Tennessee WilliamsPlays, Characters, & the Meaning of Life

Believe it or not, there were a few moments during my time as an intern for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive when I felt like I was having a personal epiphany. Studs’ interview with playwright Tennessee Williams provided one of those moments. They discuss Williams’ background, his plays, his feelings about Broadway versus off-Broadway or old playwrights versus new, as well as examine the characters he writes and the very personal connection he feels to them.  And, in beautifully eloquent language you can’t help admiring, their conversation transcends the discussion of plays and characters, and turns into something else.

Studs and Tennessee Williams talk like old friends. They laugh together. At certain points you can hear the clinking of ice in their glasses. Yet Studs consistently addresses him as Mr. Williams or murmurs his name in full: Tennessee Williams, a sort of chant reflecting his respect for the accomplished playwright. This combination reflects Studs Terkel’s apparent, genuine interest that is present in all of his interviews. He creates an environment where interviewees can open up and produce gems of dialogue such as the ones in this episode, when Tennessee Williams reveals the secret of the best moments in life, of what being a complete person is, and of how to think about living as an American and a patriot of the world. Together they talk about life in a way that I haven’t been able to articulate myself, but could feel singing in my bones as true.

My epiphany feelings ended near the end of the interview, when their discussion turns briefly to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. The dated language they use to talk about it startled me out of my sense that they were speaking timeless truths, and in fact made me feel uncomfortable. Despite this reminder of cultural and linguistic distance, I learned to value Studs’ ability to create moments that feel eternal, moments that are infinitely relatable because they are about the most fundamental topic possible: the meaning of life.

-Lizzie Friedman