Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 7)
Williams, Tennessee 1914–
The insistent sexuality of Williams's drama can be read as an obsession with loneliness, an enduring dread of inevitably failed communication. Williams is America's greatest living playwright and one of the world's most popular with actors as well as with audiences. He is also a novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
In an important sense, the theatre of Tennessee Williams is an aspect of a second American Renaissance, which, like the first, followed a great war. In the same way as the theatre of Eugene O'Neill seemed to emerge out of the heightened national consciousness which marked the close of World War I, so the theatre of Tennessee Williams seems to have been an expression of a new sense of identity which American arts and letters reflected at the conclusion of World War II. (p. vii)
Like the popular dramatists of the Elizabethan age, [Williams] found a rich source of theatrical material in the patterns of common expression emerging in his native land. The success of The Glass Menagerie may be traced in part to his effective use of idiomatic forms, especially to his ability to mediate between the world of ideas and the language of the common man….
Although The Glass Menagerie promised a new epoch in American stage history, it was not as revolutionary as it seemed. For the play shared a significant distribution of characteristics with … earlier works…. Perhaps the most revolutionary characteristic of The Glass Menagerie was that in its total concept it reflected an imaginative quality—a vision of reality—which was clearly and unmistakably American.
The presence of this distinctive quality was not accidental. According to Williams, The Glass Menagerie [was] designed specifically for the popular American audience. It was, in this sense, an especially significant achievement, for it opposed Williams to the theatre of purely traditional forms. It represented his public commitment to the creation of a popular art. (p. viii)
It has been characteristic of much American criticism that Williams' technical achievement has been seriously underestimated. Close students of his form find, however, that he conceals beneath the sensuous texture of his work a significant ability as a builder of play structure, a major skill as a narrator, and a high level of accomplishment as a writer of play dialogue and action. (p. x)
While his technical skills have been of obvious value in the playwright's search for a representative form, his most important asset may be something less tangible, an acute "sense of theatre." Williams' clear interest in theatre for performance rather than in closet drama has involved him in constant controversy, particularly with critics of traditional schools. In the main, his subordination of literary interests to theatricality—playability—has left him less esteemed among academicians than Wilder or Miller; however, it has won for him the enthusiastic support of the [American] theatre itself: of actors, directors, and scenic artists, who have maintained consistently high standards of interpretation for his plays. It has been this theatricality which has given to his drama that broad base of appeal which is vital to a popular art. (pp. x-xi)
Like [modern painters such as] Picasso, Williams seems to restate his creative experiences; [that is], to subject his poetic vision to continual reconsideration. He thus seems to reject the empirical approach to subject matter favored by the realists and appears, rather, to bring to a single subject progressive attitudes. A pattern of thematic recapitulation, visible as early as The Glass Menagerie, grows more pronounced in his later periods, when ideas, characters, plots, and portions of dialogue reappear with regularity. Accordingly, the chronology of his work is problematic. (p. xiii)
[The] achievement of [Tennessee] Williams is based on the relevance of his drama to the major concerns of [his] time…. [His] marked success as a popular dramatist may be traced to his ability to translate profound meanings into simple and effective theatrical language. It follows that his use of theme, character, myth, language, and scene is not accidental but is the result of a specific purpose: the creation of a new and relevant mode of contemporary dramatic expression. (pp. xiv-xv)
Williams may not properly be described as a realist. Both his concept of reality and his mode of imitation reject certain fundamental realist principles. There is greater justification for regarding him as a romantic, for a study of his work shows that his indebtedness to romantic sources—to Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner, and the symbolist poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is considerable. Moreover, much of Williams' pattern of figuration is romantic in quality, especially in its preoccupation with hallucinatory levels of experience: with gargoyles, monsters, and the dark-in-light patterns which Victor Hugo described as grotesque. Williams, who often describes himself as a romantic, is concerned with poetic paradox—with light in dark, good within evil, body against soul, God and Satan. His dramatic form, like that discussed by Hegel, represents the struggle of man to transcend his humanity, to provide for himself a mode of reconciliation with divine purpose. But Williams' form is also of expressionistic lineage. Like the objective expressionists—notably Wassily Kandinsky—the playwright is concerned with the objectification of subjective vision, with its transformation into concrete symbols. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Williams' dramaturgy derives from this motive. Like the objective expressionists, the playwright regards art as one of the great life forms, as an instrument of reconciliation no less important than religion, philosophy, politics, or human love. (pp. 27-8)
