Tennessee Williams Writing Style

What is Tennessee Williams' literary style?

I need to compare Williams to Eugene O’Neill.

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tennessee Williams used a lyrical writing style that incorporated elements of the Southern Gothic style. The Southern Gothic style often involves making archetypes of southern literature such as the chivalrous hero or the beautiful damsel flawed or grotesque in nature.

For example, in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams uses the archetype of the southern belle but subverts this archetype by giving the women in his play grotesque or flawed qualities. The mother in The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield, presents herself as a southern belle and would like her daughter, Laura, to find the perfect husband. However, Amanda's life in no way resembles a fairytale. Her husband has long ago left her, and she lives in straightened circumstances. Her daughter, Laura, is not a charming belle but a mentally unstable, isolated woman who has a limp. Amanda tells her daughter in the first scene, "No, sister, no, sister--you be the lady this time, and I'll be the darky." Amanda incorporates grotesque elements of archetypal southern womanhood, including bigotry and a reliance on outdated notions of womanhood and courtship. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire also features the elements of grotesquerie that subvert the ideal of the southern belle. While she plays the part of the southern belle, it is merely acting. In reality, she is a penniless older woman who tries to disguise her age and whose husband committed suicide because he was gay. 

In addition to employing the Southern Gothic style, Williams uses a lyrical style of writing, particularly in his stage directions. For example, he begins The Glass Menagerie with the following description: "The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths..." His lyrical style emphasizes that the plainness of the Wingfield apartment is a far cry from the southern archetype of the gracious plantation-style home. 

Eugene O'Neill's stage directions are also lyrical at times, like those of Williams. However, his dialogue and writing style are far more straightforward than those of Williams, and his characters, while flawed, do not call on southern archetypes. Instead, his works, such as The Emperor Jones and Desire under the Elms, call on Greek tragedies and their emphasis on the role of fate and on the hero's downfall as a result of his or her own tragic flaws. 

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tennessee Williams' style is characterized by theme, theme related metaphor, theme supporting scenario, setting, and poetic language, Williams' predominant theses are the dominance of a get-ahead society over sensitive individuals (e.g., Laura and Tom) and the dominance of ambitious people over the poetic-artist. Williams often illustrated these themes with physical weak or handicapped characters (e.g., Laura) who represented the failure of weak people in the face of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Williams dramatic scenarios and settings were critical elements to the representation of his theme. To illustrate his themes related to overpowering, he often employed scenarios of repressed, perverse or abnormal sexual desire (e.g., Laura's repressed desire for ___). Williams' settings were unified with his characters and were thus indispensable to fulfillment of his stories (e.g., the "cage" of an apartment in The Glass Menagerie). As stated in Magill Survey of American Literature, Williams had three styles of settings. The first, evident in The Glass Menagerie, is poetic expressionism; the second is theatricality as in the naturalistic A Streetcar Named Desire; the third, as seen in Suddenly Last Summer, is symbolic, like Sebastian's lushly symbolic environment. Which leads to the final comment that Williams' style leaned heavily on poetic language and devices, a dependency that some critics seem as a limiting influence in his plays.