Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 1)

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. 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...

(The entire section is 2,695 words.)