Williams hopes to extract from art a truth greater than that ordinarily apprehensible in life. The central problem of his anti-realist dramaturgy is how to reconstitute felt experience in such a manner as to reveal—or to create—absolute truth. (p. 30)
Williams conceives drama in … individualized terms. Each of his plays takes the shape of a vision proceeding from the consciousness of [his protagonists]…. [He] employs varied rationales to account for the angle of distortion in these visions. His interpretative devices—memory, insanity, intoxication, dreams, and death—do not, however, invalidate the acute perception of the protagonist. For, like Shakespeare, Williams seeks to provide a way through which the spectator may be alienated from the "false" world of appearances and induced to share the discovery—or creation—of a world of eternal truth. (p. 32)
[The] images created by Williams are not conceived as copies of any known reality. If there is a nature, a state, an individual, a reality, a truth, or a God in the universe of Williams, it has been derealized. For Williams, reality itself lies shattered. In the fragmentary world of his theatre, new images are pieced together from partialities: they are composed from splinters of broken truths. (p. 36)
One of the most effective illustrations of Williams' concept of "personal lyricism" is The Glass Menagerie. This play, still a favorite of American audiences, players, and critics alike, shows Williams' lyric technique in a lighter tone than does A Streetcar Named Desire. Although these plays show differences in textural quality—and in coloration—the architectonic pattern in both is much the same…. Clearly [The Glass Menagerie] is not a factual record of memory…. Nor is it a psychological account, the clinical record of days. On the contrary, it is a synthetic image, a vision carefully composed by montage. It is an illusion projected by an imaginary camera eye, turned inward upon the self and backward upon the memory. Like Proust, Williams pieces together his images of the past from the fragments of shattered consciousness. (pp. 40-1)
[Like other] American dramatists [Williams has] been deeply concerned with … language, especially with the construction of symbolic forms…. As a Southerner, [he] has had advantages of consequence: the symbolism of the South, a region separated from the mainstream of the American society by an intricate complex of political, cultural, and economic factors, has greatly enriched the language of the arts. The South, much of which retains … characteristics of [older] societies, has developed in its literature a conventional perspective described by some aestheticians as "Southern agrarianism." Its primordial interpretation of man's struggle in an unfriendly universe has produced a highly developed iconography.
This Southern aesthetic has provided for the drama of Williams a kind of basic linguistic structure comparable to that which appeared in elementary stages of Greek tragedy. For like the Greek myths, this Southern apprehension has a socio-politico-religious grounding in a … society where the critical phases of the life struggle are interpreted in an intricate symbolic language. But while Williams employs the Southern symbolism as one element of his syntax, he has attempted, especially in his later works, to progress from this elemental language to a more objective instrument of communication…. As early as The Glass Menagerie, Williams began to create myths of modern life; that is, he began to weave the dark images of his personal vision together with certain sociological, psychological, religious, and philosophical contents, in a schematic explication of modern life. (pp. 46-7)
Increasingly, the playwright has attempted to create a kind of symbol—an ideograph—in which form and content, feeling and meaning, understanding and reason are wholly unified. Like Brecht, Williams conceives of a symbol so filled with meanings that it embodies the whole of experience within its structural frame. It is clear that one of the major difficulties which the playwright has faced is the need for rational correlatives for personal experience. In The Glass Menagerie Williams uses memory as a rationalizing ground, as a point of reference around which his images are clustered. He has obviously found the technique of recall useful; it has enabled him to exercise a high degree of poetic selectivity as well as to defend that distortion which has been necessary to the creation of his symbolic system. The memory device … has, [however], certain disadvantages; it embodies exactly the suggestion of personal limitation which the playwright wishes to transcend. In much of his work, therefore, Williams has employed other devices, many of which are associated with the practices of the surrealists.
