illustrated portrait of American playwright Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Start Free Trial

Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 1)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Williams, Tennessee 1914–

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

[Tennessee Williams] continues the southern myth in deploring the loss of an old aristocratic culture and its replacement by gross mercantile values. He shows sympathy for the decaying aristocrats whom at times he places in incredible situations. His portrayal of the businessman, usually a villain or a clown, is often a caricature created out of dramatic need or a theory. He has emphasized the idea, fostered by the new critics as well as inherited from a long romantic and classical tradition, that only the poet—blessed or marked at birth—can show modern man the way out of his confusion. On the other hand, some of the characters are not southerners but imitations of a literary type. Some of them seem to have been inspired by the novels of D. H. Lawrence; there are the primitives: children, uncorrupted by middle-class proprieties, whose sexual communion brings them happiness and contentment; or reflections of a Lawrence hybrid: businessmen and effete intellectuals far removed from the natural man. Others seem to have a special personal significance, such as the series of itinerant heroes…; all of them rebel against what Williams considers American mediocrity. In spite of—or perhaps because of—his theories and his personal prejudices, he has created a number of striking theatrical characters. Whether or not he has contributed to an understanding of the South is still to be determined, but there is no question but that he has one of the sharpest senses for theater of any playwright in American dramatic history. (p. 26)

Like Carson McCullers, Williams has created his own special world and has an affinity for lost souls and out-of-the-way characters; like her, he also returns to revive old material, to wring from it the quality of myth. Both writers reach for the elusive quality of experience in character and try to catch the vaguely significant element in human experience…. Williams is a consciously literary writer whose work shows an increasingly clever manipulation of words for their emotional impact…. He seems repeatedly at a loss for new material so he returns either to the old shorter pieces or to very personal experience and works to give them cosmic significance. (pp. 27-8)

Tennessee Williams first achieved widespread recognition for The Glass Menagerie (1945) and its portraits of southern gentlewomen: Amanda Wingfield and her daughter Laura. He continued this study with Blanche Du Bois of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and with Alma Winemiller of Summer and Smoke (1948). All of these portraits are studies in frustration of women of a culture and refinement associated with the Victorian era that disappeared during the decade of World War I…. The men who appear in these plays are not so much southern gentlemen as developments of a theory. The epitome of the monotonous, average male reappears in all three plays…. In contrast to these rather nondescript men are the glorious uninhibited youths who are uncontaminated by any association with the Episcopalian church or any other institutions of a mechanized society. (pp. 70-1)

The freedom of an "unattached and nomadic existence" has stimulated the imagination of Tennessee Williams almost from the beginning. It epitomizes his romantic view of life. The man who lives uncommitted to the mores and to the responsibilities of American society stands above the average money-mad, sex-starved, high-tensioned, and unhappy job holder....

(This entire section contains 2695 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

For his independence he must pay, naturally; and Williams often makes him the victim of stereotyped figures representing Business, the Law, the Church, or just Goodness masquerading as heavy-set, gossiping housewives and their adipose husbands. Or the hero walks by himself, a lonely misfit in an artificial society, an outsider misunderstood by his contemporaries…. By ordinary standards he is a failure. His physical attractiveness distinguishes him…. In some cases this personal magnetism seems to be of so great force that it attracts admirers as if they had been hypnotized. And perhaps because of this highly charged sexual attractiveness, he often is presented as an adolescent, or at least as quite young. (p. 117)

There is in the later work the hysterical note of a writer who has spent his slight store of material and is forced to repeat himself again and again. The interest in sex that marked some of his early work has become his main preoccupation, so that the whole range of human experience is narrowly limited to this one phase of life. With the exception of a few shadowy characters—who are more like personifications—the leading figures are corrupt or degenerate; and nothing is achieved through knowing them. (p. 162)

Williams has had a character repeatedly ask the Big Question. It is expressed more or less in the same way: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Are all the cosmic fireworks just for this? Williams never gets beyond these large and safe philosophic and rather meaningless generalities which he gives to his characters as if he had discovered something really profound. (p. 167)

