Williams, Tennessee 1911–
Williams is a Southern American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, and novelist. The Glass Menagerie is recognized as the prototype of the American theatrical trend to explore the vanished hopes of the dispossessed. Most of Williams' work is derived from his understanding of the impossibility of communication and what Signi Falk has called his "awareness of the appalling emptiness and cruelty in the hearts of many well-fed Americans." Williams, one of the world's most popular playwrights, is probably America's greatest living dramatist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The plays that first thrust Tennessee Williams into the front rank have much in common besides their clear focus and economical construction. Both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire transmute the base metal of reality into theatrical and, frequently, verbal poetry. Both supplement the action with symbolic elements of mood and music. A major theme is Southern womanhood helpless in the grip of the new world, while its old world of social position and financial security is a Paradise Lost. (p. 84)
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play in which crucial episodes from family history are evoked in the comments of a narrator, the poet Tom, who is now in the merchant marine…. Tom's memory takes him back to his straitened home life and the need to revolt that finally sent him to sea. In episodes softened by the patina of time he recalls the painful shyness of his lovable crippled sister, Laura, and the tragicomic efforts of his mother, Amanda, to marry her off, as well as his own desperation as an underpaid shoe company clerk who dreams of escaping from his drab life. The climax comes when, nagged by the desperate mother, Tom brings Laura a gentleman caller, who turns out to be engaged to another girl. (pp. 84-5)
In A Streetcar Named Desire health and disease are again at war, but more openly and more sensationally. The lines of conflict are sharply drawn in this naturalistic drama whose story, unlike that of The Glass Menagerie, is not revealed impressionistically through a mist of memory. Nothing is circuitous in Streetcar, and the dramatic action drives directly to its fateful conclusion as the plebeian Stan Kowalski and patrician Blanche Du Bois confront each other. Like Williams' other Southern heroines, who invariably suggest Picasso's dehydrated "Demoiselles d'Avignon," Blanche Du Bois is not only a recognizable human being but also an expressive abstraction. She is decadence, pretension, hysteria, charm faded, sensibility misapplied, sensitivity rudely jolted by the world, hope deferred, life wasted. It is her final tragedy that the life she encounters in her married sister's home becomes a hell of humiliation precisely when she is most desperately in need of sympathy. (pp. 85-6)
Concerning the plays that followed Summer and Smoke in the Fifties, it is worth observing how differently their author worked in each case. The Rose Tattoo, which reached Broadway early in 1951, was written as a comedy. This alone is a departure…. But in addition, Williams makes his central heroine a full-blooded woman quite unlike the more or less wilted Southern ladies he had hitherto favored. (p. 88)
It is to Williams' credit that he showed himself in possession of a will to health along with his fascination with the underworld of the id. In Camino Real historical characters have escaped from the infernal world of his imagining. Byron escapes when he goes out to die for Greek liberty, as does Don Quixote when he recklessly follows the call of his delusionary idealism. But these escapes are not worked out dramatically; they are an ill-fitting, if deeply intended, coda. It is not so much that the author's matter or idea is obscure as that his manner is choppy and his story diffuse. If anything, his ideas suffer as mere ideas or symbols and literary allusions. The play is at once too badly abstruse and too strenuously theatrical.
Despite the criticism I have just summarized, it is evident that only a man of exceptional dramatic talent could have written Camino Real. No one else would have dared to write it; no one else could have written it in so snarled a manner, attempting to say so much about human life and the state of the world. Though Camino Real looks like a deliberate literary exercise (chiefly because of its literary allusiveness), it was wrung out of its author's consciousness. (p. 89)
During the Fifties Tennessee Williams moved in various directions with different degrees of range and intensity in Camino Real, Orpheus Descending, and Suddenly Last Summer. These plays represent the most intensive use of the dramatic imagination in a single decade by any American playwright since O'Neill. At the same time Williams continued to make profitable use of his flair for naturalistic drama in two great box-office successes: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth….
It is fair to say that Williams is the mid-century theatre's most impressive, though not necessarily most gratifying, American playwright. Whether he fails with fantasy or succeeds with reality, he makes indifference to the theatre virtually impossible. (p. 90)
Like all effective playwrights, Tennessee Williams has been virtually from the start of his career a vivid and exciting scenewright. But in composing a balance sheet of credits and debits we must take one final matter into consideration: Williams' consuming theatricality. This theatricality is partly the poet's and partly the showman's. It is truly difficult to know, as it is not in the case of the indisputably great dramatists before him, to what degree theatricality in his work has sensationalized life instead of illuminating it. (p. 91)
John Gassner, "Tennessee Williams 1940–1960," in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1960, pp. 77-91.
By now it should be clear that Tennessee Williams' real subject is the painfulness (not the tragedy) of existence, and the fate of human dignity (not of the soul) in the face of suffering. It should also be clear that however neurotic Williams himself may be and however widely neurosis enters into and affects his work, there is little point in looking for the roots of his art, and less in searching out the meaning of any particular play, on one or another categorical Freudian plot of ground; because to Williams everything is painful—sexuality, touch, communication, time, the bruteness of fact, the necessity to lie, the loss of innocence. And finally it should be clear that toward his material Williams has alternately been elegist, soothsayer, mythmaker, immolator, exorcist or consoler—none of the incarnations final and no one incarnation carried through to finality.
