Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was perhaps the most influential playwright of the twentieth century. During the 1940s and 1950s, his work took the American theater by storm, achieving enormous popular success and the sort of feverish criticism only accorded writers of groundbreaking genius. His best-known works include A Streetcar Named Desire, whose 1947 Broadway production launched the careers of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and the 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both plays were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Although his later career was marked by declining success, poor health, and a dependence upon drugs and alcohol, when Williams died at 71 he was regarded among the most important artists of his era. His plays continue to be produced around the world to this day.
Williams had a long love affair with Key West, where he owned a home on Duncan Street and lived off and on for more than forty years. He had a strong relationship with the Key West Library, and produced the recording featured here for the Monroe County Public Library at the Key West studios of WKWF on April 3, 1971. Though he was known as a playwright, Williams thought of himself as a poet1, and here he presents a selection of 15 poems, “most of it early, and young” as he says in the brief introduction.
The nearly thirty-minute recording offers a rare opportunity to hear the voice of an American master reading his poems as he felt they ought to be read. To the scholar of Williams’s work, it offers two distinct surprises: a largely unknown variant of “The Harp of Wales”2, the early poem that begins this recording; and a haunting poem of love lost and scorned, never before published, beginning “The wayward flesh has made me wise / in many things I should not know.”3 The remainder of the reading draws from work that was gathered in the 1964 New Directions collection, In the Winter of Cities. In the order read here, the poems are “The Siege,” “Faint as Leaf Shadow,” “The Eyes” (for Oliver Evans), “Lament for the Moths,” “The Beanstalk Country,” “Testa Dell’ Effebo,” “Tuesday’s Child,” “Death is High,” “Little Horse” (for Frank Merlo), “Life Story,” “Orpheus Descending,” “The Christus of Gudalejara,” and “Carrousel Tune.”