illustrated portrait of American playwright Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2996

Williams, Tennessee 1914–

An American playwright, novelist, and short story writer who once was hailed as the most important playwright in America, Williams has been unsuccessful in recent years in meeting the standards set by such earlier works as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. His works chronicle man's ambitions and his eventual, inevitable ruin. Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and 1955. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Whatever your feelings about him, there is no denying that Tennessee Williams is one of America's authentic bards. And when such a person attempts to "tell all," it is perhaps our cultural duty to pay close attention to what he has to say about his life, about the material and spiritual conditions under which his songs of neurotic desperation and misery were written.

The most arresting aspect of [Tennessee Williams: A Memoir] is its patent honesty; only someone talking from the heart could be so corny. The style, moreover, is offhand, slipshod, hardly the work one would expect from the creator of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Yet it is precisely the author of those plays who is addressing us, using a social and literary manner derived almost solely from the faded, tacky elegance, the wistful falls of Blanche DuBois' characteristic rhetoric….

In putting together this book, Williams clearly hoped to reach the roots of the hell he has suffered during the last 15 years. He manages a bare, albeit moving recital of the terrible events that landed him in the psychiatric ward, but neither he nor we learn what caused his breakdown. It would be easy to suggest that Blanche, or her spirit, got in the way; more likely, the playwright instinctively realized he had better leave the sources of his art unexamined if he hoped to go on writing.

Williams suffers from an intense narcissism that prevents him from standing back to look at himself. It is a measure of his honesty, though, that faced by pages uncovering so much a cautious person would want to hide, and surely aware that he was not achieving his original objective, he did not burn the manuscript. Instead, he kept right on with his undigested confessions….

He is a bard who speaks for some part of every man yet is utterly incapable of speaking for himself—although, as he repeatedly declares, his life depends on it. (p. 18)

The social goad is more accurately described than any other—sexual, philosophical or artistic—because it is the one Williams reacts to with his whole being. And his personal inflection of the social problem—all those ladies fallen from former grandeur, itself shoddy and rather squalid but nevertheless believed in—would seem to account for his public status much more than his concern for what Jean Cocteau called "the malady of love."

Remarkably, throughout the '60s when Williams was so bound up by neurosis and guilt and paranoia that he literally could not speak, he continued to write play after play—a fact attributable, I suspect from his tongue-tied memoirs, to his violent need for success, his devouring ambition, and not to some vague esthetic predilection. Indeed, looking back on his plays, it is the social content that looms ever larger, making Williams into a kind of sensitive John O'Hara or, in his best moments, a grotesque F. Scott Fitzgerald. (pp. 18-19)

Raymond Rosenthal, "Inhibited Introspection," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), March 29, 1976, pp. 18-19.


(This entire section contains 2996 words.)

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Williams] is a great ventriloquist, in both the literal and the metaphoric meanings of the word. [In his Memoirs he] speaks from the belly and also casts his voice onto those around him, especially those who shared his early years. The sections on his childhood and adolescence—a period not entirely over, as he is the first to suggest—confirm my long-held view as a critic of his work in performance that it is sometimes too personal, too intimate, too incestuous, to be acceptable to outsiders without embarrassment. In a sense, we have already had his Memoirs in his work, especially inThe Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is not to say, on the evidence of his own report, that he is simply a transcriber from life. The skeletons in his cupboards are the real ones all right but he fleshes them with imaginary curves and muscles the way we all do with our past when we make the dead or dying dance to entertain our coevals. But where our audience is numbered on one hand, his are numberless.

Though he appears in Memoirs to be saying only one thing at a time in a clumsily truthful way about his family and his friends, he is actually saying several things at once on different levels. For this reason, he is often, and this is the best definition I know, writing poetry.

Alan Brien, "Tennessee in Pyjamas," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 20, 1976, p. 19.

Williams' plays—the comedies as well as the tragedies—are chronicles of incest, whether the characters involved are aware of it or not. (Often, it is a character's subliminal awareness of the desire to commit incest that Williams embodies onstage, to great effect, as a scarcely treadable knife-edge of hysteria.) Williams' ideal hero is the incestuous homosexual, who, however guilty he may feel at being tempted to break the gravest of our taboos, runs no risk of leaving behind a proof of his misconduct. This lack of risk becomes, in Williams' writing, a kind of schoolboy glee, otherwise inexplicable.

"The Eccentricities of a Nightingale" … is Williams' ingenious reworking of an earlier, failed play of his, "Summer and Smoke." "Eccentricities" is certain to find a place for itself in the Williams canon as a pleasing small play of the second rank…. (pp. 134-35)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 6, 1976.

