illustrated portrait of American playwright Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 2)

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Williams, Tennessee 1914–

A major, prize-winning Southern American playwright, Williams is the author of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, and the recent Small Craft Warnings. He also writes poems, novels, stories, and screenplays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Tennessee Williams is a convulsive self-parroter. The Seven Descents of Myrtle is, like other recent works of the author's, a revision of an expansion of a recasting of some earlier opus. It smells less of the midnight oil than of an author oiled by midday, crapulously laughing as he re-hashes some previous hash of his, carefully squeezing out a trickle of newish tricks into the thick paste of stale self-plagiarism, self-parody, and self-flagellation.

John Simon, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 322-24.

If a swamp alligator could talk, he would sound like Tennessee Williams. His tongue seems coated with rum and molasses as it darts in and out of his mouth, licking at his moustache like a pink lizard. His voice wavers unsteadily like old grey cigar smoke in a room with no ventilation, rising to a mad cackle like a wounded macaw, settling finally in a cross somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and Everett Dirksen. His hands flutter like dying birds in an abandoned aviary. Tragic flamboyance masks tortured sensitivity. At the age of sixty the world's most famous playwright stands precariously on the ledge of vulnerability, fighting like a jaguar and talking like a poet….

What to make of this Halloween goblin? This gilt-edged invitation to decadence, this life lived with constantly recurring visions in a madhouse, laced with the beckoning insinuation of champagne and flaming foods, of Oriental rugs and dimly lit brothels, surrounded by exotic friends like Anaïs Nin and Anna Magnani, who has publicly announced on several occasions she would like to marry him? He has gathered his years slowly, savoring the lusty taste of living, taking swooning delight in extravaganzas of brocade, crêpe suzettes, and a mild scent of orrisroot. High ceilings and dust on antiques fill him with a sense of appropriateness. He has created a myth of himself. His temple holds much ivy. He is shy, pursued by visions of hell, and is blind in one eye. He has done everything and seen everything. He has won every award there is, including two Pulitzer Prizes. There is scarcely a minute of the day when he doesn't complain about either emotional exhaustion or being physically assaulted by any number of undiagnosed afflictions. One senses he is his own worst enemy, that it is miraculous that he has indeed been able to write at all. Yet, like the old dog that has survived many seasons of distemper, he keeps coming back, a Phoenix rising from the flames….

Years of indescribable torment and physical dissipation…. taught him a way of life. Even now, he still wanders restlessly in search of the sad music in people, ordering a banquet for the spirit, and although he has always got what he asked for, the melody has often been in the wrong key and the meal served at inconvenient hours. And out of the loneliness and self-destruction and pain have come some of the world's greatest plays. Why do they survive along with him? Why does Tennessee Williams, already written off by the cynics in the obituaries they keep taking out and rattling whenever a new play opens, make more comebacks than Judy Garland? Because in an age so filled with non-appreciation and polite sensibility, a time of fatalism, nihilism, a certain destruction of the ideal of beauty,...

(This entire section contains 2431 words.)

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a replacement by wastelands and other sterile sanctuaries, he suffers the urgent need to bring meaning to life, to resurrect gentility and kindness. It is not necessary to understand him to appreciate his genius. One needs only to feel, and hefeels magnificently.

Rex Reed, "Tennessee Williams Turns Sixty," in Esquire, September, 1971, pp. 105-08, 216-23.

Though Williams is often called a poetic playwright, [most of his] plays … accept the realist convention of psychologically and sociologically coherent characters, grotesque though they may be. These grotesque characters are exceptionally verbal, given to a degree of imagery that is unusual in American realistic drama. In a few of his plays, Williams combines verbal with theatrical imagery to insist upon a symbolic resonance beyond the realistic surface—Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, The Night of the Iguana. There is also a more candidly symbolic strain in his playwriting, bordering on allegory. His first excursion into this domain was the short Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, revised and expanded in 1953. With modification, Williams continued the non-realistic form in The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Any More and his two "Slapstick Tragedies." In contrast to their experimental, often expressionistic form, these plays use crisp, colloquial dialogue….

