It is amazing to discover the amount of talent devoted to the theater in Mississippi, a state far removed from Broadway—the center of drama in America, for better or worse—both in terms of distance and interest. When theater and Mississippi are mentioned in the same sentence, Tennessee Williams automatically comes to mind: his achievement and reputation tower over those of most other twentieth-century southern—indeed, American—playwrights.
People are often astounded to learn that the South and particularly Mississippi, which is generally perceived as a backward state with a high illiteracy rate, has produced so many major writers and dramatists. In addition to Williams, who is regarded as one of the world’s most significant twentieth-century dramatists, Mississippi nurtured Mart Crowley, whose groundbreaking Boys in the Band was the first major play to portray the gay lifestyle in a truthful manner, and Beth Henley, whose Crimes of the Heart deals realistically with a dysfunctional southern small-town family in a new, almost whimsical way. All three of these playwrights followed in the footsteps of Stark Young, a Mississippian who went to New York at an early age and became a potent force as both a creative writer and a critic whose perceptive reviews helped shape American drama.
What the hills of North Mississippi meant for Faulkner in terms of setting and influence, the Delta signified for Tennessee Williams, who traveled far afield but never lost his attachment to the place he called home. For all of the state’s presumed flaws, Mississippi has provided for its artists some invaluable substance, some support. In Williams’s words, Mississippi constituted “a deep wide world you can breathe in.” The classic struggle between puritanism and romanticism, a part of Williams’s own character, also appeared in many of his dramas. Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire is hopelessly idealistic at the same time that she is puritanically prudish in her condemnation of Stanley Kowalski. Her romanticism has been nurtured by growing up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta. (Even though Laurel is the name of her hometown in the play, references to Moon Lake and other elements make it clear that Williams was writing about the Delta.) Despite the fact that the family is dying off and the land has been lost bit by bit because of the sexual peccadilloes of her ancestors, Blanche remains inescapably tied to that past, which may exist only in her imagination.
Williams drew from his southern heritage and his Mississippi childhood an intense sense of place, an attachment to family, an awareness of tradition and history (even though he is perhaps the least concerned with re-creating the southern past of any Mississippi writer of his generation), a romantic sensibility, a love of both lyrical and colloquial language, and a firm grounding in religion, especially involving a deep spirituality. For Williams as for other southern authors, that love of language is often rooted in the English of the King James Version of the Bible and the words of Protestant hymns as well as the eloquent and imaginative dialogue of southerners themselves.
Although Stark Young preceded Williams by a generation, those same devotions and ties were present in Young’s work. He was associated with the Agrarians and was a contributor to their seminal book, I’ll Take My Stand. Young made a place for himself in the tightly knit society of New York theater, becoming a much admired translator of Anton Chekhov’s plays, a critic for the New Republic and Theater Arts, and a staunch supporter of young southern talent. Despite the cosmopolitan circles in which he moved and worked, Young retained his Mississippi influences and sympathies, and his work clearly reflects the fact that he was the son of a Confederate soldier and felt a deep attachment to the land of his birth. He shared with Williams a fascination with Chekhov’s works, which depict a world in which aristocrats are fading away as a strange and frightening new social order evolves.
As Flannery O’Connor has noted, most southern writers are Christ-haunted, and Mississippians’ work is permeated by concerns regarding the age-old battle between good and evil, God and Satan, within human beings. In Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, protagonist Michael is a Roman Catholic Mississippian living in Manhattan. Although he believes himself free of his ties to the past, he suffers from guilt for many of his actions: at the end of the play, for example, after he has brutalized some of his party guests with his biting insults, he hurries off to a late Mass to seek redemption. He quotes his father—“I don’t understand any of it, I never did”—acknowledging perhaps unconsciously his ties to the past and family. In Crowley’s sequel, The Men from the Boys, Michael describes himself as “the most liberal Confederate who ever lived.”
