Tennessee Williams has sometimes been criticized for not dealing with contemporary social problems in his plays—which he does, in fact, in Sweet Bird of Youth (pr., pb. 1959). What he seems to suggest time and again, however, as in The Night of the Iguana with his use of the German reports about the Battle of Britain, is that the source of social problems may be found in the individual’s heart and psyche.
While this playwright has given the world such larger-than-life, robust characters as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo (pr., pb. 1951), Maxine in The Night of the Iguana, and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (pr., pb. 1955), most of his major characters are either physically or mentally crippled by their frustrated desires to communicate with and gain understanding from other human beings. Examples of such characters are plentiful: Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944), Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947), Alma in Summer and Smoke (pr. 1947), Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer (pr., pb. 1958), Shannon in The Night of the Iguana, Alexandra del Lago and Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Even when Williams’ major characters do realize a temporary communion with other humans, he invariably shows the unions to be as fragile as Laura Wingfield’s glass unicorn. More often, the human relations typical to Williams’ plays are twisted and made to seem grotesquely unappealing by the crippled or crippling sexual desires of the given individuals, as in the case of Stanley Kowalski’s interactions with his wife Stella and her sister Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, Blanche’s inner conflict—between her natural sexual desires and her socially acquired belief about how a “lady” should behave—make her a victim of her own frustrated urges no less than of her brother-in-law’s libidinal brutality. Shannon is a victim of the same in himself, and he is overpowered by Miss Fellowes, the latter-day puritanical voice of Shannon’s mother. The extent to which people adopt as their own society’s expectations of them, Williams seems to insist in all of his plays, determines the extent to which they are crippled or destroyed as individuals.