Among the four generally acknowledged major American dramatists—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee—Williams holds the distinction of being the poet in the theater. The same year, 1944, that The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago, some of his poems were published in Five American Poets. Revised, some of these poems reappeared in a later volume, In the Winter of Cities (1956). Williams’s poems contain many of the themes, images, and musical qualities that dominate the style of his plays. One of his most famous characters, Tom Wingfield, was nicknamed Shakespeare by his fellow workers in a shoe factory because, as a loner, he wrote poems rather than join in their social amenities.
Williams’s most prominent and all-inclusive theme is the effect of an aggressively competitive society on sensitive characters such as Laura and Tom Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire), Brick and Maggie Pollitt (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Alma Winemiller (Summer and Smoke, 1947), Catharine Holly and Sebastian Venable (Suddenly Last Summer, 1958), and The Reverend Shannon and Hannah Jelkes (The Night of the Iguana, 1961)—all social outcasts in society.
Related to the theme of the outcast is that of the poet-artist. Laura has her collection of glass animals, Tom his poetry, Blanche and Alma that extraordinary delicacy of Williams’s heroines which made irreconcilable the conflict between mind and body, Sebastian his poetry, and Hannah (the daughter of a ninety-seven-year-old poet) her portrait painting. Basic to the artistic nature is the insistence on, indeed passion for, truth and an equally persistent hatred of hypocrisy. The consequence of this love-hate duality is the doomed fate of the artist, who is therefore frequently depicted in Darwinian images of fragile creatures devoured by monstrous animals in the fight for survival of the fittest.
The dominance of the strong over the weak and of the “normal” over the poetic friend finds its most recurrent expression in Williams’s work in repressed, perverse, or abnormal sexual experiences, demonstrated most delicately in the life of Laura and most violently in that of Sebastian. Between these extremes are found Blanche, Brick and Maggie, Alma (a “white-blooded spinster”), and Shannon and Hannah (a strong and practical support of her nonagenarian poet-father).
The landscapes of the plays are as important as are the characters and the themes; all are inextricably bound upon one another. The world of Laura and Tom is that of the 1930’s, in which the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, suggested in a reference to what is generally regarded as the most famous painting of the twentieth century, Picasso’s Guernica, are ignored by a United States described as a school for the matriculation of the blind. More immediately, the Wingfield family is imprisoned in a shabby apartment described as resembling a cage (a symbol that evokes the same situation in O’Neill’s 1922 play The Hairy Ape).
Blanche’s New Orleans is dominated by the images of two streetcars, one named Desire and the other Cemeteria, with Blanche’s stop on that famous streetcar ride being the Elysian Fields. The landscape inhabited by Alma Winemiller includes a statue of Eternity in a public square—wings outstretched—and the office of a doctor: the eternal pitted against the ephemeral, the idealistic or spiritual against the physical. In their separate battles for survival, Brick and Maggie, a childless couple, find themselves in a southern mansion, opposing the insensitivities of a normal family with the famous “no-neck monsters.”
The most exotic of Williams’s landscapes, perhaps, is the veritable hothouse of Suddenly Last Summer—a luxuriant, junglelike profusion of an Henri Rousseau painting, again in New Orleans—created by Sebastian’s mother in order to provide her son with the necessary seclusion and atmosphere for his poetry writing. Like Blanche, Sebastian and his mother travel, but their journey takes them to the Galápagos Islands (or the Encantades, the “enchanted isles”), where Galápagos sea turtles flee from flesh-eating birds, and then to Italy, where the symbolic eating of human flesh occurs.
Williams’s themes are dramatized in three major styles in The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Suddenly Last Summer. These styles—poetry, theatricality, and lush symbolism—at their strongest, are found, respectively, in the realistic expressionism of The Glass Menagerie, the naturalistic theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the exotic surrealism of Suddenly Last Summer. Perhaps the least successful of the styles he employed is illustrated in Small Craft Warnings, written in the mode of Maxim Gorky’s Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912) and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946). A gathering of a variety of social outcasts in a California oceanside bar, a means to examining a cross-section of society, becomes a pale reincarnation of characters in his earlier plays.
Attacked in the 1950’s by Time magazine and by some critics, such as George Jean Nathan and Mary McCarthy, for his increasing violence, depravity, and vulgarity, Williams found his critical stature bolstered not only by prestigious awards but also by other critics and by scholars whose analyses have offset what seem, in retrospect, like incredibly puritanical earlier views. In 1971, Ruby Cohn wrote that although she regards Williams’s plays as narrow in range and his heavy reliance on symbols as weakening the drive of some plays, in his best work “Williams expands American stage dialogue in vocabulary, image, rhythm, and range.” It is the impact of Williams’s poetic language and imagery on the American stage that remains his distinctive contribution to American drama, even though they are extravagantly overdone in his lesser plays.
C. W. E. Bigsby, a British scholar of American drama, contends that with the single exception of the plays of O’Neill, those of Williams, Miller, and Albee are undoubtedly “the outstanding achievement of the American theatre.” In his obituary on Williams, Frank Rich, a critic for The New York Times, places Williams second only to O’Neill.
The Glass Menagerie
First produced: 1944 (first published, 1945)
Type of work: Play
In the Depression era, an unhappy St. Louis family of three—mother, son, and daughter—is caught in a struggle between economic survival and keeping some semblance of beauty in their lives.
Williams begins The Glass Menagerie with a comment by Tom Wingfield, who serves as both narrator of and character within the play: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In one sentence, Williams has summarized the essence of all drama. To the very end of the play, he maintains a precarious balance between truth and illusion, creating in the process what he contends is the “essential ambiguity of man that I think needs to be stated.”
