Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams Essay - Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 111)

Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 111)

Introduction

Tennessee Williams 1911–1983

(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Williams's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15, 19, 30, 39, 45, and 71.

Tennessee Williams is distinguished for his psychologically complex dramas that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. Breaking from the realistic tradition in American drama, Williams introduced his concept of the "plastic" theater by incorporating expressionistic elements of dialogue, action, sound, setting, and lighting in his works. Williams's reputation rests on his three award-winning dramas—The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Each of these is set in the American South, employing lyrical dialogue and inventive stage techniques, and represents a powerful study of family dynamics and the solitary search for meaning in the modern world, particularly through the depiction of emotional abuse, sexual relations, and violence. For his remarkable ability to evoke universal experience in multi-dimensional characters and provocative plots that transcend geography and social milieu, Williams is recognized as a major influence in the development of postwar American theater.

Biographical Information

Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a travelling salesman, was frequently absent. As a young child, Williams survived a near-fatal bout with diphtheria that left him physically weakened and in the constant care of his overprotective mother. Williams also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, whose schizophrenia and later mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy had a profound effect upon him. At age twelve Williams moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was transferred for a managerial position. Away from the security and familiarity of his rural upbringing, Williams became the subject of ridicule among his new urban peers and unsympathetic father, who nicknamed his shy and sickly son "Miss Nancy." Williams began to write poetry and short fiction to relieve the strain of such derision and alienation. At age sixteen he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine with "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?," which became his first published work. In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He worked in a shoe warehouse and continued to write until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During the same year, while recovering at his grand-parents' home in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams was introduced to the theater and produced the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, his first play. Deciding on a career as a writer, Williams returned to St. Louis to attend classes at Washington University, then transferred to the University of Iowa where he studied playwriting and earned a degree in English in 1938. The next year he published "The Field of Blue Children" in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. After winning an award from the Group Theater in 1939 for a series of one-act plays, Williams received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship which he used to compose Battle of Angels (1940), a short-lived critical failure that opened in Boston. In the early 1940s, Williams worked odd jobs and eventually secured a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, for which he produced several unaccepted screenplays and was released at the end of his contract. During this time he wrote The Glass Menagerie, the first of his major accomplishments, which received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. Though struggling with fame and pressure to duplicate this success, Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. During the 1950s, Williams produced the dramas The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Real (1953) along with the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and adapted the script of A Streetcar Named Desire into a popular Hollywood film that appeared in 1951. In the second half of the decade, Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1959). Williams was again plunged into despair in 1963 when Frank Merlo, his long-time partner, died of lung cancer. After The Night of the Iguana (1960), his last notable success, Williams continued to produce numerous dramatic works of diminishing critical importance until the end of his life. His mental instability and increasing dependence upon drugs and alcohol worsened during the next two decades. In 1969, Williams converted to Roman Catholicism and was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. Eight years after the publication of his Memoirs (1975), Williams accidently choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.

