Tennessee Williams Essay - Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 30)

Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 30)

Introduction

Tennessee Williams 1911–1983

(Pseudonym of Thomas Lanier Williams) American dramatist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and scriptwriter. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 111.

Along with Arthur Miller, Williams is universally acknowledged as one of the two greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era. His stature is based almost entirely upon works he completed during the first half of his career. He earned Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for The Glass Menagerie (1945), Streetcar, Cat, and The Night of the Iguana (1961). His later plays are considered by critics to be derivative of and less successful than his earlier works. Williams's lyrical style and his thematic concerns are distinctive in American theater; his material came almost exclusively from his inner life and was little influenced by other dramatists or by contemporary events. One critic noted, "Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality."

Recurrent in Williams's work is the conflict between reality and illusion, which Williams sometimes equates with a conflict between truth and beauty. A whole range of thematic concerns center around human sexuality: sex as life-affirming, contrasted with death and decay; sex as redemptive, contrasted with sex as sin; sex as an escape from the world, and sex as a way of being at one with the world. Williams followed D. H. Lawrence in attaching a cosmic significance to sex, and audiences and critics initially saw his "preoccupation" with sex and violence as perversion. Williams's protagonists are usually lonely, vulnerable dreamers and misfits who confront stronger, more worldly characters. Williams shows the attractive and unattractive qualities of both types of people, but critics agree that he identifies more with the "lost souls," exemplified by Blanche DuBois of Streetcar. While the vision of human nature and the world usually presented in Williams's plays ranges from bleak to sordid, in some he offers comfort in the form of a transitory moment of human communication—the type which Blanche ironically refers to in Streetcar as "the kindness of strangers."

Williams once told an interviewer, "My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life." Critics and biographers have made much use of Williams's family background as a means of analyzing his plays. Williams's father, Cornelius, was a coarse businessman from a prominent Tennessee family who traveled constantly and moved his family several times during the first decade of Williams's life. Biographers say that Cornelius called his son "Miss Nancy" because the child preferred books to sports. His mother, Edwina, was a southern belle and the daughter of a clergyman; Williams portrays her in his plays as domineering and possessive. Williams was very close to his older sister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of her life. His insight into lonely, outcast characters, as well as the warring inclinations towards Puritanism and liberality demonstrated in his plays, is often traced to his family life.

Williams's most explicit dramatic portrayal of his family occurs in The Glass Menagerie. The play is set in St. Louis, where the Williams family lived after 1918. Tom, the narrator of the play, dreams of being a writer and represents Williams. Tom's sister, Laura, is crippled both physically and socially. His mother, Amanda, is a fading southern belle who lives in the past. The action of the play concerns Amanda persuading Tom to bring to the house a "gentleman caller," whom they hope will marry Laura and provide for her future. Tom brings a man who is already engaged, upsetting his mother and causing Laura to retreat more deeply into her fantasy world of records and her glass animal collection. Tom then leaves his family, following in his father's footsteps. The simplicity of Menagerie's plot is counterbalanced by lyrical language and profuse symbolism, which some critics consider overwhelming. However, this emotionally compelling play was extremely popular, and Williams followed its formula in his later work. Laura is a typical Williams heroine in that she is too fragile to live in the real world. Laura's and Amanda's escapes from the world through fantasy and living in the past, respectively, foreshadow later plays where the characters escape through alcohol and sex.

Williams established an international reputation with his next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which many critics consider his best work. The play begins with the arrival of Blanche at the home of her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley, a lusty, crude, working-class man. Blanche has presided over the decay and loss of her family's estate and has witnessed the suicide of her young husband. She comes to Stella and Stanley seeking comfort and security, but clashes with Stanley. While Stella is in the hospital giving birth, Stanley rapes Blanche, causing her to lose what little is left of her sanity. At the end, Blanche is committed to a sanitarium. In Streetcar, Williams uses Blanche and Stanley to illustrate dichotomies and conflicts, several of which recur in his plays: illusion vs. truth, weakness vs. strength, and the power of sexuality to both destroy and redeem. But he does not allow either character to become one-dimensional or to dominate the audience's sympathies. Stanley's brutishness is balanced by his love for Stella, his dislike of hypocrisy, and his justifiable anger at Blanche's mockery of him and her intrusion on his home. Blanche's hypocrisy—her pretentious refinement despite her promiscuity—is balanced by the audience's knowledge of the ordeals she has endured and by her gentleness and capacity for love. Williams's skillful balancing of Stanley and Blanche and the qualities each represents, both in Streetcar's dialogue and plot and on a symbolic level, has provided subject matter for many scholarly essays and has earned the admiration of critics. Some find that Williams's portrayal of strengths and weaknesses in both characters is ambiguous and detracts from the play, but most contend that his thorough character development heightens dramatic interest in the conflicts they represent.

