Tennessee Williams

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

[Tennessee 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...

(The entire section is 2,996 words.)