Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia, The

Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia, The

Bak, John S

Review: Philip C. Kolin, ed. The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia. Westport and London: Greenwood P, 2004. Pp. xxix, 350. 89-95 (hb).

If reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover is a Herculean task, reviewing one is surely a Sisyphean undertaking, and The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia is no exception. So rich is its content, so vast are its intellectual horizons, that the demands placed on its reviewer appear insurmountable. Given that 57 Williams scholars have contributed their expertise to this book’s making, one reviewer’s attempt to assess its merits seems a trifling affair by comparison. Having said that, the recent publication of Tennessee Williams A to Z: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by Facts On File has confirmed the market for such a sorely needed book, making the review process even more necessary. No matter how it is scrutinized or challenged, however, The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia will prove difficult to surpass.

The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia brings together in one highly accessible book of 160 various entries pertaining to the life and work of Tennessee Williams. The alphabetically arranged entries, varying in length according to importance, combine to make a “convenient, concise, and authoritative volume” (x) that

a) identifies major figures in Williams’s life

b) supplies a succinct biography of the playwright

c) summarizes and concisely interprets Williams’s plays and their characters, plots, and themes, as well as his stories, poems, essays, and journals

d)provides essential background information about sources and publications

e) gives brief histories of the performances of his plays, citing influential directors, actors, producers, and designers

f) surveys important film adaptations and how they differ from the plays, (x)

Entries, frequently written by Williams scholars who have published work on that subject, supply “factual information” and “critical commentary” (x), with many of the longer entries offering new insight into the subject’s already well-trodden past. Spanning the years of Williams’s life and beyond, entries range from his first published work while at Blewett Jr. High School through his little-studied apprentice plays of the 1930s and on to many of his yet-unpublished plays, stories, and poems of the 1970s and 1980s. Included within each entry is a helpful cross-referencing, where boldfaced type indicates that a separate entry devoted to the item can be found elsewhere in the book. Most conclude with a “Further Reading” list to “assist readers in locating information pertinent to the topic of the entry” (xi). Also, a handy “topical listing of entry names” (xi) prefaces the entries to help readers isolate a particular person, place, or work, and a detailed index at the end complements this list by indicating where one not accorded an individual entry appears in the book. The Encyclopedia ends with bibliographies of Williams’s primary works and selective secondary sources.

The book’s A to Y organization (there are no Q, U, X, nor Z entries) makes locating people, places, or titles quick and easy. Entries cover major individuals who have influenced Williams’s personal, professional, or artistic life, from former lovers like Kip Kiernan and Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzales, to theatre personalities like Elia Kazan and Audrey Wood, to finally literary figures like Hart Crane and Clifford Odets. Further entries cover the significant places Williams called (or did not call) home, such as New Orleans, Key West, or St. Louis. Major concepts and themes relevant to Williams’s work are also discussed, from his notion of the “Plastic Theater” to issues of race, politics, and gender/sexuality that imbue his literary corpus. The majority of space, however, is devoted to his works-poems, stories, novels, essays, and plays alike. These entries are organized to give readers information about date of composition and date of first performance; relationship to an earlier or later Williams’s work(s); influences that affected Williams’s composition; characters-the importance of their names, symbolic presence; symbols-Williams’s, stock in trade; plot-how it evolved and what analogues and structural parallels it offers; setting; and a brief production history (xiii).