Although none of Williams's later plays attained the universal critical and popular acclaim of the first two, several works from the 1940s and 1950s are considered significant achievements in American drama. In Summer and Smoke (1948), Williams continues his exploration of the tension between the spirit and the flesh begun in Streetcar, and in The Rose Tattoo (1951), one of his most lighthearted plays, he celebrates the life-affirming power of sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is mainly concerned with questions of truth, lies, and self-deception, and contains some of Williams's most memorable characters: Brick, a weak man who drinks to forget guilt; Maggie, his strong wife who is determined to save them both; and Big Daddy, whom critics see as a dramatization of Williams's own father. The Night of the Iguana, which Williams said is about "how to get beyond despair and still live," was his last play to win a major prize and heralded the end of Williams's period of critical and popular favor.

Later in his career the "emotional currents" of Williams's life were at a low ebb. Such plays as Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), which are filled with violence, grotesquerie, and black comedy, reflected Williams's traumatic emotional state. In his Memoirs (1975), Williams referred to the 1960s as his "Stoned Age," and he explained in an interview that "after 1955, specifically after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof … I needed [drugs, caffeine, and alcohol] to give me the physical energy to work…. But I am a compulsive writer. I have tried to stop working and I am bored to death." Williams continued to produce plays until his death, but critical reception became increasingly negative. Much of Williams's later work consisted of rewriting his earlier plays and stories, and his new material showed little artistic development, according to critics. Gore Vidal said in 1976, "Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes…. I am not aware that any new information (or feeling?) has got through to him in the [past] twenty-eight years." It was not only a lack of new themes which caused critics to denounce Williams's late work, but the absence of freshness and dramatic soundness in his treatment of these themes. Gerald Weales, a noted Williams scholar, voiced the critical consensus when he said, "Audiences have withdrawn from Williams—I suspect, not because his style has changed or his concerns altered, but because in his desperate need to cry out he has turned away from the sturdy dramatic containers which once gave the cry resonance and has settled for pale imitations of familiar stage images … and has substituted lyric argument for dramatic language."

Williams was subject to much negative and even hostile criticism for a writer of his stature. Many of the qualities for which he is faulted in his less successful works are directly related to those for which he is praised in his earlier successes. His lyricism and use of symbols are hallmarks of such plays as Streetcar, but in other plays critics accuse him of being overly sentimental or heavy-handed when he allows symbols to take the place of characterization through dialogue. Williams is lauded for his compassionate understanding of the spiritually downtrodden, but he has sometimes been accused of crossing the line between sympathetic interest and perverse sensationalism in his portrayal of these characters. Although critics are nearly unanimous in expressing their disappointment and sadness that the mastery of Williams's early work was not continued in his later plays, they were quick to point out upon Williams's death that his contributions to American theater had been remarkable. This opinion was expressed in an editorial in The Nation: "The plays for which Williams will be remembered … are not the 'first act of some mysteriously unfinished life in art—they are that life. They transformed the American stage, they purified our language, they changed the way we see ourselves. None of his later plays, however erratic they may have been, diminish that accomplishment by so much as a hair."

In this volume commentary on Tennessee Williams is focused on his play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Howard Barnes

Tennessee Williams has written a savagely arresting tragedy in "A Streetcar Named Desire." His dramatization of a woman's crack-up … is a work of rare discernment and craftsmanship. Although it is almost explosively theatrical at times, it is crowded with the understanding, tenderness and humor of an artist achieving maturity….

Instead of leaning heavily on symbolism, as the title might have led one to expect, Williams has to do with very human beings in completely recognizable circumstances. The fact that there actually is, or was, a streetcar called Desire clanging through New Orleans, has merely set a fine imagination to work. The result is a somber and sometimes shocking account of gradual...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Richard Watts, Jr.

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in The New York Post, December 4, 1947.]

[A Streetcar Named Desire] is a feverish, squalid, tumultuous, painful, steadily arresting and oddly touching study of feminine decay along the lower Mississippi…. Mr. Williams is an oncoming playwright of power, imagination and almost desperately morbid turn of mind and emotion. In his latest work to reach Broadway, the dramatist is telling the story of a doomed Southern girl who seems startlingly like what the foolish old mother of his previous drama, "The Glass Menagerie," might well have been at a similar age. Hers, to put it mildly, is not a pleasant life story....