Richard Gilman, "Williams as Phoenix" (1962), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 140-43.
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore is not diseased in the way that certain detractors of Williams find the bulk of his work to be. If anything, it is in subject the "healthiest" play he has written, which establishes once again how unimportant subject in art really is. For this thrust into allegory, which speaks of renunciation and transcendence and a way of the spirit, represents so nearly complete a collapse of Williams' imaginative powers, such a massive failure of rhetoric and structure, impulse and control, that next to it a "black" play like Suddenly Last Summer or Orpheus Descending seems robust and encouraging simply because of the relative victory of the shaping imagination; it is form, in other words, that most directly answers questions of health in art. (pp. 144-45)
Iguana got by, narrowly against its tendencies to self-debasement, because its symbolism was sparser and more controlled, because its central proposition—that there is a need for courage and for the acceptance of mortal frailty in ourselves and others—was sustained by an adequate structure and a frequently distinguished rhetoric, and because its characters had the dramatic existence proper to their intellectual and imaginative intentions. But Milk Train has almost no structure (originally a one-acter, it is agonizingly overextended), no decisive language beyond the most pretentious ("We all live in houses on fire" is a fair example) and no characters with a greater degree of existence than long residence in Williams' hothouse can confer on them. (pp. 146-47)
Richard Gilman, "Mistuh Williams, He Dead" (1963), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 144-47.
[The Glass Menagerie,] one of [Williams'] earliest [plays], holds up wonderfully well. A drama of "memory," which transforms autobiography into lucid, objective art, it is small, domestic, deeply felt, its lyricism reined in by perception, sentimentality tightened by insight, experiment anchored in sure classical techniques. All Williams' later concerns have their seeds here: neurosis as a form of stamina, the vulnerability of the spirit, the interaction of myth and reality, the body as both hope and betrayal—all displayed in guarded, oblique shapes.
This domestic, seemingly ingratiating surface is what inspires the excessive nostalgia for this play on the part of reviewers who have always been disturbed by Williams' sensuality and periodic efforts to use the stage for dangerous encounters. Of all his works it is the one which most readily satisfies that craving for the "haunting" and the "magical" which to the Broadway intellect substitutes for dramatic experience. But the play is deceptive. The tale of a Southern family's erosion by its loss of the past and incapacity for the present conceals a stern awareness: that there are no solutions or exits from necessity, that men endure despite having natures opposed to the nature of things. (p. 148)
Richard Gilman, "The Play's the Thing" (1966), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 148-51.
Tennessee Williams is [a] nonabsurdist nay-sayer. His nihilism is personal rather than abstruse and formal, as is Beckett's or Ionesco's. Williams has not flaunted an unbreakable negativistic commitment, being ready to break any compact he seems to have made with morbid negation whenever he feels an urge to oppose despair with strongly romantic affirmations. His Don Quixote character in Camino Real surmounts the wall that imprisons the rest of faltering humanity. Williams is much taken with his vivid Sicilian heroine Serafina, in The Rose Tattoo, in whom the vital need to love overcomes her humiliation on discovering that her deceased husband had been unfaithful. Williams also fancies Maggie, the plucky heroine of his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who drives so hard toward life while her hopeless husband Brick plunges headlong into the destructive element. Nevertheless, Williams has an obvious affinity for the school that finds no solace or resting point in the universe. (p. 703)
John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, introduction, and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968.
Williams is a dramatist of lost souls. His work describes a long laceration. No American playwright is altogether a pessimist. The conclusion of Camino Real, "the violets in the mountains have broken through the rocks," simply means that idealism will ultimately smash the battlements of villainy in which we are immured. But this thought only marks a pause along the road. Williams' path leads to no final statement. He has no doctrine, unless it be the need for compassion. He traces a chart of the fevers that he has experienced in looking at the world outside and within himself. (pp. 227-28)
With only a few exceptions, Williams' characters are lost souls because they are torn between the god-seeking impulse and the pull of desire. In the shambles of our civilization, desire has been debased into raw carnality. Sex without the blessedness of love is death-dealing corruption. In this corrupt atmosphere—always captivatingly colorful in Williams, even to the very names of the vicinities in which his dramas take place—his men and women are destroyed by the poisons which emanate from it. The lacerations they suffer are the result of their bodies and souls being at odds. The sharpness of this division is a characteristic of Puritan consciousness. Unity of spirit is achieved only by the chaste Hannah in Iguana and the impassioned and therefore utterly loyal Rosa in The Rose Tattoo, in which sex becomes glorified through its pure flame. But Rosa is a Sicilian—a foreigner to our way of life.
When we speak of the world and of society, we imply a realm beyond the strictly personal. Sex, it is commonly held, is Williams' major theme. This, I believe, is only partly true; when this preoccupation with sex in Williams is insisted upon as the determining ingredient, such insistence leads to a falsification. Williams is also very much a social playwright. Sex being a central factor in existence, it becomes the area in Williams' plays where the social battles as well as the battle of angels rage.