In spite of his prolific output, Tennessee Williams is narrow in range. Most of his plays are set in Southern United States, which he contrives to give an exotic hue. Most of his plays focus on protagonist-victims who manage to combine humor with deformity. Unlike the monosyllabic characters of many American realistic plays, Williams' grotesques are luxuriously loquacious—with incantatory repetitions and self-conscious images. Williams uses set, music, light, rhythm, image to impose symbolic meaning upon his realistic surfaces; the more blatant the symbolism, the more frail the play. Like Tom in Glass Menagerie, Williams has "a poet's weakness for symbols." The emphasis should be placed on the word "weakness." Insistence on symbols weakens the dramatic drive of several Williams' plays—Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana, The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Any More, Slapstick Tragedy, and Kingdom of Earth. William's symbolic imagery is most effective when its weakness is built into the fabric of the drama—the stale nostalgia of Amanda in Glass Menagerie, the cultural yearning of Blanche in Streetcar, the dated slang of Kilroy in Camino Real. In these plays, the inadequacies of Williams' lyricism function thematically and theatrically, to evoke our sympathy for his garrulous grotesques.

As Miller moves a limited step beyond O'Neill in his use of colloquial rhythms and idiom, Williams reacts against O'Neill in his profuse images and relatively complicated syntax. Pithy or lyrical as suits the character, Williams' dialogue endowed the American stage with a new vocabulary and rhythm. Though his lines lack the taut coherence of Southern poets like Ransom or Tate, and though his plots lack the human complexity of Southern novelists like Faulkner, Welty, or O'Connor, Williams gave Southern grotesques dignity on the Broadway stage. Even the farcical Rose Tattoo is peopled with giants by comparison with Tobacco Road. Though shocking sexuality rather than human warmth may account for his Broadway success, Williams has managed to combine shocking sexuality with human warmth, sometimes in the same play. His major instrument in this combination is distinctive dialogue that embraces nostalgia, frustration, sadness, gaiety, cruelty, and compassion. Like O'Neill and Miller, Williams wrote few organically flawless dramas. He does not often hammer like O'Neill, he does not often preach like Miller, but he too often indulges in gratuitous violence and irrelevant symbol. At his best, however—Menagerie, Streetcar, first version of Cat, Iguana and even Camino Real—Williams expands American stage dialogue in vocabulary, image, rhythm, and range.

Ruby Cohn, "The Garrulous Grotesques of Tennessee Williams," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 97-129.

Sublime is a word that can be applied to everything that Williams writes, and that quality, plus his passionate concern for the dispossessed people who live on the border line of despair, is again evident in Small Craft Warnings, a revision of a play originally known as Confessional.

This new theater piece is less a play than it is a series of personal self-revelations offered by seven of the play's nine characters. These seven souls face increasingly shabby existences. They are not large enough to be true derelicts. They are tiny abandoned vessels. And they are threatened by nothing so magnificent as a great storm. What they face is the kind of disturbance that endangers only small craft….

Small Craft Warnings is, by design, a play about small people, who, unlike the impressive sailfish mounted over the bar, have never sailed an inch in their lives. And its location is less a bar than that point in life where each of these minnows must make peace with comparative insignificance and bleakness of outlook.

Henry Hewes, "The Deathday Party," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 22, 1972; used with permission), April 22, 1972, pp. 22-4.

Williams' penchant for the compassionate depiction of damaged souls is as much part of the moralist in him as it is a sign of complicity, and I am sympathetic to it. Everything must be said, especially if it is well said. Williams is gifted with a superb instinct both for the stage and for certain aspects of our people and civilization. What he has had to say, therefore, was not only interesting but, in our fretfully and skittishly puritanic society, important. There [were], and still are, elements of pity and terror in his work (combined with humor), which at all times saves it from being scabrous. At worst it was sentimental, but sentimentality itself may be a positive quality, if it is supported by the evidence of convincing fact and honest feeling—in other words, where expression does not exceed what we recognize as genuine experience….

