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Vieux Carre

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BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

PLAYS

Baby Doll & Tiger Tail

Camino Real

Candles to the Sun

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Clothes for a Summer Hotel

Fugitive Kind

The Glass Menagerie

A House Not Meant to Stand

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Mister Paradise and Other One Act Plays

Not About Nightingales

The Notebook of Trigorin

Something Cloudy, Something Clear

Spring Storm

Stairs to the Roof

Stopped Rocking and Other Screen Plays

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sweet Bird of Youth

27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other Plays

The Traveling Companion and Other Plays

The Two-Character Play

Vieux Carré

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME I

Battle of Angels, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME II

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Summer and Smoke
,

The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME III

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME IV

Sweet Bird of Youth, Period of Adjustment, The Night of the Iguana

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME V

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Kingdom of Earth

(The Seven Descents of Myrtle), Small Craft Warnings
,
The Two-Character Play

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME VI

27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other Short Plays

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME VII

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel and Other Plays

THE THEATRE OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, VOLUME VIII

Vieux Carré, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Clothes for a Summer Hotel
,

The Red Devil Battery Sign

POETRY

Collected Poems

In the Winter of Cities

PROSE

Collected Stories

Hard Candy and Other Stories

One Arm and Other Stories

Memoirs

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume I

The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume II

Where I Live: Selected Essays

“This house is empty now.” Tennessee Williams at 722 Toulouse in 1977. © Christopher R. Harris; all rights reserved.

INTRODUCTION

In the winter of 1938, with his B.A. degree from the University of Iowa finally in hand, Tom Williams began a post-academic education that would forever alter the course of his personal and professional life. Stultified by life back in St. Louis and hopeful of securing Depression-era Federal Writer's Project employment, Williams decided to chance his fortune in New Orleans. A second, more strategic decision was formed out of desperation and disingenuousness. En route to New Orleans, the aspiring playwright visited his maternal grandparents in Memphis and from their home mailed off some one-act plays as well as the full-length
Spring Storm
to the Group Theatre playwrighting contest in New York City. But there was a catch. In order to qualify for any possible award, contestants had to be twenty-five years old or younger, so Williams changed his birth date from 1911 to 1914 and adopted an unusual
nom de plume
reflective of his east Tennessee paternal ancestry. Thus reinvented, the aspiring playwright followed the Mississippi River south to what he would come to call his “spiritual
home”—
the Vieux Carré of New Orleans.

Although a youthful Tom Williams had traveled to New York City and throughout Europe, nothing had prepared him for the exotica of the French Quarter, with its old-world charm, balmy atmosphere, and eccentric inhabitants. Many first-time visitors immediately fall in love with the Vieux Carré, but it is difficult to overestimate the impact of this geographic and cultural transition on the impressionable Williams. Many years earlier a fellow Missourian, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, underwent a strikingly similar metamorphosis, albeit in a different locale. Just as Mark Twain discovered an unconventional lifestyle, a new name, and fresh material by moving out west, and eventually to the bohemian sector of San Francisco,
Tennessee Williams's semitropical relocation marked the beginning of an artistic awakening and a period of vigorous self-discovery. Williams arrived in New Orleans on December 28, and after wandering through the Vieux Carré for only about three hours, he came back to his room and wrote, “Here surely is a place I was made for if any place on this funny old world.” After he had spent a week in various lodgings, Williams moved into a third floor apartment at 722 Rue Toulouse, signing in as “Tennessee
Williams—
Writer.” Even though he roomed there just longer than a month, the boarding house remained a fixture in his imagination for decades, a creative well from which he would draw one-acts, stories, poems, and the full-length
Vieux Carré
.