It is in a fatal incapacity to integrate the conflict of body and soul, or, to put it more concretely, the struggle between power and love, egotistical acquisitiveness and social generosity, that we find the thematic core of Williams' work. The tension in these forces creates a split in the social order as well as in the individual personality. It causes his people to grope, trembling and bewildered, between that light and shadow to which he repeatedly refers. It also gives rise to personal self-deception and public hypocrisy. (pp. 229-30)
The doppelgänger or second-self ascribed to Alma in Summer and Smoke is his own. The accusatory ferocity in regard to our society, which becomes a debilitating fixation in his later plays, alternates with a certain calm or balance in The Night of the Iguana or even takes the form of good-natured comedy in his Period of Adjustment.
There is a salutary humor in all his work. It is quizzical and given to grassroots laughter. His violence too is softened by the colorfulness and musicality which bathe his plays in glamour. "A kind of lyricism," a stage direction in Streetcar reads, "gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay." There is magic in Williams' realism.
In the illusionist sense of theatricality, he has no match in American dramatic writing. The rhythms of his colloquial speech are seductive. His dialogue excels in euphony and ease. It has a fragrance like that of a tropical flower planted in a northern soil. The diction is at once limpid and elusive, achieving both mystery and suspense.
Williams writes rich roles for actors. They are gratifying because they represent people who mirror some of his own ambivalence, assertive and tremulously vulnerable, staunch and retreating. His particular nature has enabled him to fashion several of the most perceptive and touching portraits of women our drama has produced. He is one of the few dramatists among us who writes genuine love scenes.
He is no intellectual. Some of his views and sentiments—as in Camino Real—are couched in terms which betray an almost adolescent sentimentality. His weaknesses, however, should not dim for us his mastery of stage poetics, his immense gift for theatrical effect and, above all, his vital contribution to the understanding of formerly undisclosed phases of American life.
Through his fascination with sin and his affinity with sinners, Williams, even more than O'Neill, has opened our eyes and hearts to the victims of our savagely mechanized society, the company of the "somehow unfit," the fragile, the frightened, the different, the odd and the lonely, whose presence in our world we have so long sought to avoid thinking about and recognizing as our kin. (pp. 230-31)
Harold Clurman, "Tennessee Williams: Poet and Puritan" (1970), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 227-31.
Tennessee Williams has probably sold more plays to the movies than any other dramatist of the twentieth century…. The Glass Menagerie did not translate well to the screen. Actually A Streetcar Named Desire is not very cinematic at all. Most critics probably would agree that the two plays mentioned above, together with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, represent Williams's finest work for the stage (with Suddenly Last Summer and The Night of the Iguana not far behind Williams's most notable achievements). Plays such as The Glass Menagerie, in which Williams employs cinematic devices rather extensively, do not film successfully because at the same time they are extremely theatrical (which is why Suddenly Last Summer fails as a movie). The more "realistic" plays, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—wherein the cinematic imagination is much less in evidence—are actually better on the screen (which is why The Night of the Iguana pleases where Suddenly Last Summer disappoints). Generally speaking, plays—especially distinguished plays—do not provide satisfactory motion picture material. In rare cases, however, some of the greatness of the original work survives the transition from stage to celluloid. Such works may not represent the best use of the film medium, they may not possess their most authentic existence on the screen, but nevertheless—due to outstanding character portrayal—they manage to hold a motion picture audience. Of course, it also helps if a gifted screenwriter and a brilliant director are given charge of the adaptation.
A Streetcar Named Desire—which opened on Broadway in December 1947 and was a tremendous hit—represents a major turning point in motion picture history. Many people in Hollywood were afraid to handle the play due to its themes involving insanity, compulsive promiscuity, homosexuality, and rape…. The censors wanted to eliminate the rape scene; but since, as Williams rightly pointed out, Stanley Kowalski's violation of Blanche DuBois represents the structural and thematic climax of the piece it could not very well be omitted. (pp. 56-7)
In some ways Cat on a Hot Tin Roof … is the most interesting example of a Williams play adapted to the screen. It is no secret that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof succeeds as a play in spite of its structural defects. There are actually two published versions of the last act, neither of which is wholly satisfactory. Analysis reveals that both versions have an Ibsenian structure…. [In both versions], though, Brick avoids squarely facing the question of his latent homosexuality. Most critics speak of "evasion" here on the part of Williams. However that may be, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains one of the most powerful—though flawed—plays in the modern theater.
Homosexuality was a strong theme for the American screen in the fifties. (p. 59)
One of the two best later Williams efforts for the stage is Suddenly Last Summer (1958). In spite of some cinematic touches in this short play—such as the hot spot of light on Catherine which resembles a close-up, the bird cries behind Mrs. Venable's description of the beach of the Encantadas which function like background film music, and the "dissolve" within Scene Four—it basically remains one of the playwright's most theatrical (in the good sense of course) presentations. Suddenly Last Summer is a morality play; the names of the characters alone suggest the symbolical nature of the piece: Mrs. Venable, Dr. Cukrowicz (Dr. Sugar), Mrs. Foxhill, Sister Felicity, and the like. Scene One is very largely a monologue by Mrs. Venable, and throughout the play the language used is rich in poetic imagery. (pp. 63-4)
Actually the movie is less than candid on the score of "sexual deviation," with the result that the theme is left hazy for those unfamiliar with the play.