Williams suspends the audience of his interplay between reality and illusion by having Tom, who has run away from home, serve as a storyteller. As he remembers bits of his past, he fades from the role of narrator into the role of character and then back again, providing a realistic objectivity to a highly subjective experience. The transitions between past and present are accomplished by the use of lighting, legends (signs), and mood-creating music. Both outsider and insider, Tom cannot escape from the memories that haunt him; traveling in some foreign country, he sees or hears something that reminds him of his past. In writing a memory play, Williams successfully balances past with present, illusion with reality, fragility with brutality, mind with body, freedom of the imagination with imprisonment of the real world, and other unresolvable paradoxes of life. The combining of narrator and character in one person is itself a paradox, as Tom tells his story both from the outside looking in and vice versa.
Tom Wingfield’s story is about himself, a young man who finds himself working as a stock clerk in a shoe factory to provide a living for his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The father has long since deserted the family. Only his larger-than-life photograph hangs on a wall to remind Tom of a father “who left us a long time ago” because, as a telephone man, he had “fallen in love with long distances . . . and skipped the light fantastic out of town.”
Both the photograph and the family’s economic plight serve to remind Amanda of the many “gentleman callers” she might have married instead of her ne’er-do-well husband. She escapes into the past even as she attempts to make things happen in the present, supplementing Tom’s income by selling women’s magazines over the telephone. She also attempts to provide Laura with some means of earning a living by sending her to a business school to learn typing. Rather than having Laura become a barely tolerated spinster among her relatives, Amanda wishes to see her able to support herself. Amanda’s instinct for the preservation of the family (reality) and her memories of her girlhood and the many gentleman callers (illusion) give her life a balance in a world that otherwise would be overwhelming in its dreariness.
Laura, a victim of her family situation, is painfully conscious of her “crippled” condition, one leg being shorter than the other. She throws up from nervous indigestion in her early days at Rubicam’s Business College and, after that experience, spends her time walking in the park and visiting the art museum, the zoo, and the “big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.” She herself is a hothouse flower, needing special care. In the family apartment, she has still another escape, her collection of glass animals, the most singular of which is a unicorn, a nonexistent animal. In a Darwinian world, her survivability, like the unicorn’s, is questionable.
Like his mother and sister, Tom, suffocated by the mindlessness of his job, has created his own world, writing poetry at work and earning the nickname “Shakespeare” from his fellow workers. He spends his evenings attending motion pictures, which in the 1930’s also included live acts, frequently those of a magician.
All three family members hold in precarious balance their respective worlds of reality and illusion. In an ironic sense, all three are like the husband and father who sought escape.
The catalyst for a change in the family situation is Laura’s inability to continue in business college and Amanda’s decision that a gentleman caller must be found for Laura. Much against his better judgment, and after many emotional arguments with Amanda, Tom gives in to her repeated requests that he invite a fellow worker, Jim, to dinner. On that fateful day, a rather ordinary one which Williams succeeds in making extraordinary, Jim arrives.
Predictably, Amanda has bought new furnishings—a floor lamp and rug—and new clothes for Laura. Appearances, so important to Amanda, have improved, but ironically Laura is seized with a nervous attack. To make matters worse, the electricity goes off during the dinner, Tom having failed to pay the electric bill.
Candles, however, save the day. Laura recovers a bit, and in one of the most touching scenes in American drama, she enjoys a brief romantic moment with Jim—a dance and kiss. In that dance, however, the unicorn, swept off its shelf, is broken, a symbol of Laura’s shattered dream when she is told by Jim that he is already engaged to someone else.
Following one final, desperate argument with the bitterly disappointed Amanda, who shouts to him to “go to the moon,” Tom runs away, not to the moon, as he says, but “much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.” He attempts “to find in motion what was lost in space.”
Williams’s techniques, in addition to the use of a narrator, are those made famous by Bertolt Brecht, a German dramatist whose expressionism influenced many modern dramatists. Among the Brechtian techniques found in The Glass Menagerie are its use of lighting, the signs (legends) that provide the audience with information, and music that enhances either the romance or the harshness of the mood of the moment. Brechtian techniques make for a loosely told story in episodic scenes rather than a tightly knit sequence of actions that produce high drama.
A Streetcar Named Desire
First produced: 1947 (first published, 1947)
Type of work: Play
In a run-down 1940’s New Orleans French Quarter setting, Blanche DuBois, Williams’s most famous Southern belle finally resolves a lifetime of psychological and cultural conflicts.
On a streetcar named Desire, Blanche DuBois travels from the railroad station in New Orleans to a street named Elysian Fields, where her sister, Stella, pregnant and married to Stanley Kowalski, lives in a run-down apartment building in the old French Quarter. Having lost her husband, parents, teaching position, and old family home—Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi—Blanche has nowhere to turn but to her one remaining close relative.
Thirty years old, Blanche is emotionally and economically destitute. The most traumatic experience in her life was the discovery that her husband—a poet whom she had married at the tender age of sixteen—was a homosexual. Soon after she had taunted him for his sexual impotence, he committed suicide. Their confrontation had occurred in Moon Lake Casino, ubiquitous in Williams’s plays as a house of illusions. In her subsequent guilt over his death, she found temporary release in a series of sexual affairs, the latest having involved one of her young students and resulting in her dismissal.
She is horrified at the circumstances in which her sister Stella lives and at the man to whom she is married. Polish, uneducated, inarticulate, and working class, but sexually attractive, he has won Stella by his sheer masculinity. Stella, according to production notes by director Elia Kazan, has been narcotized by his sexual superiority. A fourth important character, Stanley’s poker-playing companion Mitch, is attracted to Blanche. She is attracted to his kindness to her, for he is gentle in his manner, as Stanley is not. Blanche refers at one point to having found God in Mitch’s arms, a religious reference frequently made by Williams’s characters at important moments in their lives.
(The entire section is 6148 words.)