The Lamp

We’re about to start rehearsals for Candles to the Sun, the first production in our 2-year Celebration Series. I’ll be adding our dramaturgical research to the blog soon, as well as some of the notes, sketches and images that the designers are kicking around as we begin the process.

I wanted to start, though, where this play started – with a rough draft of a one-act play that became Tennessee Williams’s first full length play.

Sometime in the early 1930s, Thomas Lanier Williams (who later rechristened himself with the now famous “Tennessee”) was given a one act play called “The Lamp,” written by family friend Joseph Phelan Hollifield. There’s not a lot of information about Hollifield or the original one act he wrote (or at least not much I can find yet), but a letter from Hollifield to Williams in November 1935 gives us some interesting clues about the genesis of Candles to the Sun, and the birth of one of America’s greatest playwrights:

Dear Tom,

I was very glad to get your letter because I had been wanting to hear from you. The play contest sounds very interesting, I just hope you will be able to do something with The Lamp. It is the only thing I have ever done that I feel is worth anything at all. Whatever you do with it will be all right, I am sure…

What Tom did with it was to turn it into the script we’re now working on, a script that attracted the attention of Willard Holland, the director of The Mummers, a group of amateur actors in St. Louis. The Mummers opened Candles to the Sun in 1937, and Tennessee Williams’s reputation as a playwright who spoke with a unique and poetic voice began to grow.

Williams wrote in the margins of an early draft that “the title and partly the idea for this play was derived from” Hollifield’s original one-act. As he worked on the play, the title changed, but the story of a group of miners in northern Alabama, and the theme of the play, described in the same margin note as “sacrifice of individual to social ends” seem to have been given, willingly and generously, by a now unknown writer who may deserve more credit than anyone else for launching a legendary playwright’s career.


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