Williams has worked with a number of interesting themes; but the favorite—and the one that obscures most of the others—is the idea of sex as the symbol of freedom, sex as the great liberator, sex as the only valid manifestation of religion and of love, sex as the only synonym for life. He may have begun with an interest in another theme; but after the success of The Glass Menagerie, and as if he were trying to maintain his popular appeal, he blurs an interesting theme with scene after scene which does little more than add sexual excitement. For a man of so much talent, it is a pity that, as his critics have so often lamented, he should be suffering from sex on the brain. (p. 168)

Williams has never concerned himself with the organic development of drama but rather with highly charged dramatic scenes that will deliver a good shock. Again and again there are individual scenes of power, indicative of real dramatic genius—often highly emotional scenes that reveal a talent for achieving what is theatrically effective. These scenes are Tennessee Williams at his best…. [But, unable,] apparently, to develop fully one theme, he scatters his energy among several…. This habit of multiplying discordant elements in a play is paralleled by the way he sometimes overloads a characterization, or the biography of a character. This tendency of including too much of everything coincides with his idea that theater should provide a shock. Williams often is more concerned with what is theatrical than with truth. (pp. 174-75)

The greatest contribution of Williams, the mid-century playwright, is his handling of speech. Scene after scene, no matter how different in mood and subject—no matter how artificially projected in action—does, somehow, convey the impression of idiomatic language. Critics have noted from the beginning that Williams has been clever in the way he combines cliché and original speech…. Through words Tennessee Williams has repeatedly been able to arouse emotional excitement, to increase suspense, and to enhance the understanding of character and emotion. But it is a pity that Williams has not been able to strike out of his plays those rhetorical lines that are loud, artificial, and pompous. (pp. 180-81)

Tennessee Williams has become a name; and, for the general public as well as for many among the professionals, he is the greatest poet-dramatist to have appeared on the American scene since Eugene O'Neill. Through his unabashed use of the stage and modern techniques, he has opened immense new possibilities. He has demonstrated again the dramatic excitement inherent in the use of old theatrical devices. Even though his plays may fall apart upon analysis, in his best work something of importance remains—an insight into character and motivation, an understanding of the lack of communication between people, an awareness of the appalling emptiness and cruelty in the hearts of many well-fed Americans, and the very difficult position of the little people. Tennessee Williams has an instinctive sense of theater and with his increased technical skill he may yet become a significant literary figure. As for his picture of life to date, some critics have been kind; some have ridiculed the pretentions or deplored the ugly view of America that he presents. Others are frankly worried that, at a time when American spiritual and cultural values seem to be at stake, so much money and attention should be spent on an art which is, at times, not only sick but frankly venal. (pp. 189-90)

Signi Falk, in Tennessee Williams, Twayne, 1961.

In Period of Adjustment—perhaps because he chose to write something approximating a standard Broadway marriage comedy—Williams made an attempt to create characters who displayed all the clichés of imperceptive, ordinary people and to afflict them with the desperation of the fugitive kind. It is through this play—the least typical in the Williams canon—that the playwright indicates most clearly that what he has been talking about all along is not simply the special pain of an eccentric out-group but the human condition as he sees it.

If Williams' (man)kind is fugitive, then something has to be in pursuit. His characters are menaced by three things: by other people, by themselves, and by the universe. At one level, the first of these provides whatever social comment the Williams plays contain. (pp. 23-4)

Although the Williams characters are constantly hurt and harried by those around them, they are also tortured by something within themselves—guilt and fear primarily…. That pursuer may be called the universe, or human mortality, or the absence of God, but Williams most often uses the label with which Chance ends Sweet Bird—"the enemy, time, in us all."… In several of his [more] recent plays—noticeably Suddenly Last Summer and Iguana—Williams has been considering the nature of the universe in a specific manner, but it is the universe that has been implicit in all his work, one in which man is a stranger and can find comfort, if at all, only in himself and his own kind…. There is no escape in a universe where there is no God and where the other inhabitants are as dangerous as one's own self. (pp. 27-9)

