Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 11)
Williams, Tennessee 1914–
Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Williams is one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century. His work is characteristically concerned with the conflict between the illusions of an individual and the reality of his situation, most notably in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. Because loneliness and disappointment are so typical in his work, he has often been criticized for having a limited perception of the human condition. His later work is generally considered to be of uneven quality, none of it meeting the standards of his prize-winning plays. In addition to drama, Williams also writes novels, short stories, and screenplays. His fiction is criticized for being sketchy and undeveloped. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
For some time now, any number of epigones have been turning out better imitation Tennessee Williams plays than Williams himself has written lately. As a result, Williams was forced to abandon self-imitation for self-parody and produce several rather unsuccessful Williams pastiches. But In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel does not even qualify as poor parody: it makes The Seven Descents of Myrtle look, by comparison, like a triumphal ascent of Parnassus. It is a play by a man at the end of, not his talent (that was long ago), but his tether—a man around whom the last props of the dramatic edifice have crumbled and who, in an impotent frenzy, stamps his feet on the few remaining bricks. That someone who was a major American and world dramatist should come to this is a tragedy almost unparalleled in the annals of literature, never mind drama; it would have been a fit subject for a play by the former Tennessee Williams.
In a sense, to be sure, Williams has always been a confessional playwright—and even a confessional being, going from psychoanalysis to Catholicism. But the trouble with his quasi-confessional plays is that they are not honest confessions. In them, Williams appears either as a middle-aged hysterical woman (archetype: Blanche DuBois), or as a sensitive, oversensitive young man, a little too good (Orpheus Descending) or too wicked (Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer) for his milieu. These are the two...
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M. A. Corrigan
Tennessee Williams' writing reveals a striking preoccupation with the problem of time. Like other modern dramatists, he has juxtaposed past and present, created worlds of fantasy, and employed mythical substructures in order to suspend the irrevocable forward direction of time in his plays. Williams frequently expresses the conflict between real and ideal in temporal terms; time, often as arch-enemy, is ranged with fact, necessity, body, mortality, and locked in combat with eternity, truth, freedom, soul, immortality. Williams' dramas are marked by a thematic obsession with time and its effect on human life to such a degree that his whole career can be viewed from the perspective of his changing attitude toward time. (p. 155)
Three major periods, coinciding approximately with the last three decades, emerge in a consideration of Williams' plays from the standpoint of the time theme. The Glass Menagerie, Camino Real, and Night of the Iguana exemplify the characteristic stance toward time that Williams adopts in each period; each of these plays, moreover, employs a different technique to achieve an arrest of time.
The events of The Glass Menagerie are enactments of Tom Wingfield's memories; his monologues, addressed directly to the audience, frame the play's seven animated "tableaux" and mediate between past and present. In reliving the events surrounding the visit of his sister's "gentleman caller,"...
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Memoirs, which Williams consistently refers to as a "thing," moves back and forth between the near and distant past, between the struggle for success and the struggle to retrieve it. Quite legitimately, Williams may be capsulizing, rarefying facts to manageable size and form, presenting the essence rather than the graph of actuality. The author's life, as he sees it, is made accessible through the medium of written expression; we do not come to see what it is like to be Tennessee Williams, but what it is like to see Tennessee Williams more or less as he is willing to be seen. But no matter how faithful to events a writer may wish to be, memoirs are a compromise; they exist as aesthetic works apart from fact as surely as they may represent an attempt to unite objective and subjective impulses in literary form, and Memoirs exists, unassailable, immune to charges of faulty, truncated, or manufactured memory….
What is most remarkable about Memoirs is its frankness, especially related to sexuality, and, paradoxically, its guarded tone.
Williams' highly touted openness about his homosexuality is both commendable and dangerous: commendable because he has chosen to make this important part of his life known (which precluded his residence at a major American university theatre) and dangerous because his attitude toward homosexuality is likely to confirm any number of armored stereotypes. Williams...
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Williams has written some of the most moving dramas of the modern theatre. He is such a grand old man that I suppose no one will tell him when a play simply stinks. And that is what This Is (An Entertainment) does—rankly and raucously.
If this were merely an entertainment, we might try to respond in kind, but … [this is] an empty pretentious script….
It is of course possible to satirize politics and even revolution, as Dürrenmatt has done in grotesque tragicomedies, but Williams's revolution is simply irrelevant to his single character in a densely populated play. It is of course possible to laugh at a munitions maker as a crawling, sex-starved cuckold, but such figures would look better in Daily Worker cartoons than on [a] set. It is even possible to share the zest of a Countess for several lovers, but not when she mislays her children as easily as her cigarette lighter; and not when she buys that amatory zest with the profits of her husband's munitions. Are these objections too realistic for a play insistently called an entertainment? To avoid them, Williams should not violate the boundaries of fantasy…. (p. 406)
John Whitty, in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1976 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), October, 1976.
