The Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival
There's only one Tennessee Williams. Just ask acclaimed playwright and filmmaker John Patrick Shanley, whose career highlights include a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his play Doubt: A Parable and an Oscar for writing Moonstruck (1987).
"There aren't a lot of great playwrights," Shanley says. "At any one time in the world you're lucky if there's five. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, certainly Eugene O'Neill. These are some of the great figures. For me, Tennessee Williams is the most compassionate. And he has a sort of divine compassion that reaches into all sorts of corners and to people who probably would have hated him."
In recent months, Shanley has gone public with his appreciation for Williams. In a foreword he wrote for a new edition of Williams' The Rose Tattoo, Shanley describes Williams' voice as "gigantic as the night sky." Shanley also spoke at a ceremony in which Williams became the first playwright inducted into the Poet's Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. These tributes earned Shanley an invitation to this week's 24th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
The festival presents a wide array of events, including stage productions, interviews with writers, panel discussions on publishing and literary topics, parties and the annual Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest. Visit the Web site (www.tennesseewilliams.net) for a full schedule and ticket information.
Shanley speaks at the opening night gala, and he will be featured in an interview session on Friday. But it's all about the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and other American classics. "Williams was from St. Louis, but found his way to New Orleans and there found the exterior world that matched the richness of the interior world he was experiencing," Shanley says. "And for that reason, it's just an exciting prospect to talk about Tennessee Williams in New Orleans, where he finally found, in some sense, his artistic home."
Like Williams, Shanley is known for the fierce intelligence of his writing, an unflinching eye on the dark side of human nature, and his willingness to tackle difficult subjects that don't always make for a breezy evening at the theater. Both writers experienced a difficult upbringing and family life in a less-than-cosmopolitan setting (Shanley is from the Bronx), all of which reverberates through their work. Shanley had seen only two plays — a student production of Cyrano de Bergerac and The Miracle Worker — by the age of 22. But then things changed.
"I'd been writing poetry for many years, short stories, and a novel which I burned after a year," Shanley says. "Then I started writing a play. Within a week and a half, I said, 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.' All I can tell you is that I was a born playwright. It's a genetic predisposition."
Shanley became a voracious reader of plays, and found inspiration not only in Williams' work, but in his life. "I began to scheme, in my twenties, how to find a way to be productive until the end. I've watched the meteoric rise and fall of so many. I didn't want to be in some kind of prolonged twilight in the last third of my life." Shanley came to see Williams as a role model. "As a man he was so heroic. He was the toast of the town, the darling of every movie star. And he just kept marching until he fell."
Shanley read Williams' autobiography for the express purpose of understanding how to achieve longevity as a writer. "There's a part where he says that every day he had this incredibly powerful Cuban coffee. He would drink this and his head would fill up with images and ideas. And one day he drank the coffee and it didn't work anymore. I read that and immediately switched to Sanka."
Shanley appears to be in no danger of fading away anytime soon. Last year's film adaptation of Doubt, which Shanley wrote and directed, earned five Oscar nominations, including one for his screenplay. At this point he could coast a bit, directing films from other people's scripts when he felt like it, but that's not his calling. "Things were difficult after the film version of Doubt. Directing a movie does something to my brain that makes it extremely hard for me to return to writing."