The Tennessee Williams Annual Review
Editor’s Note to Sacre de Printemps
In Williams’s Sacre de Printemps (Rites of Spring), Robert, a young college student, gets expelled from his university for “stirring up anarchy” while speaking at a campus meeting. After returning home and being chided by his mother for refusing to apologize to the Dean, he falls asleep on the couch. A lengthy dream sequence ensues in which Robert is joined by numerous “dream characters”: the Dean and several professors (all speaking in pedantic jabberwocky); a disjointed presence known only as “the Stranger,” or “the Voice”; and some of Robert’s undergraduate acquaintances, including his friends Donald Hunt and a young girl known simply as “Jane.” Donald is clearly an early version of a familiar Williams figure—the poet/dreamer. Derided by the professors for being an unfocused student and described by Robert’s mother as “the one that wrote poetry and quit school to become a tramp,” Donald represents precisely what Williams wanted to be at the time he wrote this play—a vagabond poet, freely adrift from societal constraints and contemptuous of academic decorum and convention. Donald’s untimely death (run over by a freight train, another Williams motif found in an early version of Streetcar and in Spring Storm) apotheosizes him as a romantic figure and a source of idealization for Robert. The Voice, a disembodied interloper who addresses Robert with florid, mystical phrases (“You smell the bitter sweetness of the new spring earth. . . You have crazy stars in your head”), seems to function as the spectral manifestation of Donald’s poetic yearnings. At one point Williams, undercutting seriousness with winsomeness (and perhaps sensing that the Voice waxes a bit treacle), has Robert turn to Jane and confide, “What he says isn’t particularly original but his voice has a very pleasant quality, don’t you think?”
Toward the play’s end Robert awakens and, invigorated by his nocturnal epiphany, agrees to write the Dean a letter of apology in order to be readmitted. But to his mother’s befuddlement, the note contains only one phrase, repeated several times: “I am alive.” Just before the curtain, Robert turns to the audience, and “with outspread arms and lifted, ecstatic face,” proclaims, “I AM ALIVE, I AM ALIVE, ALIVE, ALIVE!!!” It would not be the last time Williams seemingly labored in fashioning a conclusion for one of his plays.
Although the one-act is undated, several clues suggest that it was probably written during Williams’s nonmatriculation period at Washington University in St. Louis (1937), when he lived at home under the ever-mindful gaze of his mother, Edwina, the inspiration for Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. The tension between the idealistic Robert and his nagging mother indeed brings to mind Tom and Amanda’s verbal sparring in that play, written about his warehouse employment between 1932 and 1935. At the beginning of Sacre de Printemps, Robert, who fancies himself “the campus radical,” rails at his mother about “Fascism, militarism, capitalism, materialism . . . intolerance, bigotry!” During his brief stay at Washington University, the young Tom Williams, like Robert, became increasingly concerned with social issues and consorted with like-minded undergraduates who imagined themselves as aspiring Bolsheviks. It was at this time that Williams wrote Me, Vashya! (1937), a one-act melodrama (also containing a “vision” scene) involving militarism and a corrupt arms merchant. According to Williams biographer Lyle Leverich, the author quickly grew disenchanted with his conservative professors at Washington University, which he called “the stronghold of the Reactionaries.” He did poorly in most of his classes and took out his frustrations on his teachers, at one point entering Professor William Carson’s office and screaming at him after Me, Vashya! was rejected for presentation. In addition, Williams’s friend Clark Mills recalls reading a letter Tom wrote to Professor Otto Heller that Mills characterized as “an explosive denunciation—total warfare.” In April of 1937, Williams was placed on academic probation because of his shaky classroom performance and received a letter from the registrar’s office stating that he “must consult Dean before reregistering.”1 Did Williams transform all of his anger at these real-life humiliations into Robert’s act of heroic defiance? The author’s parodies of the ridiculous Dean and professors, who pontificate about their various “truths” in gibberish and non sequiturs, does bring to mind the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold.
One final clue that may help in dating this composition lies in Williams’s July 4, 1937, Notebook entry that sounds eerily coincidental with Robert’s “I am alive!” epiphany: “This morning had odd experience—wakened by a bird call—gave me a strange, delightful sensation—an atavistic emotion from my early childhood. So clear and pure—the delight of an early morning in childhood—pure, spiritual delight—made me realize what a muddy stream my life has become. If only I could regain that lost clarity and purity of spirit!”
One of Williams’s few dream plays, Sacre de Printemps illustrates a nascent attempt at expressionistic drama as well as the author’s trademark mixture of serious issues leavened with occasional humor. We offer it here in print for the first time.