From the beginning of his career, Williams has been trying to tell the real truth (his real truth, that is) about human beings and the way they live, but he has never wanted to do that as a realist…. Realism of a kind … lies at the core of his talent for creating characters (probably his greatest talent), but it would be unfair to his work to dwell heavily on that element in it. After all, he has done his best to mask it. He has used caricature extensively, sometimes in terms of Broadway convention (the clergyman in Cat, the businessman-father in Period), but more often in terms of other traditions of the theater…. Flora and Bessie in The Rose Tattoo [are called] "two female clowns"…. Williams has many devices other than caricature to lift his characters out of the realistic tradition. He uses mythic identifications, for instance…. Mythic identifications and significant names are literary ways of stressing the nonrealistic element in character; there are theatrical means that work as well. In Streetcar, for instance, the nurse and the doctor are presented as ominous figures (like the nun in Suddenly), institutional extensions rather than individuals; when the doctor removes his hat, just before he offers Blanche his arm, Williams says "he becomes personalized." Such depersonalization can only be used with peripheral characters, but there are ways of establishing the artificiality, the theatricality of even the leading characters. The one that Williams uses most extensively is to present the long speeches as set pieces, arias almost, delivered to the audience rather than to other characters…. As though pushing his characters toward caricature and his plots toward myth and decorating both with symbols were not enough, Williams makes use of every possible tool of the theater—sets, props, lights, sound—to emphasize that his plays are not realistic…. What is clear is that a playwright who has a sharp eye for the nuances of speech and gesture which have always been of great importance to the realistic dramatist has consistently chosen to work in the nonrealistic tradition. (pp. 32-42)

Gerald Weales, in his Tennessee Williams ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 53), University of Minnesota Press, © 1965 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

Established writers can be arrogant in their reliance upon old tricks. In The Knightly Quest (a collection of stories and a novella) Tennessee Williams is consistently uneven. There is something touching and special about his failure because he has always been aware of his genius for creating lives and his difficulty in knowing what to do with them. He is possessed by his material: stories are turned into plays, one-acters are reworked as full-length dramas or as screenplays, as though in search of an alchemy to unite his characters to an elusive artistic intention.

Maureen Howard, in Partisan Review, Winter, 1968, p. 147.

Tennessee Williams's place in the American theater is secure, no matter how hard he tries to dislodge himself. The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar, et al., founded a school and then proceeded to dominate it; and Posterity seldom asks better than that. However, a writer never knows. He wants Posterity to put his immortality in writing; failing that, he gets out one more play, to be on the safe side.

Unfortunately, it seems there are no more masterpieces to be coaxed out of Mr. Williams's corner of the South, for love or money. Outside of anything else, the whole scene has been parodied to death: all those whacked-out belles wandering around in their slips, the lusty men with the fatal flaw, and the lustless men with the feet of clay, all the tattered hopes and the flaking undershirts—a play would have to be great indeed to get by with that stuff today….

[This] year he has done a modified parody [The Seven Descents of Myrtle], a play that some audiences can take straight and others with salt…. A good writer making a joke of himself is a sorry sight, whether he is doing it on purpose or not. I can't believe that Tennessee Williams takes this material seriously any more. Even from Rome, or wherever he is at the moment, he must have heard that the flood finally rose up and that Myrtle and Chicken and the whole crazy lot were drowned, and that kind of play, straight or funny, went out of business a long time ago.

Wilfrid Sheed, "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" (1968), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 151-53.

Tennessee Williams has been both praised as America's greatest living playwright and criticized as thriving on melodrama. Few, however, will deny the power of his plays nor the vitality of the wide assortment of characters—most of them dark, brooding, and unhappy—who people his dramas: truck drivers, prostitutes, poets, housewives, politicians, and priests.

Williams admits that his plays contain a large measure of violence, neuroticism, and sex, but he explains that if he is to write at all, he must write about characters and situations which correspond to his own inner tensions….

Even though Tennessee Williams confesses his deep involvement in emotionalism, critics have pointed out that his plays deal consistently with a serious theme—self-pity, the persistence of memory that holds people in its grip and will not let them go on with their lives….

Like the plays, his poems are based on his wanderings, his observations, and his conviction that human love is forever battering itself to pieces on the reefs of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Bernard Dekle, "Tennessee Williams: The 'Black Play'," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 142-46.


Williams, Tennessee


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 11)