An excerpt from

More Letters of Note

Shaun Usher

LETTER ONE

I know what taste is and what vulgarity is
Tennessee Williams to Joseph Breen
October 29th, 1950

In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway to rapturous applause, glowing reviews and, the following year, numerous awards. Written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan with a cast that included Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, it ran for two successful years with few alterations. In 1951, a film version hit the big screen, adapted by Williams, directed by Kazan, and boasting largely the same cast. It went on to win four Academy Awards. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 1950, the year before its release, the film ran afoul of the Motion Picture Production Code, who deemed a “pivotal” rape scene to be in breach of their guidelines. In response, Tennessee Williams wrote to the code’s administrator, Joseph Breen.

October 29, 1950

Dear Mr. Breen:

Mr. Kazan has just informed me that objections have been raised about the "rape scene" in “Streetcar” and I think perhaps it might be helpful for me to clarify the meaning and importance of this scene. As everyone must have acknowledged by now since it has been pointed out in the press by members of the clergy of all denominations, and not merely in the press but in the pulpit - “Streetcar” is an extremely and peculiarly moral play, in the deepest and truest sense of the term. This fact is so well known that a misunderstanding of it now at this late date would arouse widespread attention and indignation.

The rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces in modern society. It is a poetic plea for comprehension. I did not beg the issue by making Blanche a totally “good” person, nor Stanley a totally “bad” one. But to those who have made some rational effort to understand the play, it is apparent that Blanche is neither a “dipsomaniac” nor a “nymphomaniac” but a person of intense loneliness, fallibility and a longing which is mostly spiritual for warmth and protection. I did not, of course, disavow what I think is one of the primary things of beauty and depth in human experience, which is the warmth between two people, the so-called “sensuality” in the love-relationship. If nature and God chose this to be the mean of life’s continuance on earth, I see no reason to disavow it in creative work. At the same time, I know what taste is and what vulgarity is. I have drawn a very sharp and clear line between the two in all of the plays that I have had presented. I have never made an appeal to anything "low" or "cheap" in my plays and I would rather die than do so. Elia Kazan has directed “Streetcar” both on the stage and the screen, with inspired understanding of its finest values and an absolute regard for taste and propriety. I was fortunately able to see, in “rushes”, all but the last three scenes of the picture before I left California. Mr. Kazan has given me a detailed description of the scenes I didn’t see as they now exist on the screen. I am really amazed that any question should arise about censorship. Please remember that even in notoriously strict Boston, where the play tried out before Broadway, there was no attack on it by any responsible organ of public opinion, and on the screen the spiritual values of the play have been accentuated much more than they could be on the stage.

The poetically beautiful and touching performance of a great visiting artist, Vivien Leigh, has dominated the picture and given it a stature which surpasses that of the play. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the truly great American films and one of the very few really moral films that have come out of Hollywood. To mutilate it, now, by forcing, or attempting to force, disastrous alterations in the essential truth of it would serve no good end that I can imagine.

Please remember, also, that we have already made great concessions which we felt were dangerous to attitudes which we thought were narrow. In the middle of preparations for a new play, on which I have been working for two years, I came out to Hollywood to re-write certain sequences to suit the demands of your office. No one involved in this screen production has failed in any respect to show you the cooperation, and even deference, that has been called for. But now we are fighting for what we think is the heart of the play, and when we have our backs against the wall - if we are forced into that position - none of us is going to throw in the towel! We will use every legitimate means that any of us has at his or her disposal to protect the things in this film which we think cannot be sacrificed, since we feel that it contains some very important truths about the world we live in.

Sincerely,

Tennessee Williams


LETTER TWO

My heart almost stood still
Helen Keller to The New York Symphony Orchestra
February 2, 1924

On the evening of February 1st, 1924, the New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Damrosch, played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at to a packed Carnegie Hall in New York, one of the most famous and prestigious concert halls in the world. Many who wanted to attend, couldn’t; thankfully, the performance was broadcast live on the radio. A couple of days later, with talk of the show still on the lips of many, the orchestra received a stunning letter of thanks from the unlikeliest of sources. The letter was written by Helen Keller, a renowned author and activist who, despite having been deaf and blind from a young age, had managed to “hear” their music through touch alone.

93 Seminole Avenue,
Forest Hills, L. I.,
February 2, 1924.

The New York Symphony Orchestra,

New York City.

Dear Friends:

I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." I do not mean to say that I "heard" the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women's voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.

Of course, this was not "hearing" but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand—swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.

As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others—and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.

Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me. I want also to thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world.

With kindest regards and best wishes, I am,

Sincerely yours,

(Signed)

HELEN KELLER


LETTER THREE

Oh my ass burns like fire!
Mozart to Marianne
November 5th, 1777

When he wasn't busy composing some of the most beautiful music ever to seduce the human ear, the legend that is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could often be found writing shockingly crude and often baffling letters to his family. The fine example seen here, admirably translated by Robert Spaethling, was penned to Mozart's 19-year-old cousin and possible love interest, Marianne — also known as "Betsie" ("little cousin") — in November of 1777, at which point the poop-loving musical genius was 21 years of age.