The Night of the Iguana, which opened on Broadway in 1961, is Williams's most impressive drama since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like most of the author's plays, The Night of the Iguana depends heavily on characterization through protracted confrontations involving two actors—much of the time through recourse to lengthy monologues—in which theme is developed by analogy, image, and symbol. There is the use of another "hot light" in this play, similar to the cinematic effect achieved in Suddenly Last Summer, and still another filmic transition between scenes within Act Two; but the soul of the work is verbal and theatrical. (pp. 65-6)
Edward Murray, "Tennessee Williams—after 'The Celluloid Brassiere'," in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972, pp. 46-67.
Tennessee Williams continued his public decomposition with an item called Out Cry, the very spelling of the title emblematic of Williams's desperate striving for originality, even if it amounts to no more than an extra empty space. The play, already produced in at least two … cities under a different title, is like all of its author's more recent works a combination of bloodless blather and unintentionally parodistic self-imitation. It concerns a brother and sister abandoned as mad by their theatrical troupe in an unnamed country, in what may or may not be a theatre and before what may or may not be an audience. They are broke and desperate and possibly insane, but proceed gallantly to enact their "Two-Character Play" about an orphaned brother and sister (their father killed their mother and himself), destitute and scarcely daring to leave the house in quest of food. There is very little difference between the play and the play-within-the-play, and none in quality. It is all windy pastiche, with an awkward and belated bow to absurdism, as when the performing siblings find themselves mysteriously locked into that putative theatre. The thing that may or may not be dialogue is mostly on the level of, "Only the dead can get away with doing nothing, Clare." "Yes, they do get away with it very nicely." Or: "Your hair has grown so long, you look hermaphroditic." "Good. Thank you." On a deeper level, we get, "There are punctuation marks in life and they include periods, one of which is final," or this last exchange that sums up everything: "Magic is habit." "Magic is the habit of our existence."
Williams was, apparently, dramatizing the two components of his psyche: the more fearful, self-deluding side as a sister; the more persistent and pugnacious side, as a brother. But this rather barren metaphor cannot sustain an inert two-character play for a whole evening, even if the writing were appreciably better than the piteous but representative examples I have quoted. (pp. 343-44)
John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973.
Powerful and wrenching, this latest of Tennessee Williams's plays [Out Cry] explores the relationship between two actors, brother and sister, on the stage of a "state theatre in an unknown state." The rest of the company has abandoned them and they are alone with the audience waiting for their performance. Crying out in loneliness, fear, despair, they perform "The Two Character Play," moving in and out of the real world as the play-within-the-play and the drama itself drive to their simultaneous and devastating conclusion. "Out Cry" contains some of Williams's most brilliant writing—lyrical, sensitive, compelling. It is a difficult play, but one that demands attention. (p. xvi)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974).
By an early age most artists have stored up enough "life" to draw upon forever. Even the greatest have a finite number of themes, which they vary throughout their careers. The variation is refinement, re-experienced experience, echo. Art manipulates echo by refashioning (or personalizing) works by another, or by oneself at another time. Still, there is a golden echo and a leaden echo, as one poet sang years ago and as Tennessee Williams demonstrates today.
His style has always been personal despite the proximity of excellent friends—"southern" and otherwise. Yes, he does show a dash of the meanness, whimsy, blasé anger, and pussycat anxiety of McCullers, Capote, Vidal, and Jane and Paul Bowles. He, too, blends sexuality with horror. But he seems to have more fun than the others, and certainly more ease with words.
His content, too, is his own—or, to situate through analogy, a mix of Jean Genet with Isaac Singer. Though Williams is as goyish as Singer is Yiddish, both share an affection for (indeed, extract their identity from) what lies directly underhand, even when that is neither a bagel nor a bourbon but a dybbuk's sigh or a Martian spacecraft. They render the fantastic usual and the usual fantastic. Though Williams is as American as Genet is French, both are drawn to the glamour of injustice, and both call forth a similar dramatis personae: tough guys, mad queens, policemen, angels.
By 1965, Tennessee Williams's major themes had been nourishing each other for 20 years. Big and little tales and plays ricocheted off each other, igniting always apparently novel combinations of energy, as a kaleidoscope confects endless patterns from a limited number of colors. It comes as no surprise, then, that the six tales in Williams's [Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed] should prove to be reconsiderations of their writer's younger triumphs. But the ricochet has boomeranged, self-nourishment is now self-cannibalism, the echo lacks resonance and falls like lead. The eight mortal ladies possessed are caricatures, all more or less unpleasant, of Tennessee's gold stars. (p. 24)
Clearly the author does believe in these stories both as art and as message, and possibly as a "breakthrough" in style. His belief is his privilege—nor dare one find fault with new language. But this is not new language, or even new grammar—merely new accents that inelegantly blur the line between grandiloquence and satire. (p. 25)
Ned Rorem, "Tennessee Now and Then," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 21, 1974, pp. 24-6.
Tennessee Williams's success and achievement as a playwright have tended to obscure his very real significance as a writer of short fiction. Such stories as "The Field of Blue Children," "Three Players of a Summer Game," "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," "The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin," and half a dozen others are of their kind as good as anything produced during recent years. Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed, his collection of six stories—his fourth—will not add to his reputation.