(The entire section is 373 words.)

Louis Kronenberger

A Streetcar Named Desire is by all odds the most creative new play of the season—the one that reveals the most talent, the one that attempts the most truth. It carries us into the only part of the theater that really counts—not the most obviously successful part, but the part where, though people frequently blunder they seldom compromise; where imagination is seated higher than photography; and where the playwright seems to have a certain genuine interest in pleasing himself….

That is the most important thing about A Streetcar Named Desire; a more important thing, it seems to me, than that A Streetcar is by no means always a good play. It falls down in places; it goes wrong...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Wolcott Gibbs

Mr. Williams has written a strong, wholly believable play that, starting in a low key, mounts slowly and inexorably to its shocking climax. I think [A Streetcar Named Desire] is an imperfect play,… but it is certainly the most impressive one that has turned up this season, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a sounder and more mature work than "The Glass Menagerie," the author's previous compliment to Southern womanhood. (p. 50)

The reservations I have may easily be captious. Principally, it seems to me that in the emotional surge of writing his play Mr. Williams has been guilty of establishing a too facile and romantic connection between Belle Rêve [the mansion where Stella and Blanche...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Kappo Phelan

As was surely obvious in his earlier "Glass Menagerie," [Williams] again proves his dramatic imagination [in "A Streetcar Named Desire"]. I think it is safe to say that every telling gesture and effect was securely wrought into the script before ever rehearsals started. You must envision a scene whose transparent wall allows both the heat-laden street as well as this burning room to come into focus. And the sounds are important: from upstairs, outside, all over. As the protagonist topplingly progresses among horrors, one hears her private mockeries: bells, a gunshot, voices. It is extraordinarily interesting to watch the stage being so precisely controlled. And further, the language is as sure. A kind of interior...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

[The article from which this excerpt was drawn was originally published in The Nation, December 20, 1947.]

Two years ago when Tennessee Williams was being hailed as the best new playwright to appear in a decade I was among those who were inclined to wait and see, but "A Streetcar Named Desire" … is amply sufficient to confound us doubters. In mood and manner it is, to be sure, strikingly like "The Glass Menagerie." Indeed, the theme and even the story might be said to be the same, since both dramas are concerned with the desperate, unsuccessful effort of a female character to hang on to some kind of shabby gentility. But the new work is sure and sustained where the former was...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

John Mason Brown

[The article from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, December 27, 1947.]

A Streetcar Named Desire is bound to raise [a mirage of familiarity] in the minds of those who saw The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams' new play is new. No one can question that. In story, setting, incident, and some of the details of its characterizations, it is a work quite different from its predecessor. It is better, deeper, richer than was that earlier drama…. Yet new as it is, it is scarcely novel. Even the surprises, many and startling, which it holds resemble more closely misfortunes engulfing old friends than misadventures...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Rosamond Gilder

Surely playwriting is the most difficult of the arts and its successful achievement is among the world's miracles. It does not matter how hard the tidy mind of man applies itself to the formulation of rules for the making of a 'good play', the kernel of truth eludes definition. What makes both Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire good theatre? Is it because they both convey a heightened sense of reality—a poet's projection of the core of experience in terms of the spoken word, the human presence? Tennessee Williams' lost souls in a sordid basement flat in New Orleans are as palpitatingly alive as Shakespeare's royal lovers whose downfall shook the world....

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Harry Taylor

[Taylor's article, from which the following excerpt was taken, originally appeared in Masses and Mainstream, April, 1948.]

[If], as in Williams' case, there was never more than a small patch of happy boyhood in a youth-time dominated by a developing family tragedy, by poverty and hard work and many menial jobs, his static stare will always give him back the same gloomy landscape in which even the small Eden seems a lying mirage and the relationship of forces remains fixed in an endless and cannibalistic assault of the insensitively powerful upon the pathetic and defenseless. The more he stares at the incidents of his life, the more they are the same. He grows older, he knocks about on...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Harold Clurman

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in 1948.]

Some of the reviewers [of A Streetcar Named Desire] thought Blanche Du Bois a "boozy prostitute," and others believed her a nymphomaniac. Such designations are not only inaccurate but reveal a total failure to understand the author's intention and the theme of the play. Tennessee Williams is a poet of frustration, and what his play says is that aspiration, sensitivity, departure from the norm are battered, bruised, and disgraced in our world today.

