VIEWPOINT — Summer 2005

Professor Henry Schvey,
Chair, Performing Arts Department


Examining Tennessee Williams' University Blues

By Henry Schvey

"Sainted grandparents sent me a check for $125. To pay my tuition at Washington University. So now it is definitely decided that I am to go there. I want to make every day of it count—since my lovely grandparents have sacrificed so much to send me."

On September 21, 1936, Thomas Lanier Williams was admitted to the College of Liberal Arts. A few months later, the man whom many would call America's greatest playwright would be forced to acknowledge his utter failure as a student in the "Lost Year," as he would later describe it. In his journal entry for Sunday night, May 29, 1937, Williams wrote, "Tomorrow Greek final which I will undoubtedly flunk." The next morning he woke and wrote the following: "Monday. Never woke in more misery in all my life. Intolerable. The brilliant earth mocks my fear. Children and birds sing. People speak in casual voices. The poplar leaves shine. Yet I up here in this narrow room endure torture. God help me! Please! I've got to have help or I'll go mad. What is this a punishment for? What? Or is it all blind, blind without meaning!" Although his crowning disappointment at Washington University was undoutedly receiving an "Honorable Mention" for Me, Vashya—his submission to Professor William G.B. Carson's English 16 Playwriting Class—his failure in Greek would ultimately seal his fate.

In spring 2004, shortly after the Performing Arts Department staged the premiere of Me, Vashya as part of an International Conference on Tennessee Williams dedicated to the "Lost Year," I gave a paper on the play and our production at the Tennessee Williams Conference and Literary Festival in New Orleans. There, in the place Williams considered his "spiritual home," I entered the Faulkner Bookstore in Pirates Alley and asked the proprietor if he had any works by Williams. He smiled and showed me a locked glass cabinet full of first editions and signed copies of nearly all the plays, even a copy of The Glass Menagerie signed by Williams and the original cast. When I had looked through all the materials, I asked if there was anything else.

"Anything else?"

"Yes. Anything else I might not have seen."

"Oh, well, I do have some old photographs and a few letters."

"May I see them?" I asked.

The owner, Joe DiSalvo, then brought out a portfolio of theater programs and photographs (all very expensive) depicting Williams with a variety of lovers, dressed in various costumes, including an outlandish Mexican outfit, complete with sombrero. Among these reminders of the playwright's outré lifestyle in his later years, I saw something familiar. It was a blue examination book, identical to the ones we still use at the University. At the top was the name, "Th. Williams." At the bottom were the words, "Brookings Hall, Washington University." I thumbed through the examination book, saw the words in Greek, noted the poor grades marked for each section—and immediately realized what I was holding in my hand: Tennessee Williams' final examination in Greek at Washington University, the exam that led to his leaving the University in near disgrace, and ultimately departing from St. Louis. This was perhaps a discovery of minor import to some, but of great value to anyone interested in the history of Washington University and the brief but significant time spent here by one of its most glorious and gifted non-graduates.

"My discovery of the blue book led to an even more extraordinary treasure: at the very back of the examination booklet was a poem, written in pencil, which perhaps no one had ever read before ..."

But this was not all. My discovery of the blue book led to an even more extraordinary treasure: at the very back of the examination booklet was a poem, written in pencil, which perhaps no one had ever read before, not even the Classics professor who failed him. Its original title read "Sad Song," but it had been erased and was replaced by a new title, "Blue Song," an ironic reminder of the "blue book" in which it was written, but also of the "blue" mood in which the young author found himself.

For anyone interested in the life and work of Tennessee Williams, this "Blue Song" is exciting; for those who cherish his gifts and the fact that he worked his magic, however briefly, here at Washington University, it seems a remarkable discovery. While in St. Louis, Williams was a loner, and this isolation is fully realized in the poem; "I can tell you only my name/and the name of the town I was/born in ..." It seems fitting that this relic of his St. Louis time should be unearthed in his adopted home of New Orleans, and even more appropriate that it find its way back here to the other "home" he was only too pleased to leave behind.

Henry Schvey is professor and chair of the University's Performing Arts Department.
(The University Libraries Department of Special Collections subsequently purchased the blue book and brought it back to campus.)