There was an unexpected prologue to last Friday night's performance of The Night of the Iguana. At about the time the performance was scheduled to begin, a woman in the audience—a stout, middle-aged woman in a blue print dress—suddenly began shouting, "Start the show! Start the show! I want to see Dorothy McGuire! I love Dorothy McGuire!" The people sitting next to her were quickly evacuated to other seats; usherettes, and someone who must have been the house manager came to reason with her, but she continued to shout….

After a moment of shock, the audience began to get ugly, applauding and laughing derisively. The woman applauded back, moving her hands stiffly as if they were flippers. "Listen, you old bag, get out!" somebody shouted at her. "Throw her out and start the show!" shouted somebody else. Some people began to boo the shouters. "All I want to see," said the woman in the blue dress firmly, "is Dorothy McGuire, and then I will leave."

Finally Miss McGuire herself appeared, crossed the stage to where the woman was sitting, spoke to her soothingly and hugged her. And the woman, who had pulled back when anyone had touched her, quietly allowed Miss McGuire to lead her away—as if, like Blanche DuBois, she had always depended on the kindness of strangers. As they crossed the stage toward the exit, Miss McGuire—who had met the situation with remarkable poise and grace and kindness—paused and said to the audience, "I'd just like to introduce another fellow human being." It was a deserved rebuke to those who had shouted abuse at the madwoman—and it was also everything Tennessee Williams has ever written, in a nutshell….

Sometimes, especially in his more recent plays, [Mr. Williams] begins to get tiresome, endlessly manhandling our pity: Brother, can you spare a tear? He has always been inclined to sentimentality. But in his best plays he earns for his characters the pity he demands, and what becomes astonishing is the lush richness and variety that he finds within the nutshell of his obsession. Night of the Iguana (1961) is the last of these best plays—or, rather, the last so far; is there anyone who does not hope that Mr. Williams, like Nonno, will fulfill himself as a writer at least once more before the end of his career …?

There are only two basic character types in Williams. One is the subject of his obsession, the lady in the blue dress—call her Blanche—unable to operate on the realistic level; the other is the one who shouts, "Throw her out and start the show!"—call him Stanley. In Night of the Iguana, there are three Blanches; two of them are men. Analogously, Stanley is a woman: a raucous, sexy widow named Maxine who is entirely at ease on the realistic level—it is doubtful whether she really understands that any other level exists. In an early scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski takes off his shirt. "Be comfortable is my motto," he explains to Blanche. In Night of the Iguana, Maxine walks in with her shirt on, but her boobs practically hanging out of it. "I never dress in September," she explains to Shannon, who replies, "Well, just, just—button your shirt up." Shannon, like Blanche, is both promiscuous and puritanical. Mr. Williams's concerns are always the same, but their contexts and configurations change in fascinating ways….

Mr. Williams loves his unlikely waifs and strays, his yearning, idealistic derelicts, his end-of-the-rope brigade—as well he might, since they are all clearly aspects of himself. He wants us to love and honor them as he does: if we do, he has succeeded; if not, not. In this play, he treats them, as they treat each other, with a touching delicacy and tenderness. As usual, he is scrupulous in not offering his damaged idealists as examples of moral perfection. Shannon is as big a phony as Blanche herself and has the additional unpleasant habit of seducing young girls and then devastating them with his disgust in the morning. Miss Jelkes and Nonno are also hustlers in their way. But, like Blanche, none of them ever lied in their hearts, whatever that means (and I can't tell you, but I know). They are among "The last cavaliers, the ones with the rusty armor and soiled white plumes," on whom he invokes a blessing in Camino Real—and in every other play.

But how attractive they are, these "cavaliers," how exotic, how gallant! How easy it is to pity them! The stout woman in the blue dress …—she was not attractive, nor exotic, nor noticeably gallant, lacking a sentimental playwright to romanticize her. Where were her plumes, her armor? Was she a cavalier? For Mr. Williams, perhaps, she would be. Perhaps the fraud is not in the colorful romanticism of the playwright but in the apparent drabness of real life, which prevents us from seeing that the shapeless crazy lady with her awkward gestures and her slurred speech is really a cavalier and taking her to our hearts.

And yet, should it really take all those trappings, those plumes, those fascinatingly exotic histories, to introduce us to those at the ends of their ropes as fellow human beings? Isn't it often precisely for their drabness that those at rope's end must deserve to be pitied? I was not only touched by stirred by The Night of the Iguana; it opened things in me. I respect the respect for discipline and understatement that appears in the midst of its lushness. But I do not entirely trust it. Mr. Williams lavishes sympathy on all his con persons, but he has little or none for the women in Shannon's party, the "football squad of old maids" from Baptist Female College in Blowing Rock, Texas, whom Shannon has failed and cheated and misused in so many ways. They are not to be forgiven for being who they are. (p. 73)

Julius Novick, "Mr. Williams and the Crazy Lady," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), December 27, 1976, pp. 73-4.

