Tennessee Williams Tennessee Williams Drama Analysis

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Tennessee Williams Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

If the weight of critical opinion places Tennessee Williams below Eugene O’Neill as America’s premiere dramatist, there should be no question that the later playwright is without peer either in the diversity of genres in which he wrote or his impact on the cultural consciousness of mid-twentieth century America. In the course of his long career, Williams wrote essays; letters; memoirs; music lyrics; original screenplays, including that for the controversial Baby Doll; poetry; short stories; and novels, one of which, the bittersweet The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, was made into a major motion picture. However, it is as a playwright that Williams’s genius shines most brightly, particularly from the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s, a period comprising The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana. These plays encompass an unrelenting exploration of the dark underbelly of human experience: frigidity and nymphomania, impotence and rape, pedophilia and fetishism, cannibalism and coprophagy, alcohol and drug addiction, castration and syphilis, violence and madness, and aging and death. These themes place Williams squarely in the gothic tradition and reflect his early interest in the bizarre and grotesque. As a child he was fed large doses of Edgar Allan Poe by his grandfather. Tormented by a sense of existential loneliness, Williams was able to sublimate his dark vision into plays that bring to life such iconic characters as Big Daddy, Stanley Kowalski, Blanche Dubois, and Amanda Wingfield in language that has been compared favorably with William Shakespeare’s. Williams is second to none among American writers whose works have been successfully made into major films. His plays have been translated into more than a score of languages and continue to be performed in theaters throughout the world.

The Glass Menagerie

Williams’s The Glass Menagerie was regarded when first produced as highly unusual; one of the play’s four characters serves as commentator as well as participant; the play itself represents the memories of the commentator years later, and hence, as he says, is not a depiction of actuality; its employment of symbolism is unusual; and in the very effective ending, a scrim descends in front of mother and daughter, so that by stage convention one can see but not hear them, with the result that both, but especially the mother, become much more moving and even archetypal. The play is also almost unique historically, in that it first opened in Chicago, came close to flopping before Chicago newspaper theater critics verbally whipped people into going, and then played successfully for months in Chicago before finally moving to equal success in New York.

One device that Williams provided for the play was quickly abandoned: A series of legends and images flashed on a screen, indicating the central idea of scenes and parts of scenes. This device provides a triple insight into Williams: first, his skill at organizing scenes into meaningful wholes; second, his willingness to experiment, sometimes successfully, sometimes not; and third, his occasional tendency to spell out by external devices what a play itself makes clear.

The Glass Menagerie opens on a near-slum apartment, with Tom Wingfield setting the time (the Depression and Spanish-Civil-War 1930’s); the play’s method as memory, with its consequent use of music and symbol; and the names and relationships of the characters: Tom, his sister Laura, his mother Amanda, and an initially unnamed gentleman caller. A fifth character, Tom says, is his father, who, having deserted his family years before, appears only as a larger-than-life photograph over the mantel, which on occasion—according to Williams’s stage directions, but rarely in actual production—lights up.

Tom works in a shoe warehouse, writes poetry, and feels imprisoned by...

(The entire section is 8,685 words.)