All in all, The Encyclopedia is an invaluable book for novice readers and seasoned Williams scholars alike. Entries are logical and utilitarian, brief where they need to be (e.g., “Alia Nazimova”) and detailed when breadth is required (e.g., “Religion” and “Gender and Sexuality”). While the major plays are all treated extensively, their scholarly lives outside of this book allowed editor Philip C. Kolin the opportunity to devote more space to Williams’s lesser-known works. Such information about still unpublished works is extremely beneficial to any reader looking to fill in the gaps between major works, to provide a gloss by which to read them in a different light, or simply to discover a Williams that they never knew existed. Some of the essays even advance Williams scholarship in a book that is rightfully aimed at synthesizing past and current knowledge of the playwright. While John M. Clum’s essay on “Gender and Sexuality” and Kolin’s on “Race,” for example, offer excellent condensations of vast and complex subjects that they and other scholars have advanced about Williams’s obsession with sexuality and race relations in America, Thomas P. Adler’s entry on “Religion” both covers familiar ground for the uninitiated and offers new insight for the more informed Williams reader. Inverting Sartrean ideology as explored in Huis clos to explain Williams paradoxical Christian dogma, for instance, Adler sawily concludes that “[f]or Williams, it might be said that hell is the self, while God is the other, and so to deny the other is to deny God” (214). Other strong entries were contributed by James Fisher (“Something Cloudy, Something Clear”), Robert Bray (“Collected Stories”), Allean Hale (“St. Louis”), George W. Crandell (“Cat on a hot Tin Roof and “Text”), Gene D. Phillips (“Film Adaptations”), Brenda Murphy (“Politics”), Annette Saddik (“Kirche, Kutchen, und Kinder”), Brian Parker (“The Rose Tattoo”), Michael Palier (“Williams, Rose Isabel”), and Felicia Hardison Londré (“Williams, Thomas Lanier, III {‘Tennessee’]”). Finally, Kolin should be lauded for shouldering the burden of the entries listed in the Encyclopedia (having written 30 out of the 160 total), once again demonstrating his impressive and comprehensive knowledge of Williams.

Any grand undertaking such as the Encyclopedias cannot be without flaw, however, and among the inevitable typographical errors are some minor discrepancies, inaccuracies, and omissions that can be readily amended for the second edition. One entry, for example, has Edwina Dakin and Cornelius Williams’s marriage as 2 June 1907, and a page later another entry cites it as 3 June 1907 (p. 300, p. 303). Inaccuracies range from misquotation (e. g., “thirty thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile,” p. 232) to misinformation (“Spring Storm is the only apprentice play set in the South,” p. 235; cf. p. 28). As for certain omissions, they vary from incidental oversights (such as David Siqueiros’s painting of Hart Crane being left out of “Art” though picked up later in “Crane, Hart”) to neglected important bibliographical references (for instance, not citing William McMurry’s 1982 dissertation “Music in Selected Works of Tennessee Williams” or Esther Jackson’s “Music and Dance as Elements of Form in the Drama of Tennessee Williams,” Revue d’Histoire du Théâtre 15.3 [1963] 294-301, for the entry on “Music”). In fact, many of the enrries’ “Further Reading” disproportionately favor recent criticism on Williams, with significant critics like Christopher Bigsby, Esther M. Jackson, and Kenneth Holditch having been marginalized.

Also curiously missing is an entry on José Quintero, whose Circle in the Square theatre not only redeemed Summer and Smoke in 1952 but, in so doing, also gave birth to off-Broadway, toward which Williams would frequently turn later in his career. Though Kolin is right to declare that “not everyone” who worked with Williams or on a Williams play “could have been included” (xi), Quintero’s efforts with Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and the film The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone surely place him on or near equal footing with Sir Peter Hall, who was given his own entry (if anything, Quintero would have at least provided an entry for “Q”). Other entries not included in the Encyclopedia might also be considered for the subsequent edition, such as “Provincetown,” a city and a myth which arguably had as much an impact on Williams’s life and work as Key West had, and “Androgyny,” an ontological credo in Williams that transgresses the limits of “Gender and Sexuality.”

These minor criticisms and suggestions aside, The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia is an excellent resource book that can serve many reading communities with varying scholarly needs, and its editor, Philip C. Kolin, has proven once again that he is the indisputable Williams authority-“Past, Present, and Perhaps.”

JOHN S. BAK is Associate Professor at the Université Nancy 2 in France, where he teaches courses in translation, American drama, and American Gothic.

Copyright American Drama Institute Summer 2005

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