In A Streetcar Named Desire and in Summer and Smoke, Williams creates symbols which have as their rationale progressive insanity. Following André Breton, Salvador Dali, and Giorgio de Chirico, he uses insanity, like intoxication and the dream, as a kind of instrumentation for the organization and interpretation of experience. The insanity mechanism has advantages over the device of memory, especially for works which have tragic implications, for it suggests extremity in human circumstance…. But the use of the insanity device also presents certain dangers, not only as demonstrated in the work of Williams and others in the contemporary group, but also as seen in the work of traditional dramatists…. For with the use of insanity as an interpretative instrument, the playwright risks invalidation of his vision…. Williams … has continued to search for other answers to the problem of objectifying and validating his moments of critical insight. (pp. 48-9)
Gradually [there has emerged through his work] a kind of modern myth, a symbolic representation of the life of man in our time. His myth is not an organic form; that is, it is not a fabric surfacing from the unconscious life of man, individual or collective. In this sense it differs from the great natural structures which have evolved through world religions and even from popular myths, such as those which now surround the figure of the legendary American cowboy. The contemporary myth of Williams is synthetic. It is composed, after the manner of cinematic montage, from the fragments of many ethical, philosophic, social, poetic, intellectual, and religious perspectives. But this synthetic structure must in this respect be accounted valid; for it is the image of modern man caught between opposing logics—man in search of a means of reconciliation. The myth of Williams mirrors modern man's dilemma—his need for a comprehensive system of interpretation, for a structure which can restore meaning to life and which can reconcile the conflict within reality itself. (p. 54)
Intimately related to his apprehension of human action is the playwright's image of character…. It is not surprising that there appears throughout the fabric of [Williams'] work much of the linguistic apparatus of Christian theology: especially its progression of sin, suffering, guilt, punishment, and expiation…. He superimposes on his dark [cycles] of suffering a transcendent progression of love, sympathy, contrition, sacrifice, and understanding.
Through his rite of the theatre, then, Williams plays out modern man's search for salvation. [But if] he interprets the condition of man through this fundamental symbology, he also employs more sophisticated perceptions. Through his myth of the twentieth-century American, he attempts to relate many individually-oriented perceptions to the larger question of the destiny of civilization. (pp. 58-9)
Perhaps the most familiar formation within Williams' linguistic structure is one that may be described as his psychological myth. So important has this structure been to the explication of the playwright's vision that it has often been interpreted as a primary element of his content. Although the boundary between form and content is exceedingly difficult to determine, it is an especially important distinction in the interpretation of Williams' work. For in the drama of Williams, the psychological myth is primarily linguistic in nature; that is to say, it attempts to determine how, not why, life occurs. Williams' psychological myth may be traced to many sources. While its immediate indebtedness to the researches of Freud is apparent, it illustrates clearly the dependence of Freudian theory on perceptions out of the Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions. (p. 60)
Williams, like Freud, establishes human personality in its animal origins. For both, sexuality is the symbol of being. (p. 61)
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,… sexual failures are but the outer sign of inner disaster. For the true themes of the drama are metaphysical loneliness, nausea, and despair. Williams describes these stages in the existential progression in clinical language. He connotes Brick's loneliness—his alienation from friend, wife, father, mother, and God—through a series of clinically described symptoms. He describes his nausea through his lack of interest in all human relations. He defines his dread in a classically composed pattern of vacillation, from impotence to overcompensation. Williams interprets the crisis in this play as Brick's failure to understand the nature of his own existence…. (p. 62)
For Williams, [the] theories [of Carl Gustav Jung] meet certain problems for which the Freudian orthodoxy does not provide explication. The most obvious of these necessary arrangements is Jung's theory of image-making: his concept of primordial and archaic forms written in the collective unconscious. (p. 64)
In Jung's poetic image of the odyssey—the journey toward meaning, the search for self and soul—Williams finds a symbol for the reality of his description. Moreover, he finds in Jungian theory justification for his belief in art as a mode of transcendence, as a reconciling symbol in which the conflicts of life may be effectively resolved.
It is, then, this synthetic myth—a structure consciously composed from diverse moral, intellectual, social, political, and symbolic perspectives—which is one of the major characteristics of the theatre of Tennessee Williams. (p. 66)
Despite the effectiveness of his myth, the drama of Williams has retained … a fundamental inner division: an antagonism between feeling and reason, expression and meaning. For the process of synthesis has not yet been completed. Although Williams has gained from many sources—including the structures of Carl Gustav Jung—support for his system-building, his work has not yet overcome the fundamental problem of the modern arts: the evolution of a truly effective mode of aesthetic transcendence. There remains within the structural form—if not in the vision itself—an inorganicism, a critical tension between motion and arrest, the concrete and the abstract, experience and art. (p. 67)
