This early play about coal miners struggling to improve their lives helped establish a young Tennessee Williams as a powerful new voice in American theater.
The first full-length play by novice playwright Thomas Lanier Williams, Candles to the Sun opened on Thursday, March 18, 1937 and received rave reviews in the local press. The Mummers, a semi-professional and socially aware theater troupe in St. Louis, produced the play, and the combination of director Willard Holland's theater of social protest and the young Williams' talent for the dramatic depiction of poverty and its consequences proved irresistible to an audience eager for relevant social content. Set in the Red Hills coal mining section of Alabama, Candles to the Sun deals with both the attempts of the miners to unionize and the bleak lives of their families. Colvin McPherson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that “Williams, a 25-year-old Washington University senior, is revealed not only as a writer of unusual promise but one of considerable technical skill right now . … His writing is rarely unsteady and his play has an emotional unity and robustness. It stands on its own feet. Its characters are genuine, its dialogue of a type that must have been uttered in the author's presence, its appeal in the theater widespread.” As it turns out, Tom Williams had never met a miner in his young life. As he did for another early Williams play, Spring Storm, Dan Isaac uses his directorial skills to prepare a text of Candles to the Sun that is faithful to the 1937 production while providing readers (and actors) with a social and theatrical context. William Jay Smith, former Poet Laureate of the United States and St. Louis friend of the playwright, has contributed an illuminating foreword that touches not only on his memories of the young Tom Williams and the original production of Candles, but also on the poetic nature of Williams' writing as reflected in this play.