What gives The Night of the Iguana a special position in Tennessee Williams' oeuvre is that it is his last decent play. Not great, surely; not even very good, I dare say; but decent. It is still cut from the good old cloth even if the tailoring has become sloppy. After that comes a depressing sequence of ever-worse works in which a glimmer of the former great talent can only occasionally be detected amid the debris….

The subject of Iguana is really loneliness and what, if anything, can be done about it.

One can find the theme of fleeting, generally sexual associations as a compromise between the demands of commitment and the fear of loneliness throughout Williams' works, the best known example being Blanche DuBois' famous line about having always depended on the kindness of strangers. Though typical of many homosexual lives, this casual promiscuity is by no means limited to them. And, at the other end of the scale, there often appears in Williams the pure and virginal young woman—sometimes sweetly resigned, sometimes neurotic and hysterical—the resigned archetype being Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. (p. 25)

[When] Williams now tries to expunge [a torrid steaminess], by rewriting his plays, [he] only leaves them diminished. But there remains as evident as ever [in The Night of the Iguana] that unfortunate, heavy-handed symbolism of the iguana, representing both the tied-up Shannon and humanity in general at the end of its rope. If only the symbolism could be cut loose from Williams' plays! This one is altogether overlong anyway, having (like other Williams dramas) grown from a short story into a one-acter, and thence into three acts. There are, accordingly, painful longueurs here along with sparks of genius….

This sad fact was confirmed by the first Broadway production of Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Williams' 1964 reworking of his 1948 Summer and Smoke. In a prefatory note to the published text, he declares it "a better work than the play from which it derives." Not so; the original had much more texture, variety, intensity and, yes, steaminess. On however melodramatic a level, a great deal more was going on in Summer and Smoke; the hero and heroine had flesh-and-blood complexities rather than being stripped down to single characteristics, and those insufficiently analyzed. As in Iguana, Williams provides far too simplistic explanations for his creatures' neuroses—a schematic over involvement with the parent of the opposite sex complicated, not very subtly or interestingly, by an aborted relationship to God.

Nightingale comes across as a pale outline of a play…. (p. 26)

John Simon, "Two from Williams' Menagerie," in The New Leader (© by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 3, 1977, pp. 25-6.

Poor Tennessee Williams! He is, or was, our greatest living playwright, second only to Eugene O'Neill at his best, and it is infinitely sad to see him deteriorate before our eyes. It is even worse than watching a woman we love grow old, because that happens gradually and symmetrically with our own aging. But here we are, still as alert as ever, and Williams, for a long time now, has been giving us stones for bread—really merely watered-down reworkings of his old situations, characters, ideas, and dialogue, exactly as in all the recent plays bearing his signature, itself most likely merely stenciled on.

A man who would steal and resteal from himself is the saddest of failures. Reprehensible as it may be to steal from others, it is at least enterprising: a sign of awareness that the outside world exists…. Whatever fund he had for attending to the life of people and ideas around him, he has long since dissipated. When he does write a play, it is perforce a rehash, or at the utmost a replay of youthful memories that have been getting thinner and dimmer. And when he tries to write about his later experiences—as in Small Craft Warnings and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel—it comes out lifeless and third-hand, as if seen through the double screen of his former writings and a mind grown soft from self-indulgence.

Vieux Carré, his disaster this season, is a depressing example. For the umpteenth time—if you count Williams' long plays, short plays, long and short fictions, poems and memoirs—we are back in a boarding house in, naturally, New Orleans. Or perhaps unnaturally: Now that Williams has confessed his homosexuality, the plays are allowed to assume a more flagrant deviancy…. (p. 21)

As if [the plot] weren't ghastly enough—decked out with every kind of pseudopoeticism, painful attempt at humor and even more painful stabs at pathos—[the play] is further undercut with frequent interlardings of recitative. Writer [the protagonist] either sentimentally reminisces about the house and its inmates from the point of view of the future, or, right in the present, summarizes bits of the play that Playwright was too lazy to dramatize.

The writing is consistently pastiche-Williams: "Now they enter into the lighted area of my memory—which is not realistic, as you may know by now." A dramatist who has to explain his play is in sorry shape indeed. (pp. 21-2)

Consider, finally, the truly insufferable would-be lyrical closing line: "All that remains is echoes, echoes of echoes—of no voices. This house is empty now." Note the flat, anticlimactic last sentence meant to provide a dying fall, but actually dropping dead. It worked so much better in that incomparably finer memory play, The Glass Menagerie, where the autobiographical narrator hero concluded with, "Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye …" Nothing so pretentious as echoes of echoes, only a simple good-bye—not a spelling out of the obvious: We can see for ourselves that Williams' house is empty now. (p. 22)

John Simon, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), June 20, 1977.


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 7)