrifies himself, despite her tearful protests, so that a strike will endure.

The title “Candles in the Sun” “symbolizes each character in the play as a candle and the sun as representing group consciousness,” said adjunct professor and Williams scholar Allean Hale.

To translate the climate of labor unrest and union formentation to a contemporary audience raised in a more affluent situation, director and professor Tom Mitchell strove to recreate the atmosphere of community theatre, as the play was originally produced in 1937 by The Mummers in St. Louis.

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“The Mummers were a group of amateur actors mounting challenging productions addressing contemporary issues … in a city electrically charged with union activity,” Mitchell said.

Following hurricane Katrina, Mitchell said, “our cast and crew experienced their own intersection of events after the exposition of the poor showed the impoverished working classes.”

In celebration of the production, the U of I Department of Theatre held special events on Oct. 6, 7 and 8 to illuminate the political manifestations of William’s early writing in 1930’s St. Louis.

Among the events, Christopher Bigsby, a Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, delivered a Millercom lecture Friday, Oct. 7, entitled “Tennessee Williams: Radical of the Heart.” To show that Williams was a radical, Bigsby pointed to a Williams’ quote in which the author said “We are all under wraps of one kind or another, trembling under the gaze of investigative committees.”

Williams, a homosexual with communist leanings, wrote, as Bigsby said, “to celebrate those that lived their lives on the tangent of a society on the make … full of frustrated desires, fear of death, and the absurdity of life that serves nothing but temporal needs.”

The theme of the play, that of people moving from an individual to a collective conscious, Bigsby saw not only in the plays of Williams, but also in the works of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and Ernest Hemingway, giving an artistic context for Williams’ work.

Nonetheless, as Hale pointed out, Williams was “not an analytic thinker, but a spontaneous creature.”

Williams’ plays are not famous for their politics, but for their representation of people’s internal lives who “embrace illusions as a necessary for survival,” Bigsby said.

This internal side of Williams’ life was explored in the reading of “Rise and Shine: Edwina Williams in Her Own Words and in the Works of Tennessee,” a compilation produced by graduate student Christina Dideriksen out of comments made by Williams’ mother.

In conjuntion with the performance of “Candles in the Sun,” the Department of Theatre also held a reading of “Ten Minute Shop,” a short story written by Williams in the 1930’s that takes place in a bus station in Champaign. The story shows that Williams, born in St. Louis, was as connected to the Midwest as he was to the South.

Also, actors from Urbana’s Station Theatre and the University came together Saturday, Oct. 8, to read through Williams’ second full-length play “Fugitive Kind,” a gangster story set in a St. Louis flophouse, to trace the development of Williams’ early, less known, writing career.

As Mitchell pointed out, “activism went out of style” after the 1930’s. He believes this, in part, led to the dismissal of Williams’ early plays, that deal with politics much more than his later, and much more famous, plays such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.”

“It seems entirely appropriate that the early plays of Tennessee Williams should be re-discovered by students of theatre here in Illinois. There is a natural connection between Williams’ early efforts and theirs,” Hale said.