Recent scholarship has challenged conventional notions about the play's evolution. Because
Vieux Carré
was not produced until 1977, traditional thinking placed it as a late organic fulfillment of his short story, “The Angel in the Alcove” (1943). Moreover, since
Vieux Carré
falls into Williams's category of “memory plays,” and because we are drawn to the Writer's apparent sense of nostalgia, it has seemed logical to assume that the author penned the play from the temporal distance of several years, if not decades. However, an examination of working manuscripts demonstrates that Williams relied less on memory than was previously suspected. In a paper presented at the 1999 Tennessee Williams Scholars' Conference in New Orleans, Williams specialist Linda Dorff exploded conventional notions about the play's evolution by tracing the working script back to January of
1939—
the actual time that Williams lived at 722 Rue Toulouse. True to most of the playwright's work, the drama metastasized over several years and through various phases and titles, including
Dead Planet, the Moon!
(working title in 1939),
I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sunday
(written during the 1960s), and
Broken Glass in the Morning, or Skylight
(a version also from the 1960s written expressly for Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman but never performed by them). Williams said that he turned his full attention back to
Vieux Carré
in 1973 while on an ocean cruise. Working through radically different drafts over the next few years, he prepared a Broadway version in 1977. Although the play was a crashing failure and closed after only five performances,
Daily News
critic Douglas Watt wrote that “we must cheer this late new flowering of the
author's genius.” Walter Kerr blamed the production's failure on the “appalling stage direction” and the “monstrously shabby physical design” but acknowledged that the play had poetic power. The following year
Vieux Carré
moved to London for two separate productions, but neither met with critical or commercial success. Williams wrote further changes after the London productions, and the New Directions text exists as the culmination of these various metamorphoses.

Despite the harsh critical consensus and the relative neglect from which the play has suffered, in many respects
Vieux Carré
deserves attention as the quintessential Tennessee Williams drama, a virtual miniature of all his other work. The atmosphere is even more redolent of New Orleans than
Streetcar
, the characters form a pathetic (and bathetic) human tapestry familiar to any Williams devotee; and many of the major recurring
themes—
the impingement of the past upon the present, the lingering effect of loss, the tribulations of the alienated artist, the undeniable necessity of human communication, and the inconsolable condition of
loneliness—
structure and inform the dramatic action. These Williams “signatures” were not lost on one whimsical but incisive New Orleans reviewer, who summarized (in local dialect)
Vieux Carré
as follows: “It's like the other Tennessee Williams plays set in the Quarter. Da chicory's on da stove, da cockroaches are on da walls, and all da characters are on da de-cline.”

Apparently, such was the actual condition of the roomers at 722 Rue Toulouse. Talking with William S. Burroughs the very day of the 1977 Broadway opening of
Vieux Carré
, Williams said that “the events in the house did actually take place. . . . There are two characters in it, a boy and a girl, whom I knew later in another house, not in that one. But all the others were there at 722 Toulouse Street, in 1939.” Although Williams's amalgamating prowess virtually precludes one's determining the specific source for a particular character, the importance of these 1939 friendships and associations should not be underestimated because ineluctable elements of their personalities, “fading but remembered,” resurface in Williams's
dramatis personae
elsewhere. Therefore, the haunted boarding house of this late play looms paradoxically as both the genesis and final resting place for Williams's lost and tortured lonely
hearts—
or, to borrow a phrase from T. S. Eliot, the end is in the beginning.

For example, so many of Williams's vulnerable, wispy females, from Blanche to Alma to Hannah, reverberate in Jane, the boarder with whom the Writer shares his most sympathetic understanding. Like Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore in
The Lady of Larkspur Lotion
, Jane awaits financial salvation via a Brazilian businessman; however, as with Blanche's Shep Huntleigh in
Streetcar
, this potential savior exists as an illusion born out of desperation. Jane, who describes herself as “the Northern equivalent of a lady, fallen, yes but . . . not a whore,” suffers from an unnamed progressive blood disease, but perhaps even more detrimental is her unhealthy dependence on Tye, a despicable strip show barker. Tye exudes the animal magnetism of a Stanley Kowalski but has the moral scruples of a Chance Wayne. Tye McCool exists as Williams's classic, parasitic street
hustler—
coarse but alluring, with fidelity to no one. Furthermore, his casual description of how the Champagne Girl is horrifically gnawed to death by the mob boss's dogs demonstrates his utter insensitivity to the predatory forces in life, and Jane's inability to “unTye” herself shows how the human heart can be betrayed by carnal desire.