Crowley observed the filming of Williams’s Baby Doll in the Mississippi Delta and became friends with the movie’s stars and staff, a connection that eventually led him to a career in Hollywood. Although Boys in the Band broke new ground in the portrayal of gay life in America, appreciation of the play should not be limited to that perspective, because it is first and foremost, like all good drama, a study of the human experience in general.
Beth Henley, too, has gone from Mississippi to Hollywood. Her most famous work, Crimes of the Heart, began as a stage play and later became a popular movie, as did Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest. In those and her other works, Henley creates female characters reminiscent of those in the world of Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers—indissolubly tied to their families despite having left them in a futile attempt to escape the past. Though Henley’s eccentrics may be reminiscent of the creations of other writers, her characters are uniquely her own, shaped in large part by the confining elements of small-town life and by their family ties and sympathies.
In “Person-to-Person,” Williams explained the proliferation of writers in the twentieth-century South: “I once saw a group of little girls on a Mississippi sidewalk, all dolled up in their mothers’ and sisters’ cast-off finery, old raggedy ball gowns and plumed hats and high-heeled slippers, enacting a meeting of ladies in a parlor with a perfect mimicry of polite Southern gush and simper. But one child was not satisfied with the attention paid her enraptured performance by the others, they were too involved in their own performances to suit her, so she stretched out her skinny arms and threw back her skinny neck and shrieked to the dead heavens and her equally oblivious playmates, ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me!’ . . . I wonder if she is not, now, a Southern writer.”
Williams’s insights might equally apply to theater performers. Mississippi has produced numerous distinguished actors, many of whom first performed in school and community theater groups in their home state. Dana Andrews was for many years a leading man in motion pictures, including such memorable films as Tobacco Road, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Laura. Ruth Ford, who performed in both movies and stage plays, was a friend of Faulkner, Williams, and Crowley and appeared in works by all of them. Faulkner wrote Requiem for a Nun at Ford’s request, and she starred in it with her husband, Zachary Scott. Louise Fletcher, one of several products of the University of Mississippi drama department, achieved fame with her creation of Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Meridian native Diane Ladd has appeared frequently on television and in movies, receiving three Academy Award nominations.
Four Mississippi-born African American actors are readily recognizable to audiences. Arkabutla-born James Earl Jones’s powerful baritone is instantly familiar as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies and has long made him in demand as a narrator in a variety of genres. He has also delivered unforgettable performances in movies, television dramas, and theater, where he played the role of Big Daddy in the first African American staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Morgan Freeman, who spent much of his childhood in Charleston and Greenwood, Mississippi, has appeared in numerous movies (among them Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption) and in stage drama (Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl). Vicksburg’s Beah Richards gave memorable portrayals in numerous supporting roles on both stage and screen, including that of the mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And Kosciusko’s Oprah Winfrey has become an institution, a multifaceted actress, author, producer, and talk-show host who has achieved worldwide fame.
Somewhat lesser known television actors from Mississippi include Anthony Herrera, Gerald McRaney, former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, Carrie Nye, and Sela Ward. More recently, Parker Posey has had recurring roles in a variety of television series, among them The Good Wife and Lost in Space, and has regularly appeared in Christopher Guest’s comic films. Purvis native Lacey Chabert began acting as a twelve year old in the television series Party of Five, and has worked in a string of Hallmark movies and as the voice in numerous animated films. Brandy Norwood, born in McComb, began as a popular singer as a teenager, starred on television’s Moesha, and moved on to make more movies and music. Lance Bass, who first gained fame as a member of the boy band NSYNC, has gone on to appear in numerous television productions and movies. And Hollywood heartthrob Channing Tatum has had a string of hit movies, including Magic Mike and the critically acclaimed Foxcatcher.
- C. W. E. Bigsby, Modern American Drama, 1945–1990 (1992)
- Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995)
- John Pilkington, ed. Stark Young: A Life in Letters, 1900–1962 (1975)