As I began to explore the films of Vivien Leigh, I eventually found The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which is notable for being Leigh’s last true starring role, and thus I watched it with immense curiosity. When taken alongside Leigh’s portrayal Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire and Mary Treadwell from Ship of Fools, Leigh as Karen Stone seems like part of a trifecta of women chasing lost youth.
In The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Leigh plays an aging actress who, on the way to Rome, lost her husband and is now seeking some sort of purpose in life. She finds something – not exactly “purpose” – in young Paolo, played by Warren Beatty, and embarks on an affair with him as she drifts through her new life in Rome. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, here is the original trailer:
After watching The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, I didn’t feel a strong need to read the novella by Tennessee Williams, but when I found a copy of it at a thrift shop, I thought I would give it a try.
What I first noticed about the book is that it unfolds nonlinearly. Even the details of Mr. Stone’s death, which occurs early on in the story and in the opening scenes of the film, are only given towards the end of the book in a flashback. As such, the film deconstructs the novel and turns it into a traditional, linear story.
As soon as I figured out what the opening pages of the novel actually describe, I had another shock with the book: there are no quotation marks. Dialogue is there, yes, but Williams merely signifies it with commas. Whenever authors do something like this, I wonder what their purpose in breaking convention is. As I kept reading The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, I realized precisely why Williams chose this style.
Through the book, Williams makes a point about what he calls “the drift.” After her husband’s death (or perhaps even before it), Karen Stone is drifting through life. She drifts through Rome. She drifts into a relationship with Paolo. She drifts along as he…well, I don’t want to spoil this for any of you.
Williams describes “the drift” in this passage of the novella:
“Going into a room and drifting out of a room because there was no real purpose in going in, nor any more purpose in going back out again. That was the drift. The drift was everything that you did without having a reason. But where was a reason for anything at all. Oh, you could invent a reason, and some were plausible. Some were plausible enough for being accepted the way a polite excuse is accepted for convenience or social policy. But there had been nothing.”
Removing quotation marks gives William’s prose a sense of flow that emulates his drifting idea. The text moves freely on the page, just as Karen Stone moves freely about Rome.
The Bottom Line
I cannot say that the story of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone drew me entirely in either medium. What I found brilliant about the film was the performance of Vivien Leigh, and what I found curious about the novel was Williams’s style.
This is a murky story, the book much more than the film. Every one of the characters is pitiable or reprehensible, and there’s a great deal more misery than goodness. Take from that what you want, but I know that I wouldn’t likely reread The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.