"Happy August the Tenth" is good Williams: the portrayal of two upper-class ladies, a New Yorker and a Virginian ("middle age was not approaching on stealthy little cat feet … but was bursting upon them"), belongs with the author's best work. A similar case might be made for "Oriflamme," a moving characterization reminiscent of several of the bewildered, helpless women of the plays, and "Completed" is redeemed from triviality by a hasty but effective characterization of a black servant.
About the others the less said the better. The author's characterizations of sex-ridden females are emetic rather than cathartic: a century-old principessa who dreams of her fifth husband's prowess in bed ("The Inventory of Fontana Bella"); an ugly and aging American poetess addicted, among other unpleasant personal habits, to lallacropia and an Italian lover ("Sabbatha and Solitude"); and a nymphomaniac liberated by the death of an aged grandmother ("Miss Coynte"—do you yokels get the point?—"of Greene"). Gone is the compassion that gave meaning to the twisted lives of so many of Williams's earlier misfits, grotesques, and freaks; in its place is a continuing kind of ugliness, almost glee in the depiction of debasement.
It's sad to see this sort of thing from the pen of one of the great talents of our time. (p. 725)
William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.
Tennessee Williams is the George Balanchine of American playwrights. Like New York City Ballet's great choreographer, he persists in tinkering with his works long after they have opened. Orpheus Descending (1957) is a rewrite of the 1940 failure Battle of Angels; Small Craft Warnings (1972) an expansion and reworking of Confessional (1970); other versions of Out Cry (1973) had been produced in Chicago in 1971 and, under the title The Two-Character Play … in 1967 and The Gnädiges Fraülein (1966) was presented off-Off Broadway in a new version last spring. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Kingdom of Earth (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) also have experienced more than one incarnation. Williams clearly means it when he says, 'A play is never an old one until you quit working on it'.
As with Balanchine, the work sometimes turns out for the better, sometimes for the worse, and on occasion the differences are hardly as significant as Williams himself seems to believe. With the new Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,… things definitely work for the better…. Because Cat is 'major' Williams, though not on a level with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, the nature of the changes and restorations is of more than passing interest.
Cat is one of Williams's most highly theatrical plays. Its major characters have vitality and, with the exception of the underwritten Brick—ex-footballer hero and sports commentator, latent homosexual and active alcoholic—sufficient inherent or suggested interest to hold the attention throughout, despite the play's unnecessary repetitiousness….
Williams attempts to keep too many balls in the air at one time for the play to be completely successful. On the one hand, there is Big Daddy, who tragically and too late has discovered that he has disliked his wife for years and now wants both a final fling, which he is destined not to have, and an heir from Brick. On another, the guilt-ridden Brick, asserting the purity of his friendship with the dead Skipper, refusing to acknowledge it for what it was—for at least one of them; because of it refusing also to go to bed with his wife. And what of Maggie? Are her intensity and passion prompted more by a craving for wealth or a craving for Brick, even at the moment at the end of the play when she denies him his liquor, telling the hobbling, crutch-bound man she will return it only after he impregnates her, after which they'll 'get drunk together'?
Holding it all together should be two factors: the theme of 'mendacity', the curse that tells his father is responsible for his alcoholism, and Brick himself. The mendacity theme works considerably better in this version, presumably thanks to restorations from the original text. It is seen to pervade virtually all the relationships, virtually all the major moments of confrontation, whether they have to do with Brick's relationship with Skipper, the impending death of Big Daddy or the vying for those 28,000 acres. For Brick has denied not only his guilt concerning Skipper, but Skipper himself; doing so, he has become an attractive nonentity, a fading shadow of the golden boy's promise (and, let us face it, by now something of a cliché). Big Daddy must be kept from the truth—and not only out of kindness—save in an explosive confrontation with Brick….
But through it all we are asked to take on faith whatever it is that Maggie, Big Daddy and Big Mama find so attractive, so worthy of love, even of admiration, in Brick…. It is not sufficient to have Maggie remind us Brick is one of those 'weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace'—especially when the grace is not on view—and to witness instead only his ironically polite indifference. Brick is far too pivotal to everyone else's motivation for that….
Williams has dropped the Kazan-inspired Broadway third act, leaving something both closer to his original and more ambiguous. (p. 45)
[The] homosexual element and the language are more explicit and various lines have been clarified, updated or restored, almost to positive effect. After nearly two decades,… the play does hold up remarkably well, confirming … that Williams has every right to be considered America's foremost living playwright. (pp. 45, 47)
Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1974), October, 1974.
As a writer of fiction, Tennessee Williams has two things going for him: he is never dull; and he knows how to ingratiate himself. If, in [the] collection ["Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed"] Williams is so captivating as a narrator, it is because he had invented a tone of voice that is both racy and genteel, that slyly alternates between juicy vulgarity and the mellifluous circumlocutions of a gentleman of the old school….
The important quality in Williams's style (as befits a playwright) is that it is spoken; you can imagine someone (an eloquent and mannered someone, of course) drawing you aside and telling you these sweet somethings. And because a conversational voice is recounting an incident of interest (usually of bizarre interest), Williams appears to write effortlessly. He never seems to fuss over exposition or scene-painting, no more than you would fuss if you were telling one of your best after-dinner stories.
