Tennessee Williams Tennessee Williams American Literature Analysis

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Tennessee Williams American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Among the four generally acknowledged major American dramatists—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee—Williams holds the distinction of being the poet in the theater. The same year, 1944, that The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago, some of his poems were published in Five American Poets. Revised, some of these poems reappeared in a later volume, In the Winter of Cities (1956). Williams’s poems contain many of the themes, images, and musical qualities that dominate the style of his plays. One of his most famous characters, Tom Wingfield, was nicknamed Shakespeare by his fellow workers in a shoe factory because, as a loner, he wrote poems rather than join in their social amenities.

Williams’s most prominent and all-inclusive theme is the effect of an aggressively competitive society on sensitive characters such as Laura and Tom Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire), Brick and Maggie Pollitt (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Alma Winemiller (Summer and Smoke, 1947), Catharine Holly and Sebastian Venable (Suddenly Last Summer, 1958), and The Reverend Shannon and Hannah Jelkes (The Night of the Iguana, 1961)—all social outcasts in society.

Related to the theme of the outcast is that of the poet-artist. Laura has her collection of glass animals, Tom his poetry, Blanche and Alma that extraordinary delicacy of Williams’s heroines which made irreconcilable the conflict between mind and body, Sebastian his poetry, and Hannah (the daughter of a ninety-seven-year-old poet) her portrait painting. Basic to the artistic nature is the insistence on, indeed passion for, truth and an equally persistent hatred of hypocrisy. The consequence of this love-hate duality is the doomed fate of the artist, who is therefore frequently depicted in Darwinian images of fragile creatures devoured by monstrous animals in the fight for survival of the fittest.

The dominance of the strong over the weak and of the “normal” over the poetic friend finds its most recurrent expression in Williams’s work in repressed, perverse, or abnormal sexual experiences, demonstrated most delicately in the life of Laura and most violently in that of Sebastian. Between these extremes are found Blanche, Brick and Maggie, Alma (a “white-blooded spinster”), and Shannon and Hannah (a strong and practical support of her nonagenarian poet-father).

The landscapes of the plays are as important as are the characters and the themes; all are inextricably bound upon one another. The world of Laura and Tom is that of the 1930’s, in which the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, suggested in a reference to what is generally regarded as the most famous painting of the twentieth century, Picasso’s Guernica, are ignored by a United States described as a school for the matriculation of the blind. More immediately, the Wingfield family is imprisoned in a shabby apartment described as resembling a cage (a symbol that evokes the same situation in O’Neill’s 1922 play The Hairy Ape).

Blanche’s New Orleans is dominated by the images of two streetcars, one named Desire and the other Cemeteria, with Blanche’s stop on that famous streetcar ride being the Elysian Fields. The landscape inhabited by Alma Winemiller includes a statue of Eternity in a public square—wings outstretched—and the office of a doctor: the eternal pitted against the ephemeral, the idealistic or spiritual against the physical. In their separate battles for survival, Brick and Maggie, a childless couple, find themselves in a southern mansion, opposing the insensitivities of a normal family with the famous “no-neck monsters.”

The most exotic of Williams’s landscapes, perhaps, is the veritable hothouse of Suddenly Last Summer—a luxuriant, junglelike profusion of an Henri Rousseau painting, again in New Orleans—created by Sebastian’s mother in order to provide her son with the necessary seclusion and atmosphere for his poetry writing. Like Blanche,...

(The entire section is 6,148 words.)