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Mary Ann Corrigan
In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams synthesizes depth characterization, typical of drama that strives to be an illusion of reality, with symbolic theatrics, which imply an acceptance of the stage as artifice. In short, realism and theatricalism, often viewed as stage rivals, complement each other in this play. Throughout the 1940s Williams attempted to combine elements of theatricalist staging with verisimilitudinous plots and characters. His experiments either failed utterly, as in Battle of Angels in which neither literal nor symbolic action is convincing, or succeeded with modifications, for instance … in The Glass Menagerie. In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams is in control of his symbolic devices. They enable the audience not only to understand the emotional penumbra surrounding the events and characters, but also to view the world from the limited and distorted perspective of Blanche. (p. 385)
The conflict between Blanche and Stanley is an externalization of the conflict that goes on within Blanche between illusion and reality. The illusion sustaining her is her image of herself as a Southern belle, a fine, cultured, young lady. The reality is a lonely woman, desperately seeking human contact, indulging "brutal desire" as an affirmation of life. Blanche's "schizoid personality is a drama of man's irreconcilable split between animal reality and moral appearance." This drama is played out not only in...
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What has always fascinated me about Tennessee Williams, particularly in his early work, is the sense that the plays are never about what they appear to be about. They contain an opposing duality. In Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield's mannered gregariousness is constantly at odds with Laura's fragile introversion; just as Tom's poetic yearnings tug against the Gentleman Caller's traditional American drive for 'getting on'. In Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche du Bois' gentility is virtually at war with Stanley Kowalski's primitive aggression—just as it ultimately clashes with her Gentleman Caller Mick, in a last act dénouement reminiscent of that in Menagerie. In Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Maggie's materialist thrust is pitted against Brick's passivity. It is as if the secret centre of every Williams play is a dramatisation, by proxy, of the interplay that characterises certain kinds of homosexual relationships; active partners and passive partners; doers and done-to. What gives the early plays a curious kind of force is that heterosexual relationships are being dramatised from the standpoint of homosexual experience. In a way I cannot adequately explain, Williams captures (I believe by accident), the character of two opposing life-forces; one, thrusting and materialistic; the other, submissive and spiritual.
Because art works best when it wears masks, the disguises that Williams' characters wear give...
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The storm-waters are rising around the farmstead somewhere in rural Mississippi when Lot, coughing ominously, comes back to the family home with his new bride; everyone has fled except his half-brother Chicken, who sits morosely in the kitchen downing liquor from an earthenware jug when he is not carving indecent figures on the wooden table or entertaining his new sister-in-law by hurling a startled cat into the flooded cellar….
[Kingdom of Earth] reminds one occasionally of Pinter, but more frequently of Victorian melodrama, hinging as it does upon that old standby, a disputed inheritance….
[The] Southern air is heavy with symbolism, too: the farmstead … stands for the corrosive influence of long-dead parents…. Chicken, loutish and sensual, relishes only the physical pleasures of life and never penetrates far beyond the culinary regions of the house…. Lot, pouring sherry wine from a cut-glass decanter in the tarnished opulence of his mother's parlour, embodies a feminine search for some kind of other-worldly refinement: in Tennessee Williams's over-heated world even his sickness is a gesture of defiance in the face of Chicken's rude health.
Kingdom of Earth is sub-titled 'The Seven Descents of Myrtle', but it might well have been called 'Southern Comfort Farm'. Williams himself, apparently, has called it 'my comic melodrama', and indeed it is difficult to know how seriously...
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[Tennessee Williams takes] familiar characters, situations, and themes and then weaves them into a baroque conceit possessing neither original substance nor extrinsic value. The world so imagined hardly exists—or, at least, hardly deserves consideration—on any other level than the decorative: it offers us a group of charming grotesques, preserved in amber. What is Southern about it, really, is not a certain quality of perception, a sense of engagement between past and present, the public and the private, myth and history: but a turn of phrase or personality, a use of the bizarre and sensational for their own sake, which has the net effect of creating distance. For regionalism is substituted a form of local color, and a very precious and slightly decadent form at that, in which the gap between drama and audience seems deliberately widened so that the latter can revel without compunction in a contemporary "Gothick" fantasy. (p. 258)
[Williams] himself, I think, remains less than fully aware of [this reductive process]. Of course, Williams does have some suspicion of what he is doing, as his references to his own literary exhibitionism indicate. But these references are scattered and nearly always discreetly qualified. More to the point, they have never prevented him from reaching for some larger theme in his plays—and reaching in such a way, unfortunately, as to emphasize his limitations rather than go beyond them. Far from helping...
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