Major Works

Williams's mature dramatic style is best represented in his three greatest critical and commercial successes—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The most lyrical and tender of the three, The Glass Menagerie is a semi-autobiographic play drawn directly from Williams's childhood experiences with his mother and mentally ill sister. Set in a St. Louis tenement during the Depression, the drama involves the Wingfield family, whose three adult members include Amanda, a domineering mother who bitterly resents her absent husband; her son, Tom, a writer who works in a shoe factory; and his sister, Laura, whose extreme timidity and crippled leg confine her to the house. Tom, as Williams's dramatis personae, narrates the story through retrospective commentary and monologues that underscore the tension between reality and illusion, especially as Amanda romanticizes her past life as a beautiful Southern debutante and Laura tends to her collection of glass figurines, to which the title of the play refers, a symbol of fantasy and her physical and emotional fragility. The dramatic climax occurs when Amanda persuades Tom to find a suitor for Laura. Tom invites a co-worker, Jim O'Connor, to dinner to meet his sister. Though Laura and Jim enjoy each other's company, Jim abruptly leaves after informing Laura that he is already engaged to be married. The audience learns in a final monologue that Tom, like his father, has also abandoned his mother and sister to pursue his own destiny and to escape his guilt for shattering their hopes and expectations. Despite the simple plot, Williams blends elements of expressionism and realism in poetic dialogue, pervasive symbolism, and music and lighting effects that evoke the sensations of memory. A Streetcar Named Desire similarly examines family tensions and the theme of illusion versus reality, but is far more violent and grim than The Glass Menagerie. Set in the vibrant French Quarter of New Orleans, the play follows the demise of Blanche Dubois as she is drawn into a dangerous, antagonistic relationship with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. As the title suggests, the play revolves around the idea of desire as an unyielding and destructive force. Blanche arrives at the home of Stanley and her sister, Stella, after witnessing the dissipation of her family estate and the suicide of her husband, whom she berates after discovering that he is gay. Conflict between Blanche and Stanley soon escalates as a result of Blanche's flirtations and condescending treatment of Stanley, an unrefined man who is threatened by her genteel pretensions. As a social commentary, Blanche represents the effete values of the dying Southern aristocracy while Stanley embodies the energy and earnestness of the working class. The tension between them culminates when Stanley rapes Blanche, after which she is committed to a sanitarium where she retreats further from reality. The hero of the play remains ambiguous as Williams skillfully tempers sympathies for Blanche and Stanley to confront and challenge audience expectations. While Blanche's haughty teasing and hypocritical virginal posturing is balanced by her difficult past, Stanley's coarseness and brutality are mitigated by his appealing sexuality, honesty, and sincere love for Stella. As in The Glass Menagerie, Williams offers sensitive treatment of the female characters and profound insight into their psychological motivations. Blanche, like Laura and Amanda, appears fragile and unable to cope with the harshness of reality, particularly as she constructs a facade of lies about her sordid history. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the Mississippi River delta at the plantation home of Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton farmer whose family has assembled to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday and false news that his cancer is in remission. The complex plot, fraught with Freudian undertones, centers on the implications of mendacity and self-deception, particularly as Big Daddy's favorite son, Brick Pollitt, wallows in alcohol to avoid facing the actual nature of his affectionate relationship with Skipper, a high school friend who has killed himself through drug and alcohol abuse. Distraught over Brick's drinking and detachment, Brick's wife, Maggie, suspects a homosexual attachment between her husband and Skipper. Maggie has previously seduced Skipper into bed with her to test his sexuality and, after he failed to perform, confronted Skipper with the "truth" about his feelings for Brick. When Big Daddy demands that Brick reveal the source of his compulsion to drink, Brick explains that Skipper telephoned him shortly before his death with a drunken confession, to which Brick responded by hanging up on him. Big Daddy accuses Brick of causing Skipper's death by failing to face up to the truth. In turn, Brick spoils the party by revealing to Big Daddy that his cancer is actually terminal. In the end, Maggie's determination to save her marriage is accomplished by cunning and sheer tenacity, to which the title of the play alludes, as she lies to the family that she is pregnant with Brick's child to regain their favor. Though the published version of the play contains two endings, the Broadway version in which Big Daddy departs with an offstage cry and Brick experiences newfound admiration for Maggie is the preferred variation used in most productions. As in much of his work, Williams juxtaposes conflicting aspects of obligation and selfishness, guilt and desire, self-awareness and denial to construct highly developed characters who struggle to overcome severe loneliness and frustration in their circumscribed lives.

Critical Reception

Williams is considered among the most talented and original playwrights of the postwar period. His three major dramas—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—are undisputed classics of the American theater whose memorable characters have become fixtures in American popular culture. Though his most effective plays reveal little concern with contemporary political or historical events, his willingness to explore sensitive themes surrounding violence and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual, was considered controversial in the 1940s and 1950s. Many critics have commented on the distinctive ambiguity of Williams's plays, most notably in the significance of Blanche's rape in A Streetcar Named Desire and Brick's guilt and sexual orientation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While some contend that Williams's refusal to present stereotypical dichotomies among his characters or to force judgment is the strength of his work, others suggest such ambivalence represents Williams's failure to resolve his own themes and preoccupations. Despite the success of his major plays during a creative period spanning from 1940 to 1960, Williams's prolific output of critical failures thereafter is a well-noted feature of his literary career. In addition, some critics find Williams's obsession with brutality and sex to be a sensational aspect of his work, particularly in the less successful allegorical or morality plays such as Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Suddenly Last Summer. This gothic quality of much of his writing, marked by interest in the aberrant, irrational, and macabre, is often associated with Southern Renaissance writers such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Though his realistic narratives and credible characters are compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, it is Williams's unique ability to adapt elements of realism and expressionism that distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. A dynamic innovator and deeply perceptive artist whose theater evinces poignant compassion for the vulnerable and victimized, Williams achieved both critical and popular acclaim while redefining the standards of American drama.

Principal Works

Battle of Angels (drama) 1940; revised and performed as Orpheus Descending, 1957
The Glass Menagerie (drama) 1944; (screenplay) [with Oscar Saul] 1950
27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays (dramas) 1946; augmented edition, 1953
Summer and Smoke (drama) 1947; revised and performed as Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1966
A Streetcar Named Desire (drama) 1947; (screenplay) 1951
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel) 1950
The Rose Tattoo (drama) 1951; (screenplay) [with Hal Kanter] 1955
Camino Real: A Play (drama) 1953
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (drama) 1955
Baby Doll (screenplay)...

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Criticism

William Becker (review date Summer 1955)

SOURCE: A review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1955, pp. 268-72.

[In the following review, Becker offers high praise for the debut production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he describes as a "remarkable piece of work" and "Williams' best play to date."]

The team of Tennessee Williams, playwright, Elia Kazan, director, and Jo Mielziner, designer, is as potent an artistic force as Broadway can boast today. Their newest collaboration, the Playwrights Company production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco, is a really remarkable piece of work. It is also the season's most solid dramatic success. One should...

(The entire section is 2737 words.)