In the most subjective of his plays, In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, his sense of personal collapse was almost shamefully exposed, but in a manner painfully impressive because of its very abjectness…. Small Craft Warnings does not offend, but neither is it moving. It strikes one as a demonstration of an old posture, an overcalculated litany now bereft of poignancy….

Williams always writes well, but because the characters in this play [Small Craft Warnings] are little better than tokens of the author's preconceived canon—there is also a still pure youth, questing for the surprise or poetry of life—the writing seems studiously "correct" and unanimated. It gives the impression of an attempt to formulate as lucidly as possible a considered credo. Even in its dialogue, the play suffers from lack of spontaneity.

This, I am inclined to believe, is not the Williams of today, whatever his spiritual condition may now be. The play is an encapsulation of past history, which in its original telling possessed authentic vitality. We can only hope that, when the playwright gets the residue of his toxic affections out of his system (I refer to the plays of his period of exhaustion), he can give fresh voice to whatever his recovery may dictate. No artist ever completely alters his nature, nor have we the right to expect such a change, but when the initial sources of creativity are deep, a vivid and varied florescence may occur. We owe it to Williams to trust that this will prove the case with him.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, April 24, 1972, pp. 540-41.

Anyone who knows Williams' work knows that he returns again and again to the same characters, themes, phrases. It is not surprising, then, that the regulars at Monk's [Place, setting of Small Craft Warnings] should turn out to be refugees not simply from the world outside, but from other Williams plays. Bill is the professional stud, an inelegant brother to Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth. Violet is the Blanche-Alma-Hannah Jelkes heroine, the queen of the "temporary arrangement," reduced here almost to imbecility, to parody. Quentin, who writes porno films, is the mock-artist, the sensualist, most effectively drawn in the offstage Sebastian of Suddenly Last Summer. Leona's dead brother, the beautiful, sensitive, violin-playing homosexual, recalls Blanche's dead husband in Streetcar. The static quality of most of the play, the presentational style, simply underlines Williams' reliance on material that we have seen often before and usually embedded in more flamboyant theater. The difficulty, this time, is that the reverberations are not replenishing. I hear Quentin speak of the "kingdom of earth" and I make a mental checkmark: oh, yes, the published title of The Seven Descents of Myrtle. I do that, I suppose, because Quentin is simply an illustration—Exhibit A—and not a character who is allowed to do or be enough to give his confession dramatic force. Oh, the long speeches (which look a little silly on the page) work very well in the theater. Williams still writes remarkable verbal passages, carefully designed speeches which let the actor move, by means of recurring words and phrases, from image to image, from argument to argument, and which allow the voice to take on a kind of generalized stage sadness….

None of this would matter, of course, if Small Craft Warnings were strong enough to shout down the echoes. It only succeeds in doing that when Leona … is center stage.

Gerald Weales, "At Monk's Place," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 5, 1972, pp. 215-16.

I'm told that Tennessee Williams refers to Small Craft Warnings as a 'library piece'. True or not, the designation is appropriate. Williams' new play (actually, an expansion of his more appropriately titled 1970 one-act Confessional) has flickers of the same poetry and much of the same compassion that made him, in the decade that began in the mid-'forties, the most important American dramatist to emerge since O'Neill. If a more important one has appeared since, I cannot think of who, though Williams himself has produced nothing in recent years to rank with such early works as The Glass Menagerie (1944) which—sadly—remains in my view his best play….

At its best, the play has considerable poignance and poetic eloquence; at its worst, it is banal, sentimental and tedious, attenuated to a point that tries the patience. It is a drama almost completely devoid of dramatic momentum, dominated by the literary self-indulgence of several of the long monologues that are its reason for being. But even that is not the real problem. The real problem is that the characters themselves are more clichés than inherently interesting or believable. We have seen them in bar room plays almost without number—in The Iceman Cometh, in Saroyan, even in Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody—and in earlier Williams works. Small Craft Warnings adds nothing to our knowledge of them as human beings, reveals no new dimensions…. There are no surprises in Small Craft Warnings, only echoes of the past.

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players, June, 1972, pp. 46-7.


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 19)


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 30)