Critical Overview

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The Rose Tattoo, which was a box-office success on Broadway, followed two other major Broadway successes for Williams, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. The play’s popularity with the public garnered it a Tony Award, with critics, on the whole, seeing it as a less successful play than the two previous successes.

William Hawkins’s mixed review is typical of critical reaction following the play’s Broadway opening. Writing for the New York World-Telegram and The Sun, he states that in ‘‘its favor the play has atmosphere and warmth.’’ Yet, he writes, ‘‘the humor often seems glued to the surface, and passages of the play are endlessly chatty and repetitious.’’ Other critics thought the play’s bawdy humor worked awkwardly with its other, more serious intentions, or that the comedy was crude as opposed to bawdy. According to Margaret Marshall writing for the Nation, the play descends ‘‘into cheap farce which must be seen to be believed. The absurd and the vulgar contend for place.’’

Yet, in an essay from Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, entitled ‘‘Sentiment and humor in equal measure’’: Comic Forms in The Rose Tattoo,’’ Philip C. Kolin argues that a proper understanding of the play’s comedy is crucial for appreciation. He states that the play is ‘‘an experiment in comedy,’’ in which various comedic forms are juxtaposed and blended. These forms, says Kolin, ‘‘range from slapstick humor, including farce, music hall antics, and vaudeville to folk, satiric, and romantic comedy, and, occasionally, tragicomedy.’’ More recently in ‘‘The Family of Mitch,’’ in Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams, Kolin has written on the character of Alvaro. He argues that Alvaro is one of Williams’s plays’ ‘‘unsuitable suitors,’’ a ‘‘loser who becomes a winner,’’ as Williams is interested in resisting the conventional romance formula in which suitors are perfectly manly and gentlemanly.

Most commentary on the play touches on its Dionysian dimension, its celebration of life and sexuality. For example, in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, C.W.E. Bigsby states that the play is about the ‘‘resilience of the human spirit, the undeniable power of the will to live and the primacy of the sexual impulse.’’ The Rose Tattoo is one of Williams’s plays that continues to be revived, and what audiences see each time depends upon the interpretation and vision of the director in question. Also affecting critical and audience reception is the prevailing cultural climate. Thus, for example, when the play was revived in New York City in 1966, critics were more appreciative. Their more positive response, says Kolin, follows from the fact that theater in the 1960s had taken an absurdist turn: ‘‘In the 1966 revival of The Rose Tattoo, Williams’ comedy had evidently changed for reviewers—it had become appropriately grotesque. If they would not assent to it as it was, they could at least praise the absurdist elements, in vogue in avant-garde theater both here and abroad.’’

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism