Strange connections

April 11, 2006 in General, News

Tennessee WilliamsThis is the text of the marvellous essay by Bernard McGuckian SJ for RTE’s ‘Sunday Miscellany’ in March 2006. It casts an interesting sidelight on the family of St Francis Xavier.

Thomas Williams died on 23rd February 1983. He wasn’t Welsh as his name might suggest. He was American. Contrary to what you might expect he wasn’t born in Tennessee. He was born in Mississippi in the town of Columbus on March 26th,1911, to Cornelius Coffin Williams, a shoe salesman and his wife Edwina Dakins Williams, daughter of a line of Episcopalian clergymen. Religion, of one kind or another, ran in the family from way back. It was only as an adult that Thomas styled himself Tennessee. By the time he died a month short of his 72nd birthday any one of the more than 50 American states would have been happy had he had chosen to call himself after it. At the request of his brother, his next of kin, he was buried in a Catholic ceremony at St Louis, Missouri.

Even the very names of his plays catch the imagination: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rose Tattoo, Glass Menagerie. He had hardly broken onto the theatrical scene in the middle of World War II when the biggest names of stage and screen were tripping over each other to get into his roles. Elia Kazan could pick and choose for his production of Streetcar. He settled for Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Only Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were good enough for the film version of the Cat. William’s work is set in the Deep South of the United States but the themes he deals with are universal. He explores family tensions and feelings of frustration, especially in women. As with all great classical work his plays touch something deep in all of us. There is something of both the evangelist and the rebellious non-conformist in Tennessee Williams. Much of his early life was spent traipsing around rectories with his mother to visit her relations. Many of these were either Episcopalian clergy or their wives. Surely it isn’t too far fetched to suggest that the oratory of his clerical forebears and even the content of some of the sermons they delivered during these visits influenced his subsequent writings. Perhaps a further explanation for the evangelical fervour he brought to the theatre may have percolated down through the generations from the spirit of one of the more remote but arguably the most distinguished of all his ancestors.

The rebellious streak in him may be traceable to another dimension of his family. A number of them were deeply involved in the American War of Independence. Tennessee Williams tells us in his autobiography that he was a direct descendant of Valentine Sevier ( spelled S-E-V-I-E-R but pronounced as in the English adjective “severe”). Valentine was a less celebrated brother of the more famous John Sevier, who was the First Governor of Tennessee. On October 7th 1780 these brothers joined with about 1000 other American patriots in the Battle of King’s Mountain, South Carolina where they overwhelmed the British. The leader of the British troops on this occasion rejoiced in the Irish-sounding name of Patrick Ferguson. The Battle itself was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. The body of General John Sevier, as he is known to history is buried at Knoxville, Tennessee beneath a monument erected in his honour.

These Sevier brothers, John and Valentine were grandsons of a John Sevier who married a lady called Smith in London around the year 1700. This particular John Sevier had made his way from the region of Navarre to England in the wake of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV. With a number of other members of his family he had become Huguenot and felt he would be safer in Protestant England. While in London, he had anglicised his name from Juan Xavier to John Sevier. If my attempt at giving a Spanish or a Basque blas to the word is not helpful perhaps the word Xavier or in good Dublin speak X- avier would be more helpful. In spite of its exotic sound it has to be admitted that Xavier simply means nothing more romantic than “New Castle” or “New House” in Basque.

This Juan Xavier alias John Sevier was a direct descendant of Juan de Jasso who married his wife Maria a few short years before Christopher Columbus set out on his fateful Westward voyage. Besides bringing a castle as a dowry she also made it possible for Juan to style himself the Lord of Xavier. She bore him six children. The three eldest were girls and three youngest were boys. The youngest boy, Francis was born on April 7th, 1506. About twenty years later he ended up sharing digs at the Sorbonne in Paris with an older and more mature student who became his mentor in things spiritual. This man was a native of Loyola, another small town in the Basque country not too far away from Francis’ own home place. The pair of them, with five other students from the University, formed the small group that gave birth to the Society of Jesus, or more popularly, the Jesuits. Together, they were canonised on March 12th 1622 as St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius of Loyola. Speaking of Francis, Ignatius said that he was the toughest dough he ever tried to knead. The end result was worth all the efforts of Ignatius. Even people of other faiths consider that no one since St Paul himself has ever embodied more perfectly the ideal of a Christian missionary. Dubliners of a certain vintage remember the thousands who thronged the streets and diverted the traffic on Upper Gardiner Street between the 4th and the 12th March for the Novena of Grace in honour of St Francis Xavier. In this 500th anniversary of his birth the Novena will (or is attracting or has attracted) still attract thousands to a variety of churches in the city and around the country, not to speak of the celebrations in cities on all five continents, especially Asia, where Francis died, exhausted after his Herculean labours, on an island a few miles off the coast of China.

A few years ago, after seeing Fionnuala O’Flanagan in a Gate Theatre production of “A Streetcar named Desire” I made the short walk up home to St Francis Xavier’s in Gardiner Street, Dublin. At the time, I little dreamed how small the world really is nor had it struck me so forcibly that 500 years is no more than the span of five healthy lives placed back to back. Tennessee Williams knew that he was a “Sevier”. I only learned recently that he was a Xavier. To this day I do not know whether or not he knew this himself. He knows now.