When critics and scholars refer to Tennessee Williams as one of America’s greatest playwrights, they’re usually referring to the first half of his decades-long career, which includes Williams’ best-known work.
It’s generally held that Williams’ later plays — often defined as anything after the 1961 drama “Night of the Iguana” — are lesser works whose decline in quality can be attributed to William’s decadent lifestyle, including a penchant for booze and pills.
Augustin J. Correro and Nick Shackleford, co-founders of the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans, intend to set the record straight.
“We consider him one of our greatest playwrights, from the beginning to the end,” said Shackleford. “We don’t feel like he stopped being a good playwright at a certain point. I think some of his greatest works were later in life.”
This weekend, as part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the company debuts “Tennessee Williams: Weird Tales,” an evening of one-act plays, running April 1-17 at St. Charles Avenue Christian Church, 6200 St. Charles Ave.
The bill includes two world premieres of Williams’ work — “Ivan’s Widow” and “The Strange Play” — alongside the rarely-produced “Steps Must Be Gentle.”
The three plays come from different periods of Williams’ career — “The Strange Play” is from 1939, while “Ivan’s Widow” and “Steps Must Be Gentle” are from the early 1980s — but they share one trait: They’re weird.
In fact, “Weird Tales” takes its name from the popular pulp magazine of the early 20th century, where Williams’ first published writing appeared, a historical horror story about an Egyptian queen that he wrote at 16.
Correro and Shackleford argue that Williams’ work didn’t go through any radical transformations late in his career that resulted in more off-putting plays, but that he embraced themes of fantasy and phantasm throughout his career, even in his most popular works.
The real reason for the poor reception of his later works, they say, was Williams’ public persona, which remained contentious even after his death.
“Tennessee Williams’ reputation took a nosedive when he became a well-known writer who didn’t make pains to keep his personal life private,” said Correro.
“Tennessee Williams’ personal life being on parade in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t do him any good because the puritanical United States at the time didn’t like having an out, gay celebrity writer, someone who was rumored to be an alcoholic, rumored to be addicted to drugs. It was impossible for him to shake that reputation.
“After his death, his reputation was hijacked by one of the executors of his will, whose name was Maria St. Just. She took his reputation and, probably in a well-intentioned way, tried to safeguard it, and in a way suffocated it,” Correro said.
“She put a vise grip on who was able to perform what. She wouldn’t allow new works to be released if she thought they were indecent. She was actually known to have gone into archives with an X-Acto knife and cut out passages from letters, lest they be read by someone and discussed in scholarly essays.”
Since the death of St. Just in 1994, Williams’ archives — letters, manuscripts, unproduced plays — have become more widely available, giving scholars and critics, as well as artists and audiences, a new appreciation for Williams’ full catalog of writings.
Correro and Shackleford, who met and bonded in Richmond, Virginia, in 2011 over a production of Williams’ “Suddenly, Last Summer,” realized Williams’ body of work includes more than 100 plays, plenty of material to sustain a company dedicated solely to performing the works of Williams year-round.
After a few years of talking and planning in snowy New York, and after several trips to the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the pair decided to make New Orleans their “forever home” and launched the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans, which debuted last year, the first company of its kind.
The opportunity to stage two world premieres as part of “Tennessee Williams: Weird Tales” was presented by Thomas Keith, an editor at New Directions Publishing who is preparing a new collection of one-act plays from late in Williams’ career.
Correro says this is not only a chance for the company to perform these never-before-seen works, but it’s also a first step in getting these plays out to a larger audience.
“The plays don’t need premieres to be published. However, once they are published, if they’ve had a premiere, it helps serve as a point of reference for anybody who’s going to read it in the future,” Correro said.