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Bringing Tennessee Williams to Life

A visit with Albert Devlin, Professor of English

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: theatre letters Tennessee Williams English

Professor Albert Devlin, a natural storyteller, sits back in his chair, crosses his arms, and proceeds to describe the fortuitous events that changed the trajectory of his professional life—that is, when in 1995 the estate of playwright Tennessee Williams placed the collection of his correspondence in the hands of Devlin and Nancy Tischler, professor emerita at Pennsylvania State University, giving them permission to edit these precious materials. The task before them was huge: reviewing thousands of letters written by Williams to friends, family, editors, agents, and critics from the 1920s, when Williams was a Mizzou undergraduate student writing to his parents, to the period just prior to his death in 1983. Devlin and Tischler looked for details, tried to verify accuracy of facts, and sought larger patterns in these letters. “Williams wore his heart on his sleeve,” said Devlin, composing letters on a typewriter “at around 90 words per minute” [110 by another account!]. “He couldn’t write other than poetically…words just poured out of him,” resulting in highly personal letters that shed light on the life of this talented playwright.

The first fruits of their labors were The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, volumes I (2000) and II (2004), edited by Devlin and co-editor Nancy Tischler, in which these remarkable letters are situated within the context of Williams’ creative activities. The volumes show, for instance, what was occurring in Williams’ personal life while he was producing such famous plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Naturally, Devlin and Tischler’s examination of this fascinating persona has drawn the attention of the theatre world, with scripted readings performed at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City—A Distant Country Called Youth (2001) that drew from Volume I of The Selected Letters and Blanche and Beyond (2005) that drew from Volume II. Devlin said that watching Williams’ letters come alive, through the dramatic voice and actions of such actors as Richard Thomas and Robert Sean Leonard, and seeing Williams’ world spatially rendered via the stage set has given him a new perspective on the playwright’s art.

The interdisciplinary nature of Devlin and Tischler’s work, encompassing literature, history, theatre, and rhetoric of communication, has led to Devlin recently accepting a joint appointment with Mizzou’s Theatre Department—a perfect fit for the very institution Williams once attended himself.