Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 5)

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams, Tennessee 1911–

Williams is a Southern American playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, and novelist. The Glass Menagerie is recognized as the prototype of the American theatrical trend to explore the vanished hopes of the dispossessed. Most of Williams' work is derived from his understanding of the impossibility of communication and what Signi Falk has called his "awareness of the appalling emptiness and cruelty in the hearts of many well-fed Americans." Williams, one of the world's most popular playwrights, is probably America's greatest living dramatist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The plays that first thrust Tennessee Williams into the front rank have much in common besides their clear focus and economical construction. Both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire transmute the base metal of reality into theatrical and, frequently, verbal poetry. Both supplement the action with symbolic elements of mood and music. A major theme is Southern womanhood helpless in the grip of the new world, while its old world of social position and financial security is a Paradise Lost. (p. 84)

The Glass Menagerie is a memory play in which crucial episodes from family history are evoked in the comments of a narrator, the poet Tom, who is now in the merchant marine…. Tom's memory takes him back to his straitened home life and the need to revolt that finally sent him to sea. In episodes softened by the patina of time he recalls the painful shyness of his lovable crippled sister, Laura, and the tragicomic efforts of his mother, Amanda, to marry her off, as well as his own desperation as an underpaid shoe company clerk who dreams of escaping from his drab life. The climax comes when, nagged by the desperate mother, Tom brings Laura a gentleman caller, who turns out to be engaged to another girl. (pp. 84-5)

In A Streetcar Named Desire health and disease are again at war, but more openly and more sensationally. The lines of conflict are sharply drawn in this naturalistic drama whose story, unlike that of The Glass Menagerie, is not revealed impressionistically through a mist of memory. Nothing is circuitous in Streetcar, and the dramatic action drives directly to its fateful conclusion as the plebeian Stan Kowalski and patrician Blanche Du Bois confront each other. Like Williams' other Southern heroines, who invariably suggest Picasso's dehydrated "Demoiselles d'Avignon," Blanche Du Bois is not only a recognizable human being but also an expressive abstraction. She is decadence, pretension, hysteria, charm faded, sensibility misapplied, sensitivity rudely jolted by the world, hope deferred, life wasted. It is her final tragedy that the life she encounters in her married sister's home becomes a hell of humiliation precisely when she is most desperately in need of sympathy. (pp. 85-6)

Concerning the plays that followed Summer and Smoke in the Fifties, it is worth observing how differently their author worked in each case. The Rose Tattoo, which reached Broadway early in 1951, was written as a comedy. This alone is a departure…. But in addition, Williams makes his central heroine a full-blooded woman quite unlike the more or less wilted Southern ladies he had hitherto favored. (p. 88)

It is to Williams' credit that he showed himself in possession of a will to health along with his fascination with the underworld of the id. In Camino Real historical characters have escaped from the infernal world of his imagining. Byron escapes when he goes out to die for Greek liberty, as does Don Quixote when he recklessly follows the call of his delusionary idealism. But these escapes are not worked out dramatically; they are an ill-fitting, if deeply intended, coda. It is not so much that the author's matter or idea is obscure as that his manner is choppy and his story diffuse. If anything, his ideas suffer as mere ideas or symbols and literary allusions. The play is at once too badly abstruse and too strenuously theatrical.

Despite the...

(The entire section is 8,622 words.)