It would be far truer to think of Blanche Du Bois as the potential artist in all of us than as a deteriorated Southern belle. Her amatory...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

George Jean Nathan

[A Streetcar Named Desire], which might well have been titled The Glans Menagerie, has been criticized in some quarters as an unpleasant [play]. The criticism is pointed. But the fact that a play is unpleasant, needless to say, is not necessarily a reflection on its quality…. There is a considerable difference between the unpleasant and the disgusting, which is the designation Mr. Williams' critics probably have in mind, and his play is not disgusting…. Williams has managed to keep his play wholly in hand. But there is, too, a much more positive borderline between the unpleasant and the enlightening, and he has tripped over it, badly, While he has succeeded in making realistically dramatic such...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

W. David Sievers

[Originally a dissertation presented at the University of Southern California in 1951, the essay from which the following excerpt is taken was first published in 1955 in Sievers's book Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama.]

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams has depicted profoundly the origins and growth of schizophrenia. He has shown Blanche struggling to master her conflicting drives of sex and superego, to live up to an inner image of a belle of the old South while living in circumstances in which it is an anachronism. At first she is in rebellion against her own nature but in touch with reality. As the various doors of escape are closed to...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Eric Bentley

[The essay "Boredom in New York" was originally published in 1948; "Better than Europe" was originally published in 1949.]

[In the dialogue of A Streetcar Named Desire there is] a liveliness that the American theater has heard from only two or three native playwrights. It is a dialogue caught from actual life and then submitted to only the gentlest treatment at the playwright's hands. In such a dialogue—as Odets showed us ten years ago—some approach to American life is possible. Life is no longer encased in wisecracks. Its subtle and changing contours are suggested by the melody and rhythm and passion of active speech.

A Streetcar Named Desire seems to me on...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

Tennessee Williams grew up in the South. Like so many other Southern writers, the existence of a decayed aristocracy was one of the inescapable facts of the society with which he was most familiar. That representatives of such a decayed aristocracy should appear in his plays may mean no more than that they were part of his experience. Nevertheless it seems to be obvious that his persistent concern with them does have a greater significance. These helpless survivors from the past, feeble and pathetic clingers to a dead tradition, take on the importance of symbols. They are not accidental facts; they mean something.

Upon the answer to the question "What do they mean? Of what are they symbols?" depends...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Kenneth Tynan

[The article from which this excerpt was taken was originally published as "American Blues: The Plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams," in Encounter, May, 1954.]

If Willy Loman [of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman] is the desperate average man, Blanche DuBois is the desperate exceptional woman. Willy's collapse began when his son walked into a hotel apartment and found him with a whore; Blanche's when she entered "a room that I thought was empty," and found her young husband embracing an older man. In each instance the play builds up to a climax involving guilt and concomitant disgust. Blanche, nervously boastful, lives in the leisured past; her defence against...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

John Gassner

Among the new plays of the 1947–48 season A Streetcar Named Desire was not only the best but the most indicative of the flexibility of realism. Strongly rooted in the reality of character and environment, and replete with stinging naturalistic detail, this tragedy of a fallen member of the Southern landed aristocracy, nevertheless, abounds in poetic overtones. These are justified, in part, by Blanche's refinement of language. She is well bred and she has had sufficient education to have taught school for a while. Her consuming need, moreover, is to make herself and others constantly aware of her refinement. She is concealing her tawdry past of alcoholism, incontinence, and common prostitution. She is...

(The entire section is 1396 words.)

C. N. Stavrou

Are [Gustave Flaubert's novel] Madame Bovary (1857) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) pleas against "man's inhumanity to man," or dry admonitions against the folly of

      "Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
      Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn"?

Critiques of Flaubert's novel … and Williams's drama … cautiously eschew a positive answer to this question. They seem inclined to support the interpretation that Flaubert and Williams are on the side of cynicism and realism. Despite the ambiguity in this respect, which they concede inheres in the French novel and the American play alike,...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Winifred L. Dusenbury

In Blanche DuBois, the leading character of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams is accused of having created a sexual pervert, who is insane by the end of the play, and whose portrayal is so particular as to have little relevance to life, or meaning to the American theatre. Williams, however, makes the point that it is the isolation resulting from social and hereditary factors which makes Blanche abnormal. Doubtless the accusation that Williams is strongly influenced by D. H. Lawrence is also true, but the playwright has made purposeful use of the sexual instinct by dramatizing its contrasting effect in two sisters and cannot be charged with mere sensationalism. The theme of the play, like that of Paul...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Marion Magid

[Magid's essay, from which the following excerpt was taken, was originally published in Commentary, January, 1963.]

