Letters in the limelight

An MU professor transforms a collection of Tennessee Williams’ letters into a play
Thursday, March 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:40 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Albert Devlin has dedicated almost 10 years of his life to the life of a famed playwright and former MU student. This month, Devlin’s commitment will again come before the public when his second collection of Tennessee Williams’ letters is staged in New York.

Devlin, an MU English professor, published “The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume II, 1945-1957” in November 2004. Now, “Blanche and Beyond,” a staged reading of the volume, will have its premiere March 21 at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the City Center in New York.

Richard Thomas, most known for his role as John-Boy in “The Waltons,” will play Williams.

Steve Lawson, director of the “Writers in Performance” series at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, put together a staged reading of Devlin’s first collection of letters that was presented in 2001. As he had done in putting the first volume together, Lawson selected the letters from the second book and developed the script from it. Both staged readings were based entirely on the letters as part of an agreement with the Williams estate.

Devlin said he loved Lawson’s use of the letters. He said Lawson organized the letters in a way that highlighted their dramatic qualities.

Lawson picked up the project after reading a review of the first book in The New Yorker. Lawson, who knew Williams toward the end of his life, made the reading part of his “Writers in Performance” series.

Born Thomas Lanier Williams, the playwright entered MU in 1929 and left three years later. The playwright died in 1983 at age 71.

Devlin said that Williams’ time at MU offered him sanctuary from his St. Louis home.

“Being in Columbia was a haven or refuge from a lot of marital strife in St. Louis,” he said. “Williams was free here as an undergraduate to write. It was part of the foundation that he was laying to become an eminent writer.”

Devlin and Nancy Tischler, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, received exclusive rights to about 3,000 of Williams’ letters in 1995. The two were co-editors for the first volume, which spans letters from 1920 to 1945. Devlin served as editor for the most recent volume, while Tischler co-edited.

Williams wrote about 900 letters, notes and telegraphs during the 12 years “Volume II” covers. Of the 900, Devlin and Tischler decided on 350 letters that document Williams’ creative process.

The letters begin after Williams had finished “The Glass Menagerie” and also span the time he spent writing “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on the Hot Tin Roof.” Devlin said the letters from this prosperous time in Williams’ life show his struggle to repeat the success of “Streetcar” in 1947.

“‘Volume II’ has a melancholy tone,” he said. “Williams is so often aware of his inability to diversify and expand his range of interest. He does that in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ in 1955. It exceeds excellence of ‘Streetcar’ for many critics. By the end of the book, he finally freed himself of the success of ‘Streetcar’ in the early ’50s.”

Devlin said the letters showed Williams’ dedication to writing. The letters told of how Williams worked several hours each morning writing, rereading and rewriting each day’s work.

“The overriding impression people get from letters is that writing was as valuable to him as life itself,” he said. “Williams couldn’t imagine any kind of existence apart from writing.”

Matt Alofs, a former MU student, helped the professor on both volumes. He was one of several students Devlin involved in the project. Alofs said he thought the project gave a better perspective into Williams’ life.

“He was a big literary figure, and the letters are pretty revelatory of times in which he lived,” Alofs said.

Devlin, who has worked on this project for 10 years, said he was taking a brief vacation from editing the next volume. He said that the third volume, which will focus on the time from 1957 to Williams’ death, is on the horizon and that he will soon begin to “approach” the last set of letters.

Tischler said she would not be a part of the third volume.

Alofs and the two professors said they will not attend the staged readings, but Devlin said seeing the letters being performed last time was gratifying.

Lawson joked about working on the third part of the long-term project: “If we all live long enough, I think we’ll all do part three.”

He said many of the people who attended the first reading will probably attend the second to follow the course of Williams’ life. “There’s something kind of great about hearing the letters of a famous writer,” he said. “From the letters, you can deduce the plays.”

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