- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld had said his drawings reinvented the characters of Tennessee Williams’ famous plays, from “The Rose Tattoo” to “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

To mark Williams’ 100th birthday this year, a new exhibit at The Historic New Orleans Collection sheds a little light on the lives of both men.

The free exhibit, “Drawn to Life: Al Hirschfeld and the Theater of Tennessee Williams,” runs through April 3 in the collection’s French Quarter gallery.

“There’s no one else who documented Tennessee Williams’ career like Al Hirschfeld,” said David Leopold, co-curator for the exhibit and Hirschfeld archivist. “When he talked about great art in terms of the theater, he talked about Tennessee Williams.”

The exhibit features 125 items, including 50 drawings by Hirschfeld and 75 items from the collection’s permanent Williams holdings. Among them are his mother’s diary, handwritten letters to and from the playwright’s family and friends, manuscripts and unpublished works.

The playwright was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss. He died in 1983 at age 71.

Hirschfeld was born June 21, 1903, and died a few months before he would have celebrated his 100th birthday.

Both lived in St. Louis when they were young, though Williams and Hirschfeld did not know each other, Leopold said. However, the two men became linked.

“Rex Reed (the film critic) said Williams looked forward to what Hirschfeld would do, how he viewed the play,” Leopold said. “They had a great respect for each other even if they weren’t great friends.”

Mark Cave, co-curator for the exhibit, said Williams drew from his own life experience to create the characters in his plays. Hirschfeld was able to capture the universal appeal of Williams‘ characters, he said.

Hirschfeld has said his contribution was to take the character and reinvent it for the reader, Leopold said. Those drawings included depictions of actors Elizabeth Ashley in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in “The Night of the Iguana.”

Hirschfeld’s drawings are distinguished by a signature linear calligraphic style _ allowing the reader to capture Kathleen Turner’s sultry portrayal of Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” or Marlon Brando’s toughness in “Streetcar.”

Other actors who’ve appeared on Hirschfeld’s canvas and in Williams‘ plays include Alec Baldwin, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Jessica Lange, Paul Newman, Mercedes Ruehl and Maureen Stapleton.

Leopold said none complained about how Hirschfeld saw them.

“He’d take the part of their face or body that were most distinguishing and exaggerate them,” Leopold said. For 75 years, many of Hirschfeld’s drawings appeared with reviews in The New York Times. Others were stand-alone pictures.

“He was like your best friend going to the theatre, and he’d tell you what he saw,” Leopold said. “It’s been said that Al Hirschfeld could do in a single picture what a film would take two hours to do.”

Hirschfeld’s widow, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, praised the exhibit.

“It gives New Orleans a chance to look at one of its most familiar playwrights and see how Al interpreted the work,” she said. “We’re very happy to be a part of something like this.”

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