Some of the pieces in this collection, however, might sound a good deal better if told over brandy and cigars. In fact, one, "Miss Coynte of Greene," is repellent in the cold light of the printed page…. [It appeared to me to be] sexist and racist tripe, the product of a shallow if agitated imagination. The cliché characters (domineering mother, sex-crazed spinster, well-endowed bucks) could have been conceived by a Freudian analyst c. 1950—which is my way of saying that if the story weren't so silly it would be degrading to all concerned, author, reader and characters alike.
Fortunately the book is redeemed by one perfect tale, "Happy August the Tenth."… The story is sad and funny, terse but not so terse that it excludes the meandering feel of those spiteful, frightening, inconclusive events, those simultaneous monologues, called lovers' quarrels. The book should be read for this one tale alone; the last story, "Oriflamme," also merits attention….
Happy August the Tenth," alas, has no sex interest to offer. Just beauty. (p. 14)
Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 6, 1974.
[What] a rousing melodrama [the revised version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"] is and … [what] luscious roles! Williams is a playwright in the nineteenth-century tradition, and one observes in him the qualities that our ancestors admired in Dion Boucicault; nothing is here for tears and scarcely anything is here even for credulity, but the evening roars past in a glory of gorgeous Southern fustian, and one leaves the theatre like a happy sleepwalker, reluctant to be waked. One has had such a good time that to question the means by which the prestidigitator-playwright has achieved his effects would seem a dour Yankee incivility. Let the Technicolored dream go on and on, let the bright birds flutter up out of the black cape perpetually. (p. 73)
Brendan Gill, "Family Troubles," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 7, 1974, pp. 73-4.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [in its revised version] possesses a number of striking assets. It has much of Williams' stage canniness and power, euphonious writing of American tang and humor, three well-drawn characters made arresting by the author's concern with them….
Williams seemed intent on tearing the mask of moral fraud and lying (mendacity, he calls it) from the face of middle-class "respectability." Many things worth saying are voiced in the course of the play, though most of them are stated in passing or for purposes of character delineation. They assert the imperative of clinging to life—the impulse to survival, the need for love, the nullity of existence without genuine connection among fellow human beings, the dangers involved in the refusal to stand up to the fact of mortality.
But … the play remains centrally ambiguous. The evidence for greater thematic clarity is present but never clinched. For all his determination to be courageously frank, Williams beclouds the issue—which is not simply sex but homosexuality. (p. 349)
Williams' original third act—in which Big Daddy does not appear—lets the play hang in the air except for the tying up of some loose ends. There still remains an overlong scene demonstrating family greed: Brick's older brother and sister-in-law trying to take charge of the rich estate after Big Daddy's imminent death. The ending now, pretty much as it was in 1955, suggests that Maggie's lie about being pregnant by Brick makes Big Daddy happy and wins Brick's admiration so that he may consent to turn her lie into a truth. But this compounds the play's confusion. Still, it hardly matters. The play is virtually complete after the second act. (pp. 349-50)
Williams writes about women with a sympathy and an understanding unusual among our playwrights. Most of his women, however, are victims. Maggie fights being one. (p. 350)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 12, 1974.
Tennessee Williams is one of the two American dramatists of enduring substance and [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] is not one of his best plays. The other man, obviously, is O'Neill, and his later plays are well above Williams; still A Streetcar Named Desire is truly an American tragedy and The Glass Menagerie stands, even if a bit unsteadily, as one of the few successful poems in our theater. Cat is significantly less than either.
It came after the two best plays in Williams' very prolific career, and it's among the first in a series that, though laced with fire, nevertheless declines toward a mere rehash like Small Craft Warnings and a feeble protest against its author's sterility like Out Cry. To say that Williams' career describes an arc is too neat. For one thing it isn't over; for another such plays as Period of Adjustment and The Gnädiges Fräulein show a largely untapped spring of humor in him. But nothing since Streetcar (1947) has so beautifully fused the elements of the Williams "mainstream" in so beautiful a form.
Cat deals with that mainstream. This means, on the surface or near it, such matters as loneliness, buried and released violence, sex and "difference"—the last often signified by physical difference, like lame Laura in The glass Menagerie and injured Brick here. More deeply, Williams has been concerned with American change, with the extension of the Civil War by other means, with the course of our history as we have moved from a 19th-century society of adventure and idealism circumscribed by puritanism to a 20th-century society that is increasingly liberated and increasingly devoid of appetite for adventure or ideal. Fundamentally Streetcar is about the end of a romantic America that had rot under the romance, and the onslaught of a brass-and-beer America that has mere bareness where the rot used to be. Cat, taking another tack on the same theme, deals with questions of continuity, with death and birth. The play asks: isn't death, as much as sex, a prerequisite of birth? (p. 16)
But his articulation of these themes is clumsy. Much of the first act is laborious exposition, cramming us with facts while pretending not to know that we are there. And it's particularly tortuous because Brick is mostly restricted to cynical taciturnity and bourbon-pouring; thus a huge burden falls on Margaret. Brick's little nephews and nieces, the "no-neck monsters," are cartoons; their parents, Gooper and Mae, are barely two-dimensional; Big Mama is not much more; the preacher is out of a revue sketch…. The best scene in the play is the long one in Act Two between Big Daddy and Brick, but that scene is all revelation and exploration. The dynamics of the play depends on Margaret, who is offstage for most of Act Two. (pp. 16, 33)
The dialogue is garlanded with litanies of repetiion, apt enough for characters who enjoy speaking, but sometimes Williams intrudes into their rhetoric. For instance Brick says that he and his football friend used to toss long high passes "that couldn't be intercepted except by time." (p. 33)
[The] play itself, second-rate Williams though it is, reminds us that he was (is?) a writer who saw (sees?) life through a dramatist's eyes, as distinct from people who go around looking for material for plays. (p. 34)
Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October, 1974.
