Reading in a new book a chapter on prominent writers of the 1950s, there was unsurprisingly a long section on playwright Tennessee Williams, and mention of a particular novella he wrote. The name was vaguely familiar and in trying to run it down I flipped through Tennessee Williams Notebooks finding a couple of mentions, and from there went to an anthology of collected stories by Williams. Among the stories in those pages was the object of my search.
In addition to twenty-nine major plays, two novels and ten screenplays, Tennessee Williams published fifty short stories in his lifetime. His first story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in 1928 when Williams was seventeen. His last, The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen” in 1978 when the author was sixty-seven. All fifty of his stories have been published in the 1985 book Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories.
Gore Vidal once said about Tennessee Williams, “…He is not a great story writer like Chekhov but he has something rather more rare than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice that is totally compelling.” Almost feverish in his dedication to writing, Williams worked every morning on whatever was at hand. If there was no play to be finished or new dialogue to be sent round to the theater, he would open a drawer and take out the draft of a story already written (sometimes already published) and begin to rewrite it. A compulsive writer from early age, his need to write was much like the smoker’s need to smoke or the alcoholic’s need to drink. His friend, the writer Donald Windham once said, “He put writing before knowing where he was going to sleep or where his next meal was coming from.” Tennessee Williams enjoyed the marvelous talent of being able to write about what he felt rather than what he knew or understood. In an uncommonly sensitive artist that surely was cause for a fertile pen.
“The Knightly Quest” is a long story begun in 1949, written mainly in 1965 and published the following year in the collection The Knightly Quest, which included four stories along with the novella. It was published again in 1968 in a volume that included twelve stories. The story is partial basis for Williams’ unpublished play The Red Devil Battery Sign.
“The Knightly Quest” is a near-science fiction story about how fear and rage can be whipped up in the minds of people, and how the powers that be deliberately channel that fear in a way to distract them from real problems. Written mostly during the 1960s, the reader is led to recall such examples as the Vietnam War, Watergate and the doomsday prophecies of political candidates. Some have read the novella as an antiwar satire dealing with cold war issues, others as a Kafka-like parable set in a secret weapons factory. However it may be described, it is also a scathing indictment of small town morality. The hero of Williams’ novella is an outsider, an outcast in struggle against a society intolerant of those who are different. He is named Gewinner, German for ‘winner’ and he is named after the town of his birth, a place the protagonist recalls from childhood as “a romantic ballet setting.” The name is ironic in the sense that ultimately material prosperity swallows up the town’s original spirit. Not a name Williams devised, Gewinner was the name of a real friend, Holt Gewinner.
The following is an excerpt from the novella…
‘One of these new businesses, between big and little, was the Laughing Boy Drive-in, situated on a corner diagonally across from the Pearce family mansion, and this drive-in provoked Gewinner Pearce’s sense of personal outrage more strongly than any other vulgarity which had appeared in his home town during his absence. The drive-in was built on property that belong to the Pearces. Gewinner’s younger brother, Braden, had leased it for ninety-nine years to a boyhood chum whose portrait in golden neon smiled and laughed out loud with a big haw-haw, at ten-second intervals, from early dusk to midnight. And this, mind you, was on the finest residential boulevard in the city and the haw-hawing neon portrait of its owner was almost directly facing the Pearce mansion. Gewinner, of course, had no misapprehensions about the elegance and dignity of the Pearce place, but the fact remained that Gewinner was a Pearce, and the Laughing Boy in neon seemed a personal affront. It laughed so loudly that it punctuated all but the loudest passages of the symphonic music he played on his hi-fi at night to calm his nerves, and in addition to the haw-haw at the drive-in there was the honking of cars from morn to midnight, appealing for immediate servings of such items as King-burgers, barbecued ribs, malts, cokes, coffee and so forth. The carhops were girls and sometimes they’d lose control of their nerves under the constant pressure of their jobs and would have screaming fits; then, more than likely, there’d be the siren wail of an ambulance or a squad car or both. When the hysterical carhop had been rushed off to the Sunshine Center, the Laughing Boy would seem to be splitting his sides over the whole bit, and though Gewinner could understand how it all might seem ludicrous, in a ghastly way, the mechanical hew-haw somehow would kill the joke, at least for the prince of the Pearces.’