You’ve Got Mail

An actor gives life to the letters of Tennessee Williams.

Sarah Harper

As summer approaches with its trademark cocktails and afternoon porch sits, the growing season for fascinations with old southern writers is upon us.

Friday night, University of Minnesota-Morris associate theater professor Ray Schultz will perform a one-man show about the patron saint of strong drinks and midsummer steam himself, Tennessee Williams.

“In certain regards, his life was an absolute emotional mess. But he was also — in a weird, contradictory way — incredibly disciplined when he wrote,” Schultz said, explaining that Williams would fight hangovers to wake up and write the plays, novels and essays that would make him one of the most famous and respected writers of all time.

“He wrote many, many, many — thousands — of letters over his lifetime,” Schultz said. Steve Lawson adapted some of this correspondence into two pieces, one focused on the years between 1945 and 1957, when Williams penned “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Schultz, a residential fellow this spring at the Institute for Advanced Studies, has been performing the piece “Blanche and The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams” for more than a year now.

To prepare, Schultz followed Williams’ massive paper trail, the letters of which are published in large volumes. He also took a peek at the bona fide documents, located at the University of Texas-Austin.

“Most of them are typewritten, but you can see where he amended them with pen or pencil. A lot of them have cigarette burns and coffee rings,” Schultz said. “You can see his life on a paper, not only with words, but just in the way they look.”

“Blanche and Beyond” hits the rock bottoms of Williams’ personal and creative sides, from his troubled family life and bouts of depression to his issues with drinking and prescription drugs.

“He experienced a lot of writer’s block in the later part of his career, and it troubled him greatly,” Schultz said.

But some of the letters fly alongside Williams during his triumphs, one of which Schultz named as one of his favorites to perform.

“He’s really deliriously happy over his success,” Schultz said. “He writes to his friend and publisher on the opening night of ‘Streetcar’ and describes what the opening night was like.”

Another letter the professor named as a favorite is one Williams wrote about “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” dissecting the play and its characters.

“It’s an extremely funny and lucid letter that really gives you some insight into his creative process,” Schultz said.

Whether they were written under cloudy or clear skies, all of Williams’ letters contained an element of himself, the voice he presented on the stage, the page and the screen closely resembling the one he used with his close friends, colleagues and confidantes.

“You can hear some of the vestiges of the plays in his letter writing,” Schultz said. “It is always a joy to be able to say the language.”


What: “Blanche and Beyond: The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams”

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday

Where: Xperimental Theatre, Rarig Center, 330 S. 21st Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: Free, reservations recommended — to reserve, email [email protected] or call 612-626-5054