Blanche DuBois [in A Streetcar Named Desire] … is classic—a nearly perfect combination of tyrannical aspiration, idealism, failure, and dignity, all engendered by her region's history and romantic ambience. However, these heroic qualities are not always recognized by the academic critics of the play. Popular critics did perceive them.
Though produced in 1947, midcentury indeed, the frank portrayal of the power of sex in A Streetcar Named Desire burst shockingly enough nearly to overwhelm the tragic themes that Tennessee Williams put into his play. For two decades, learned critics treated Streetcar as if it were an Ibsenian drama about a forbidden subject. Beclouded by the sad nymphomania of Blanche DuBois, the vigorous, imperial virility of Stanley Kowalski, the comfortable, satiated sensuality of Stella DuBois Kowalski, and the striking rape scene that climaxes the next to last scene of the play, Herbert Muller [in The Spirit of Tragedy] saw sexuality as Williams' "tragic theme," and "restoration of sexual order [as] the key to salvation and peace…. [There is] no wider or deeper tragic import." John Von Szeliski [in "Tennessee Williams and the Tragedy of Sensitivity"] agreed: "The only communication and comprehension is in sex and the survivors are the sexually, albeit bestially, adjusted ones." And Robert Heilman reiterates [in "Tennessee Williams: Approaches to Tragedy"]: "The sexual commonground points up a world of imperfect choices" in which Stanley represents "a coarse new order, vigorous but rude and boorish…. Hope lies in Stanley and Stella."
Undeniably, the air crackles with the subject. Nevertheless, sex is not beautiful in A Streetcar Named Desire; it is but animalistically satisfying. It certainly is not the paradisial state for Blanche; sex destroys her. It is what Stella merely settles for. Sexuality does not make Stanley into a god by any means. If he represents a well-adjusted new order, then we can only conclude that either Williams has thrown up his hands in despair or is declaring that Stanley represents mere survival, and there must be more to life than such a new order.
The point is that Williams uses sexuality tragically. It looms alongside history and time as an external power, with a like capriciousness, uncontrollability, and relentless inevitability. Like Ibsen, in Ghosts, Williams did not interpose sex into his play for its own sake as a theme of shock or liberation from staid, artificial gentility, but as a symbol of a relentless, nemesic past, in which the sins of the father are visited upon the children in proper Old Testament fashion. Williams uses sex in A Streetcar Named Desire as the catalyst in the tragedy of a personality broken by death, history, and her own destined psyche. We ought not to delimit his concept to the mere portrayal of maladjusted and tawdry individuals, who need mental help and don't know it. No amount of therapy can save Blanche DuBois from confronting these powerful, uncontrollable modern surrogates of the supernal beings of old. "Williams has a long reach," his fellow tragedian Arthur Miller once wrote [in "The Shadow of the Gods: A Critical View of American Theatre"], "and a genuinely dramatic imagination…. His greatest value, his aesthetic valor, so to speak, lies in his very evident determination to unveil and engage the widest range of causation conceivable to him."
To justify this range of causation and confrontation, Williams needed an equivalent protagonist because character, not plot, is the concern of modern tragedy. Williams' choice of a Blanche DuBois to undergo the tragic enactment and the point in medias res with which he begins his plot present problems, but also indicate the angle of his tragic vision…. She is beyond the capability of even attempting to control and manipulate the world about her. Nonetheless, her recollections of her former world do limn in our minds a personality that once had strength to manipulate. There still rests a deal of heroism in her. (pp. 83-5)
Sordid though she be, she has come to represent the social destruction that still lingers after a century as the inescapable punishment for slavery and the Civil War; the dissolution of a tinseled gentility founded upon inhumanity; the inexplicable victimization of a class of womanhood by a society that forced them to marry inadequately in order to fulfill a dream forever shattered. (p. 86)
Blanche … knows truth and reality, knows them so well that she builds bulwarks against them—pitiful ramparts of paper shades around glaring light bulbs, of cheesy old-fashioned dresses and hats, of threadbare rituals of outmoded, inappropriate gentility, of shabby subterfuges that dissolve upon the most superficial investigation.
But until the very last scene Blanche does not lose touch with reality. She is, indeed, in a constant state of self-awareness, of recognition of who she is and what she is and what her world is like and what her immediate situation treacherously holds out to her. (p. 87)
Obviously she recognizes truth, and the truth is that her life is compounded of fate and individual error and fear. Brooks Atkinson complimented the actress who created the role in New York, Jessica Tandy, by saying [in "'Streetcar' Tragedy"] that she captured the essence and the nuances that Williams wrote into the role: "the terror, the bogus refinement, the intellectual alertness and the madness." It's the intellectual alertness … that becomes the madness of vital truth which Herman Melville had seen in the dark characters of Shakespeare.