The total effect of Williams' work has been to plunge ordinary conceptions of the male-female relation into such disorder that the services of a Harry Stack Sullivan seem needed to straighten them out again. The first of these grand subversions was the figure of Stanley Kowalski, which appeared before the American public and before the world in the person of Marlon Brando. Though numerous actors have since played the part, Brando remains forever etched in memory as the embodiment of American malehood, and Kowalski is probably the most famous male figure in modern drama....

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Robert B. Heilman

Since Tennessee Williams has had a persistent interest in the idea of tragedy, there is good reason for looking at his serious plays in the light of a theory of tragedy. In this essay the term tragedy is used for a drama that is centrally concerned with a split personality, not a pathological split, such as Williams sometimes dramatizes, but a representative division between the different imperatives and impulses that human beings feel. A tragic character is strong enough so that an impulse that drives him can be destructive rather than simply annoying, and so that some kind of reordering is imaginable for him. Since reordering implies consciousness of what one is and has done, a tragic character needs the kind...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

R. H. Gardner

The emotional quality of all Mr. Williams' serious work is essentially the same, and in theme, subject matter, and philosophy A Streetcar Named Desire is the classic Williams play. (p. 112)

Early in the proceedings Mr. Williams provides a clue to his intentions in his choice of names. He has a wonderful feeling for words and, like any poet, puts them to symbolic use. Belle Reve (beautiful dream), Elysian Fields (paradise), desire, cemetery, Blanche DuBois (white wood)—all combine to produce a double image of, on the one hand, a sublime purity too perfect to be real and, on the other, a reality (earthly passion, death) too harsh to tolerate that purity. The devastating impact of the latter...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)

Leonard Berkman

Though the extent to which A Streetcar Named Desire exemplifies traditional tragedy may command increasing attention as this paper progresses, a demonstration of that idea is not the central aim at hand. It is, rather, one fragment of the question of tragic stature that most concerns us here: the terms according to which "victory" may be considered within the heroine's grasp, the course of her struggle toward victory, and the pivotal moment in which the struggle turns to defeat. (p. 249)

[If] an argument is to be put forth that Blanche does not begin and proceed and end at the same low point, that argument must hinge on a value that … remains to Williams and to his tragedy. Decidedly...

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Martin Gottfried

[A Streetcar Named Desired followed The Glass Menagerie] in its concern with the quality of human love, but I do not mean to suggest that it had a literary content as such. There are intellectual points represented in the play, and a conscious interplay of ideas—the pitting of Kowalski's animal life force against Blanche's fragile poetry is the central one. But the play, in true left-wing style, represents the introduction of a new kind of meaning and a new way of stating it into the American theater. Streetcar is about abstract ideas—ways of living. The closest it ever gets to actually stating a point is in saying that "desire is the opposite of death."

That is...

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Harold Clurman

A Streetcar Named Desire is still a beautiful play, the most fully achieved of Tennessee Williams' writings…. Its beauties are of several kinds. It is admirably constructed, its language is fluent, euphonious, delicate and sinewy. It possesses oblique humor and a romantic glow which occasionally verges on a sentimentality I do not find in the least objectionable. It is imbued with a theatrical atmosphere, a kind of magic spell which makes certain plays endure beyond our interest in their ideas, novelty or topical relevance.

It is just these qualities, plus the opportunity the play offers for fine acting and vivid staging, which may obscure its essential meaning. Its value in this regard was...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Leonard Quirino

So much has been written about A Streetcar Named Desire in terms of its theatrical presentation as interpreted by a specific director and set of actors and so much concern has been lavished on the social attitudes and psychological constitution of its characters that the author's primary intention as revealed in his use of mythic symbolism and archetypal imagery to create a dialectic between soul and body to depict universally significant problems such as the conflict and mutual attraction between desire and death has been generally obscured or denigrated as pretentious. My own intention in this essay is to consider the play neither as interpreted in any specific production nor as it may embody a study of...

(The entire section is 3122 words.)

Normand Berlin

Each new production of A Streetcar Named Desire seems to offer the excitement of witnessing a new interpretation. A great play has within it the potentiality for differing interpretations; indeed, this may be the test of greatness. The different interpretations of Streetcar by directors invariably stem from different attitudes toward the two main characters, Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Some directors tip the audience toward Blanche, others toward Stanley—and this tipping controls the nature of the tragedy and its effect. The director chooses sides, and the audience, of necessity, must play the director's game.

My aim in this essay is to explore the possibility that Tennessee...

(The entire section is 1261 words.)