By Emily J. Weitz
Perched on a hill in the center of Stony Brook Southampton’s sprawling campus is a little windmill that has witnessed a lot. It was a working mill on Hill Street in Southampton Village before it was moved to its current location, which was then a private summer residence. Arthur Claflin had the mill moved to his property for his young daughter Beatrice to use as a playhouse. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, the whole property fell into disrepair.
After World War II, the property was turned into the Tucker Mill Inn, and the windmill was used as a private guest house. Now, it serves as a venue for special events that take place at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, like intimate dinners by candle light and cocktail parties by the fire. But on July 13, this little windmill will receive national recognition as a Literary Landmark, granted by the American Library Association. Because of all the functions the windmill has served perhaps the most significant is its cultural contribution.
“The story goes,” says Christian McLean, who coordinates the summer writing and theatre conferences at the college, “that in the 1950s, [artist] Larry Rivers brought his friend Tennessee Williams to the Tucker Mill Inn for dinner, and Williams thought the windmill was pretty great.”
A short time later, Williams returned to the Tucker Mill Inn and stayed in the windmill for an extended period of time. During that time, he wrote a play, one of his more obscure, entitled: “The Day On Which A Man Dies.” It’s considered an experimental play, written in response to the death of his friend Jackson Pollock the year before.
“It was thrilling to discover that Williams had been here,” says Nick Mongano, who is the director of the new Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program in theatre at the college. “When I found out he had written a play in the windmill, I felt we had to do something, especially since we’re starting the theatre program.”
He started researching, and discovered the American Library Association’s Literary Landmark status. He had to prove that Williams had actually stayed and written in the windmill, which was no small feat. There was no record of who had stayed at the mill. But eventually, Mongano found some old New York Times articles which confirmed, in fact, that Williams had been staying in the windmill. He also had verbal confirmation from Southampton faculty member Roger Rosenblatt, who recalled seeing Williams there in the ‘50s.
“Those things together were enough for the American Library Association,” says Mongano, “and it allows us to claim this beautiful historic building as having had significance to the arts.”
This, of course, is very important for a campus that is devoted to the pursuit of art and storytelling. And the umbrella is growing, from the MFA program in Creative Writing — which includes poetry, personal essay, fiction, and non-fiction, among other offerings — to the new theatre department, with classes like acting, directing and playwriting.
“Williams is such an inspiration to so many artists across the board. His influence has come down through the generations,” says Mongano. “On a personal note, he had a profound impact on me as a writer, and my sense of what theatre is and exploring the potential of what theatre can do.”
“The Day On Which A Man Dies” explores marriage, relationships, and an artist’s struggle. It is set in a hotel room in Japan, with a couple (presumably based on Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner) battling about everything from his art to their place in each other’s lives. The artist uses a spray paint can to create his rage-filled works, as well as to splatter the woman with red paint, sometimes making quite a mess of the stage.
“It was a prolific period in his career where he deviated from his poetic realism, which he was famous for,” says Mangano. “He was really breaking new ground at a time when he could have kept going with the formula he was writing.”
The fact that Williams, already a famous playwright at the time, came to this sunny hill in Southampton for inspiration, is something to be celebrated, said Mangano. Along with the unveiling of the commemorative plaque, there will be a reading of Southampton faculty member Frederic Tuten’s play “At Stanley’s Place,” which is Tuten’s first venture as a playwright.
“It’s just fortuitous,” Mongano says of the timing. “The premise of the play is Stanley Kowalski’s (of Streetcar Named Desire), and many characters from different plays throughout history, show up. It’s a short, witty satire, and no one can do that like Frederic.”
The reading will take place under a tent just beside the windmill prior to the unveiling of the plaque. The event will be open to the public, but is scheduled right in the midst of the Southampton Writers Conference.
“Williams was prolific in all these genres,” says Mongano. “He was a poet and a playwright. His poetry is exquisite, in terms of language especially. The poetry lifts up his work. It’s what sets his plays apart. That’s very significant to our program, which spans the genres as well.”
The reading of “At Stanley’s Place” will take place at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, July 13. It will be followed by the dedication of the windmill at 5:15 p.m. Stony Brook Southampton is located at 239 Montauk Highway in Southampton. Call 632-8000 for more information.