Gallaway was friend to Tennessee Williams
By Cokie Thompson | 03/02/2015 11:45pm
The UA department of theatre and dance is hosting experts from a selection of Tennessee Williams’ plays and a discussion of his relationship with Marian Gallaway. Submitted by William Gantt
Tennessee Williams was born 60 miles west of Tuscaloosa in Columbus, Mississippi. His mother almost married a man in Demopolis, 60 miles south of Tuscaloosa. His good friend from graduate school, Marian Gallaway, was the first director of theatre at The University of Alabama.
The Southern Literary Trail and the UA department of theatre and dance are celebrating this history Tuesday night with excerpts from a selection of Tennessee Williams’ plays and a discussion of his relationship with Marian Gallaway, including speakers Kenneth Holditch and Ed Williams. Holditch knew Tennessee Williams from the time they spent together in New Orleans, and spoke at his funeral. Ed Williams was a student of Marian Gallaway, and helped found the UA theatre department.
The event, titled “Tennessee Williams: The Alabama Tribute” at Gaineswood and the Marian Gallaway Theatre, started with an event Monday night in Demopolis at the ancestral home of Gaius Whitfield.
William Gantt, director of The Southern Literary Trail, said they first planned the event in Demopolis to be about Williams’ mother and her relationship with Whitfield. Whitfield courted Williams’ mother, Edwina Dakin, before Dakin eventually married Cornelius Williams of Knoxville, Tennessee’s father.
In the process of bringing the event to Tuscaloosa, they discovered the relationship with Marian Gallaway.
“Tennessee Williams was kind of formed by these relationships with women,” Gantt said. “And Marian was one of the first and one of the most influential because she loved theater and she supported him emotionally [and] intellectually.”
Williams and Gallaway first met as graduate students at The University of Iowa, where Gallaway costumed him for his role in “Henry IV, Part I” in 1938. Williams used the name “Gallaway” for several characters, including Dorothea Gallaway in “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.” Gallaway claimed Williams based Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on her.
Gantt said Gallaway drove Williams to a production of one of his plays in St. Louis. She criticized his work, but Williams was grateful for the feedback. Gantt said he hopes both events will shine a light on these formative relationships in the life of one of America’s most celebrated playwrights.
“It’s like we’re connecting the dots to these relationships here,” Gantt said. “We hope it’ll be fun and informative and kind of make people aware of these connections.”
Williams is an oft-revived playwright in America, Gannt said.
“Somebody’s always doing ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’” he said. “Here, we’ve got somebody who was important in his development as a playwright.”
Marian Gallaway, known to her students as “Doc Gallaway,” poured her heart and soul into the beginnings of the theatre program. She worked behind the scenes herself, making costumes and wigs to keep the department going on a budget of $2,000 a year.
“She pushed forward, fought the bureaucracy at the University at that time and just did things,” Gantt said.
Later in her career, Gallaway wrote a book sharing her knowledge of theatre. Williams wrote the foreword about her talent and the importance of her influence on his life.
“Quite possibly I derived more from this friendship than I did from any of the actual courses that I undertook,” Williams wrote in the foreword. “For Marian Gallaway was one of those persons who lived and breathed theatre and somehow managed to infect her associates with her own religious excitement about it.”
Steve Burch, a professor of theatre history at the University, said Williams’ works concentrate on the lives of women and the struggles they face.
“[Williams] understood the American character in a way that very few writers did,” Burch said. “He wrote glorious roles both for women, but also men as well. Characters with such dimension, such depth, that I think one of his hallmarks is that we can usually see much of ourselves or the world we know through them.”
Burch said Williams is part of America’s DNA. Along with Eugene O’Neill, Williams made American drama world-class, he said.
“Williams has been front and center for me, and, as I said, I think virtually anyone, any American who has acted, taught, directed, written,” Burch said.
Burch cited classic performances from Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that all came from Williams’ work. He said those performances influence and affect everyone.
“I think it’ll be quite a while before Williams’ influence has waned enough so that it no longer matters,” Burch said.
The UA department of theatre and dance has felt that influence. They put on one of his plays every couple of years, but not because of a hard-and-fast rule. Ed Williams, who has no relation to Tennessee, was a student of Marian Gallaway’s for many years before succeeding her as chairman of the theatre department.
Bill Teague, the current department chair, said that could be why the department has put on virtually the entire Tennessee Williams canon.
“I think it was more of the way Tennessee Williams commented on the condition of life and life experiences, and the longing and unmet goals and unrealistic expectations and unrequited love and all those things - those themes that we keep finding in literature,” Teague said. “And he was just a darn good playwright.”
Andrea Love, a third-year MFA candidate studying acting, portrays Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Bodey in “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” in the production. She said navigating the differences between the characters has been an interesting experience.
“Tennessee Williams is not just a playwright,” Love said. “His use of language frequently crosses the line into poetry, and this is a great gift and a great challenge for an actor.”
Love said the event gives her the opportunity to feel out the characters and the work while she is still relatively inexperienced for a full stage production.
“This type of event is really wonderful, because it is both entertaining and informative, placing these great pieces in the context in which they were written,” she said.
The event Tuesday night is primarily an effort of William Gantt and The Southern Literary Trail, but Teague said the partnership may continue in the future.
“We really believe in The Literary Trail and what he’s doing for the humanities, and we will probably continue to work with him when we can,” Teague said. “This has been a very positive outing, and I can see this kind of continuing.”