Delma Eugene Presley (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Search for Hope in the Plays of Tennessee Williams," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 25, 1971, pp. 31-43.

[In the following essay, Presley identifies three philosophical dilemmas confronted by Williams's central characters—"isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death." Presley contends that Williams's most successful plays portray realistic psychological or social tensions rather than theological themes as found in his less effective later plays.]

Tennessee Williams' entrance into the Roman Catholic Church in January, 1969 should be regarded not necessarily as an eccentric action, but as a logical if not decisive step in the playwright's...

(The entire section is 4167 words.)

Susan Neal Mayberry (essay date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: "A Study of Illusion and the Grotesque in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in Southern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 359-65.

[In the following essay, Mayberry offers analysis of "grotesque" characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, drawing attention to their unique physical or psychological deformities as a source of both humor and pathos. Mayberry also addresses the various illusions and pretenses through which these characters attempt to protect themselves.]

Although the Southern dialect, mannerisms, and setting apparent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reveal Tennessee Williams' usual regional focus, the ideas and emotions...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: An introduction to Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 1-8.

[In the following essay, Bloom considers Williams's achievements and shortcomings as a major American playwright and the influence of poet Hart Crane on his work.]

It is a sad and inexplicable truth that the United States, a dramatic nation, continues to have so limited a literary achievement in the drama. American literature, from Emerson to the present moment, is a distinguished tradition. The poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Hart Crane, R. P. Warren, Elizabeth Bishop down through the generation of...

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John Timpane (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "'Weak and Divided People': Tennessee Williams and the Written Woman," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 171-80.

[In the following essay, Timpane examines Williams's creation of female characters whose dynamic ambiguity resists the tendency toward idealization or oversimplification. Timpane contends that Williams offers "an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error."]

Like much of Tennessee Williams's public image, the tradition that he was sympathetic to women began with Williams himself. In his essays, memoirs, and letters, throughout...

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James Reynolds (essay date December 1991)

SOURCE: "The Failure of Technology in The Glass Menagerie," in Modern Drama, Vol. 34, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 522-27.

[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses the significance of modern technology in The Glass Menagerie, which he views as a commentary on progress and the effect of technology on the individual and society.]

Laura's fragile collection of glass animals gives Tennessee Williams's play its name and a central symbol with both an esthetic and a personal focus. But the play is punctuated with another set of references, an array of ordinary products of twentieth-century technology, that expands its significance beyond the personal even as it...

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Kathleen Margaret Lant (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "A Streetcar Named Misogyny," in Violence in Drama, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 225-38.

[In the following essay, Lant discusses the significance of rape and elements of tragedy in A Street Car Named Desire. According to Lant, Blanche is unable to attain the status of a tragic figure because she is objectified and dehumanized as a victim of rape.]

Tennessee gave me a lot of clues to Blanche. He was a sly fox … Tennessee said, 'Just remember, everybody thinks the last line is: "I've always been dependent on the kindness of strangers." That's not the last line. The last line is: "Gentlemen, the name of...

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Eric P. Levy (essay date December 1993)

SOURCE: "'Through Soundproof Glass': The Prison of Self-Consciousness in The Glass Menagerie, in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 529-37.

[In the following essay, Levy explores the significance of mirrors as a symbol for superficial appearances and fragile self-image in The Glass Menagerie.]

In his production notes introducing The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams refers to nostalgia as "the first condition of the play." This appraisal at first seems accurate, for the drama disposes the past in a series of receding planes by which the very notion of nostalgia is progressively deepened. From the perspective of Tom, the narrator and a...

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Mark Royden Winchell (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Myth Is the Message, or Why Streetcar Keeps Running," in Confronting Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Critical Pluralism, edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 133-45.

[In the following essay, Winchell considers the enduring popular and critical success of A Streetcar Named Desire in light of the play's complex male-female dynamic that defies classification as either misogynistic melodrama or tragedy.]

Certain works of literature seem to enter the popular imagination from the moment they are published. Their appeal is not confined to language or genre; they embody stories and characters that can be...

(The entire section is 5411 words.)

Anne Fleche (essay date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: "The Space of Madness and Desire: Tennessee Williams and Streetcar," in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 324-35.

[In the following essay, Fleche examines the portrayal of madness in A Streetcar Named Desire through analysis of allegory, spatial metaphor, and tension between realism and expressionistic presentation in the play.]

In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Tennessee Williams exploits the expressionistic uses of space in the drama, attempting to represent desire from the outside, that is, in its formal challenge to realistic stability and closure, and in its exposure to risk. Loosening both stage and verbal...

(The entire section is 5876 words.)

Georges-Michel Sarote (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Fluidity and Differentiation in Three Plays by Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theater and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 141-56.

[In the following essay, Sarote examines Williams's treatment of discrimination and resistance to mainstream American "normalcy" in his three major plays. According to Sarote, "Streetcar, like most of Williams's works can be interpreted as a plea for a less repressive, more fluid, more androgynous American Society."]

At the age of fourteen I discovered...

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