Note: The term "spuni cuni fait" was used in many of Mozart's letters. Its meaning is unknown.

Mannheim, 5 November, 1777

Dearest cozz buzz!

I have received reprieved your highly esteemed writing biting, and I have noted doted that my uncle garfuncle, my aunt slant, and you too, are all well mell. We, too, thank god, are in good fettle kettle. Today I got a letter setter from my Papa Haha safely into my paws claws. I hope you too have gotten rotten my note quote that I wrote to you from Mannheim. So much the better, better the much so! But now for some thing more sensuble.

So sorry to hear that Herr Abbate Salate has had another stroke choke. But I hope with the help of God fraud the consequences will not be dire mire. You are writing fighting that you keep your criminal promise which you gave me before my departure from Augspurg, and will do it soon moon. Well, I will most likely find that regretable. You write further, indeed you let it all out, you expose yourself, you indicate to me, you bring me the news, you announce onto me, you state in broad daylight, you demand, you desire, you wish you want, you like, you command that I, too, should send you my Portrait. Eh bien, I shall mail fail it for sure. Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin.

apropós. do you also have the spuni cuni fait?—what?—whether you still love me?—I believe it! so much the better, better the much so! Yes, that's the way of the world, I'm told, one has the purse, the other has the gold; whom do you side with?—with me, n'est-ce pas?—I believe it! Now things are even worse, apropós.

Wouldn't you like to visit Herr Gold-smith again?—but what for?—what?—nothing!—just to inquire, I guess, about the Spuni Cuni fait, nothing else, nothing else?—well, well, all right. Long live all those who, who—who—who—how does it go on?—I now wish you a good night, shit in your bed with all your might, sleep with peace on your mind, and try to kiss your own behind; I now go off to never-never land and sleep as much as I can stand. Tomorrow we'll speak freak sensubly with each other. Things I must you tell a lot of, believe it you hardly can, but hear tomorrow it already will you, be well in the meantime. Oh my ass burns like fire! what on earth is the meaning of this!—maybe muck wants to come out? yes, yes, muck, I know you, see you, taste you—and—what's this—is it possible? Ye Gods!—Oh ear of mine, are you deceiving me?—No, it's true—what a long and melancholic sound!—today is the write I fifth this letter. Yesterday I talked with the stern Frau Churfustin, and tomorrow, on the 6th, I will give a performance in her chambers, as the Furstin-Chur said to me herself. Now for something real sensuble!

A letter or letters addressed to me will come into your hands, and I must beg of you—where?—well a fox is no hare—yes there!—Now, where was I?—oh yes, now, I remember: letters, letters will come—but what kind of letters?—well now, letters for me, of course, I want to make sure that you send these to me; I will let you know where I'll be going from Mannheim. Now, Numero 2: I'm asking you, why not?—I'm asking you, dearest numbskull, why not?—if you are writing anyway to Madame Tavernier in Munich, please include regards from me to the Mademoiselles Freysinger, why not?—Curious! why not?—and to the Younger, I mean Frauline Josepha, tell her I'll send my sincere apologies, why not?—why should I not apologize?—Curious!—I don't know why not?—I want to apologize that I haven't yet sent her the sonata that I promised, but I will send it as soon as possible, why not?—what—why not?—why shouldn't I send it?—why should I not transmit it?—why not?—Curious! I wouldn't know why not?—well, then you'll do me this favor;—why not?—why shouldn't you do this for me?—why not?, it's so strange! After all, I'll do it to you too, if you want me to, why not?—why shouldn't I do it to you?—curious! why not?—I wouldn't know why not?—and don't forget to send my Regards to the Papa and Mama of the 2 young ladies, for it is terrible to be letting and forgetting one's father and mother. Later, when the sonata is finished,—I will send you the same, and a letter to boot; and you will be so kind as to forward the same to Munich.

And now I must close and that makes me morose. Dear Herr Uncle, shall we go quickly to the Holy Cross Covent and see whether anybody is still up?—we won't stay long, just ring the bell, that's all. Now I must relate to you a sad story that happened just this minute. As I am in the middle of my best writing, I hear a noise in the street. I stop writing—get up, go to the window—and—the noise is gone—I sit down again, start writing once more—I have barely written ten words when I hear the noise again—I rise—but as I rise, I can still hear something but very faint—it smells like something burning—wherever I go it stinks, when I look out the window, the smell goes away, when I turn my head back to the room, the smell comes back—finally My Mama says to me: I bet you let one go?—I don't think so, Mama. yes, yes, I'm quite certain, I put it to the test, stick my finger in my ass, then put it to my nose, and—there is the proof! Mama was right!

Now farwell, I kiss you 10000 times and I remain as always your
Old young Sauschwanz
Wolfgang Amadé Rosenkranz
From us two Travelers a thousand
Regards to my uncle and aunt.
To every good friend I send
My greet feet; addio nitwit.
Love true true true until the grave,
If I live that long and do behave.