Another cubicle houses the blood-spitting, tubercular Nightingale, surely the most dissolute of the Quarter's assorted habitués. A quick-sketch artist who prostitutes not only his artistic talent, the Nightingale represents the kind of human effluvium both responsible for and victimized by his own circumstances. In addition, he partners with the Writer to perform the first unambiguous homosexual liaison Williams ever staged, an act that requires (at least in the Writer's mind) absolution by the angel in the alcove. The Nightingale also shares striking similarities with Lot, the tubercular, effeminate homosexual of
Kingdom of Earth
—
again, suggesting that the people Williams initially met in the Vieux Carré would inspire characters several decades later.

Williams's two beloved crones, Mary Maude and Miss Carey, are as amusing as they are pathetic, and this equilibrium testifies to Williams's masterful control of tone. While Mary Maude apologizes for her delinquent rent payments, the delusional Miss Carey reminds everyone about her aristocratic uptown New Orleans ancestors. In the meantime, they forage for spoiled food in garbage cans and otherwise depend on Mrs. Wire's inconsistent “kindness” for weekly nourishment.

Presiding over all this mayhem is the voyeuristic, omnipresent Mrs. Wire, modeled after Williams's 1939 landlady Mrs. Anderson. As her name indicates, Mrs. Wire (the actual name of a later 1941 landlady) is coarse and brittle as well as intolerant and
bullying—
until she lapses into a confused daydream in which she mistakes the Writer for her long-lost son Timmy, proving that even the most unsentimental of Williams's characters can be vulnerable to the haunting past. Her pouring scalding water on the party below (which actually happened and was, according to Williams, the residence of the well-known photographer Clarence John Laughlin) seems as comical as it does cruel, and the farcical night court scene provides a delightful conclusion to this outrageous episode. Even though the various characters' misfortunes dominate the play's action, Williams balances this adversity with equal parts humor so that almost every glimpse into a partition of despair yields the contrapuntal balance of verbal or even slapstick comedy. As they struggle against the naturalistic forces around them, “grace under destitution” might be the motto for these financially marginalized and spiritually bankrupt roomers.

The Writer, in a narrative role similar to Tom in
The Glass Menagerie
, frames the events and provides occasional asides that illuminate situation and character. Moreover, virtually all of the action centers on this fresh initiate's rite of passage into the chaos of 722 Rue Toulouse. Suspended between his narration and participation, the Writer remains in relative limbo throughout the entire play. Although he is the object of the Nightingale's sexual advances, a surrogate son for Mrs. Wire, and a confidant to Jane, his stubborn reticence precludes any sustained interaction with the other characters. In addition, the Writer's recurring withdrawal into the introspection of his craft complements the pattern of escape that characterizes the physically and psychologically vanquished borders of 722.

It should not be surprising to consider that in a holistic sense the Writer has escaped the entrapment of the Wingfield household in
The Glass Menagerie
only to reemerge at the rooming house of
Vieux Carré
. Consummately bored by employment at the shoe warehouse in St. Louis and forced to endure life in an endlessly suffocating household, the narrator flees America's heartland and ends up baptized by its most European city. Of course, here and elsewhere the
autobiographical parallels are stubbornly obvious. When asked by an interviewer what first brought him to New Orleans, Tennessee Williams said, “St. Louis.” Even though just shy of twenty-seven, Williams might not have been completely aware of his true sexual orientation. But viewing life through the prism of the Vieux Carré opened entirely new vistas of self understanding. This initiation into the desire and disorder of the Quarter profoundly influenced his
sensibilities—
easily seen when Williams, as the Writer, records: “Instinct . . . directed me here, to the Vieux Carré of New Orleans . . . I couldn't have consciously, deliberately, selected a better place than here to
discover—
to
encounter—
my true nature.” Furthermore, as he tells Mrs. Wire, “I ought to pay
you—
tuition!” His matriculation in the Vieux Carré coming to an end, the Writer somewhat reluctantly yields to Sky's siren-like clarinet as he trembles at the chaotic uncertainty of his future. (Actually, Williams departed the boarding house for California with his clarinetist friend Jim Parrott on the Monday before Mardi Gras.) In any case, as with Tom's unsuccessful attempt to extinguish his memory of Laura in
Menagerie
, the inference at the play's conclusion seems to be that the Writer will become a wanderer bound for a different climate but destined to be haunted by Jane and the other inhabitants of the boarding house.

BOOK: Vieux Carre
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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