Not the least among the terrors that Blanche perceives looms the inevitability that Stanley Kowalski will be the instrument of her final catastrophe. (p. 88)
Blanche is right. Stanley does become her executioner. He applies the coup de grâce to her psyche. If sex represents the old-time power of the Greek gods, then Stanley represents a perverse deus ex machina, the final piece of machinery that produces, rather than resolves, the catastrophe. All that is left here is the preservation of dignity, amidst the shards of the hero's life and self, an ironic dignity devised from the anagnorisis of the self's limitations and the power of the Other. (pp. 88-9)
Dan Vogel, "The Mask of Oedipus Tyrannos," in his The Three Masks of American Tragedy (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 13-102.
Though it is billed as a novel, Tennessee Williams' new book [Moise and the World of Reason] reads more like a series of notebook entries in which the author muses at random on art and sex. Williams is the most intensely personal of writers; his compulsively voluble narrator clearly speaks to us in Williams' own palpitating voice. Moise and the World of Reason is a portrait of the author as a sensual young man, "a distinguished failed writer" at 30. Obsessed with his past, his sexual desires and his rejection slips, the narrator uses his diary jottings as a defense against emptiness. His desk is the center of his world; his writing imposes order and dignity on the experiences of a sometimes shabby life. Art heals, and the book records the process of the writer's salvation through the patterned arrangement of words on a page.
Since it has no real story or tangible dramatic conflict, the novel is designed to show off its narrator's sensibility—Williams attempts to hold us with the fractured, fevered ruminations of a character who nakedly enacts his own fears of failure and isolation…. Characters, anecdotes, images from the author's past compete for our attention. Williams, of course, is an exuberant, though inconsistent master of ceremonies, and the quality of the remembered moments varies. Some are tantalizing, while others seem like pale carbon copies of past routines. (pp. 24-5)
As always, Williams is a poet of sexual longing; and the most lyrical of the memories involve the writer and his first lover Lance, a black ice-skater with an ideal physique and a generous, yielding spirit….
Typically Williams' attitude to sex is dense and contradictory as he sees it as both holy and infected, transcendent and tainted. Lance is a Williams stud like Chance Wayne and Stanley Kowalski who offers ecstatic release. Yet throughout these reminiscences sex is also sinister, as in the bizarre passage in which the young writer meets and feels threatened by a once-famous playwright who tries to entice him to go on a long journey. The crumbling playwright, so patently an embittered self-portrait, uses sex as magic but also as punishment. Williams therefore remains a reluctant Dionysian, a guilt-ridden reveler; and for this Southern puritan, sex still promises catastrophe.
The novel is Williams' true confession. He has never before written so unguardedly about himself. The narrator is openly, at times even joyously, homosexual; sexual desire isn't disguised here as it was in many of the plays. But Williams is one of those writers for whom telling all may have a therapeutic effect on his spirit but a dampening result on his art. Written before gay liberation, his major plays required distance from and transformation of his actual experience. Williams benefited from the pressures of social convention. On one level A Streetcar Named Desire is a homosexual fantasy with Blanche as an effeminate male masked as a magnificently neurotic Southern belle; but American drama can be glad that Williams didn't write Blanche as a man! In terms of sexual candor, Moise and the World of Reason is Williams' most liberated statement, and yet it has little of the surging erotic comedy of the great plays.
Williams has always been a self-conscious writer. Here he shares with us his design for his own book and he lets us know that he's aware of his eccentricities—his fondness for ending sentences in mid-air, his pleasure in repeating words, phrases and images, his almost impish delight in inverting normal word order….
For all its ornery formlessness, its stylistic self-indulgence, its avoidance of high drama, the book has genuine rewards, descriptive passages that remind us of Williams' special lyrical gifts and his distinctive personality, evocation of down-town New York at night conveying the macabre isolation of an Edward Hopper painting. Even when the narrative voice is whining or out of control, even when it is lazy and repetitive, it is still, manifestly, the voice of America's greatest playwright. There is bristling wit here, and charm, and temperament. (p. 25)
Foster Hirsch, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 24, 1975.
The purpose of [Moise and the World of Reason], I'm sure, is to flex Williams's fantasy. And to unburden him on the subject of homosexuality. He's for it, and Moise will tell you more about its procedures than you may want to know. Sex is Williams's antidote to the world of reason—and the world of unreason as well.
What holds the bits, pieces, and roles of Moise together is Williams's lovely writing, not his cockeyed people or erotic celebrations. Some of his descriptive passages, especially with elderly figures, unfold like dark flowers. He plucks aphorisms as if they grew on bushes….
Opinions will differ as to whether Moise was written or drafted. Often it's a silly and transparent fraud. Williams's 30-year-old author has the wisdom and experience of a worldly 50-year-old shrunk by a team of Viennese analysts. His mock seriousness—about loving, growing old, dying—turns to lead. Yet there's charm, grace, beauty here. Moise has the sound and feel of art. Instinctively, Williams makes something like literature.
Webster Schott, "Catamite on a Hot Tin Roof," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 15, 1975, p. 1.