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Tennessee Williams' play, related events scheduled at Illinois

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor


Allean Hale and Tom Mitchell
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UI Photo
New debut Allean Hale, an adjunct professor of theater, and Tom Mitchell, UI professor of theater, have been researching the history of some of the early works of Tennessee Williams. Mitchell will direct Williams’ early play ‘Candles to the Sun,’ which makes its 21st-century debut Sept. 29 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The play is the focus of a series of related events Oct. 6-8.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For drama lovers everywhere, the name Tennessee Williams conjures up the complex, conflicted and often spirited characters that populate plays such as “The Glass Menagerie” or “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

But in recent years, scholars who study the 20th-century American playwright have discovered a trove of early works that reveal a side of Williams not so well known: that of a young, politically charged writer fired up by the populist struggles unfolding around him in middle America in the 1930s.

One of those works – his first full-length play “Candles to the Sun” – will receive its 21st-century debut at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Sept. 29 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The play runs through Oct. 9 and will be the focus of a series of related events, Oct. 6-8, that includes readings, short performances, lectures and open rehearsals.

Activities include a reading of Williams’ short story “Ten Minute Stop,” set at the bus station in Champaign in 1936, and a Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm lecture by Christopher Bigsby, an internationally known authority on modern American drama and head of the Arthur Miller Center and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the University of East Anglia in England.

Tom Mitchell, a professor of theater at the U. of I. and director of “Candles,” said the play was first produced in 1937 by an amateur theater group called The Mummers in St. Louis, Williams’ hometown.

“In the 1930s, Williams – who was just plain Tom (then) – was a struggling poet, short-story writer, part-time student and frustrated worker at the International Shoe Company,” Mitchell said.

“At the invitation of Willard Holland, director of The Mummers, Tom Williams submitted ‘Candles to the Sun,’ a play dealing with the labor struggles in an Alabama coal mine,” Mitchell said.

“Candles” is one of five early, so-called “apprentice plays” by Williams that have been published over the past few years as part of a series issued by New Directions. Though it was the first written, “Candles” was the last to be published – in the fall of 2004.

The play is the third of the apprentice plays to be directed at the Krannert Center by Mitchell, who, in 2000 resurrected Williams’ first long comedy, “Stairs to the Roof,” and in 2004, “Spring Storm.” As he did with those plays and last year’s “Caged Hearts” – an original piece Mitchell wrote that features a montage of scenes from Williams’ early plays – the U. of I. director is restaging “Candles” with the assistance of one of country’s most respected Williams’ scholars.

“Once again, I’ve been working with Allean Hale,” an adjunct professor of theater at Illinois. “We spent the summer doing some very interesting research on the play, including a trip to St. Louis to visit the Wednesday Club Auditorium where it was first produced. This little theater, in a lovely 1905 Prairie Style architecture building, has been essentially untouched since Williams’ time. Even the folks who now use the building as ‘The Learning Center’ knew little or nothing about the building’s connections to the nascent career of the important American writer.”

Just as evidence of Williams’ roots in St. Louis continue to surface, so do traces of his written work, Hale said.

“He just wrote so much. We keep finding things … just as with Shakespeare, though now we know he wrote more than Shakespeare.”

“And as these come out, they give us a different perspective on Williams’ whole career,” Mitchell said. “We’ve become aware that he was very political, something that comes through quite clearly in ‘Fugitive Kind’ and ‘Not for Nightingales.’ And looking at his circle of friends at the time these plays were written, too, we see these were very, very political people.”

Among Williams’ strong influences, he said, was Communist party leader Jack Conroy, publisher of the proletariat magazine “The Anvil.”

“ ‘Candles’ is about a coal-mining family in Alabama, with an accident at the heart of the story,” Mitchell said. “Williams had never even been to a mine or to Alabama. But there really had been a mine incident in Missouri at the time, and Conroy had been a leader for strikes at mines.” So, it isn’t hard to piece together the inspirations for Williams’ writings, Mitchell said.

More information about the Krannert Center performances and related events, including dates, times and locations, is available on the Web at