The anti-heroic protagonist of Williams is designed to reveal the nature of suffering as it appears in the life of the twentieth century. He is intended as the object of pity and terror in the modern world. A question is often asked about this aspect of Williams' work: Of what meaning is the fate of his emotional, spiritual, and moral cripples? The answer given by Williams reflects the gradual usurpation of the [classic] idea of tragedy by the Christian concept of human worth. For the Christian ethic holds every man a sinner, redeemable only through love. Similarly, it insists, as does Williams, that all men are anti-heroic; that these figures, no more than others, are guilty of the human condition. In this context, Williams' catalogue of transgressors in search of salvation is a true symbolism—his anti-hero, the very present image of man. (p. 87)
Like Wagner, [Williams] suggests that much of the significant content of drama is suprarational in nature and, in consequence, extra-verbal in form. His "plastic theatre" is concerned not only with the exposition of rational planes of experience but also with the connotation of the ambiguous world of meaning above and below accepted levels of reason. Williams attempts to project into the cube called a "stage" a vision of the entire complex of human experience, including those planes of reality which Wagner described as "unutterable." Like Wagner, the playwright found early in his career that this motive requires a more sensitive instrument than ordinary speech. Following Wagner and his symbolist disciples, Williams has attempted to restore to the theatre a more complete theatrical syntax. (p. 89)
Like Brecht, [Williams] attempts to create a kind of theatre "language," a system of connotative signs. Unlike Brecht, however, [he] fills his language with dense emotive contents. (pp. 91-2)
Williams' theatre symbol, unlike the hard, gemlike form of Brecht, possesses textural quality. He describes his sensuous symbol as "plastic." The idea of a "plastic symbol," a form with the sculptural quality of "dimension," is not new. Prior to 1945, it appeared in the theories of the French symbolists and in the related ideas of the American imagists. A similar idea was responsible for the appearance of a whole rash of forms in the Dadaist movement of the early twenties. Insofar as the theatre is concerned, we recognize the "plastic symbol" as a variation on Wagner's concept of synthesis—a concept which has dominated much of twentieth-century theatrical practice…. But the plastic symbol of Williams, while showing definite correspondences to these earlier forms, is in many ways a distinctive structure. It is a more flexible entity, a more ambiguous form … [and] a more balanced symbol. (p. 93)
Music, dance, mime, poetry, and design are not, in the theatre of Williams, techniques employed for the unadorned delight of the spectator. They are philosophical—even theological—in their intent, for they attempt to re-establish the ritual function of theatre. They are intended as modes of signification: signs of a present search for truth. (p. 108)
[Perhaps the] best example of [this plastic] form … is Camino Real (1953); for this work demonstrates clearly the primary characteristics that identify Williams' idea of theatre. So different is Camino Real from traditional kinds of drama that some critics have described it by invented names such as "anti-drama," "comic-tragedy," "antitheatre," and "grotesque mime,"… [even] as "magic theatre," drama which seeks to be more than theatre. Certainly, in Camino Real Williams makes a definite break with the realist tradition, a departure more calculated than that of The Glass Menagerie and even more radical than that exemplified in Summer and Smoke. The important fact, however, is that Camino Real established Williams not only as a popular dramatist but as an artist whose idea of form is derived in part from recent developments in philosophy, theology, and politics, as well as in dance, cinema, literature, and the plastic arts. (p. 110)
[Williams] conceives of [this] drama as the concretion of vision. In order to give sensible shape to poetic insight, he has attempted to evolve an objective language—a system of concrete symbols for his plastic form…. [He] describes this play as a progression, as a moving chain of plastic images. In his effort to transpose this dynamic form to the stage, the dramatist has assumed the prerogatives of a painter, a sculptor, or a composer…. The play is articulated in the synthetic language of the plastic theatre: in gesture, sound, music, dance, light, color, action, and design. (p. 111)
The playwright does not seem to have succeeded [in Camino Real] in fully integrating his sensible, rational, and transcendental levels of interpretation. Nevertheless, the play represents a significant achievement in the development of a mature contemporary form. Many of its essential characteristics have reappeared since 1953 in the drama of other playwrights in world theatre, especially in the work of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genêt, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee. (p. 128)
A study of the whole range of Williams' drama shows the gradual development of a comprehensive moral structure. If his early works are concerned primarily with ethical implications within art—with the need for the integrity of self-expression—this playwright's later works have been increasingly concerned with the exploration of moral problems which are more comprehensive in nature. Williams' development as a moralist seems to have experienced three main phases of growth. His early plays are concerned with the struggle of the individual for self-realization. In the middle period of his development the playwright begins to equate his accounts of individual crisis with more universal phenomena, especially to trace their effect on society at large. In his later works Williams seems to relate these personal crises to the timeless progress of mankind in the moral universe.
It is significant to note that Williams' later works have taken on more and more of the apparatus of the orthodox Christian search for God. Gradually, [his] anti-hero—his symbol for modern man—has begun to assume the visage of the "negative saint," the great sinner, toiling up the steep ascent to God…. Williams, with his twentieth-century accounting of human transgression, attempts to serve much the same moral function as Dante: to articulate, transform, and purge human ills. (pp. 154-55)
Plays such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Camino Real retain a fundamental internal antagonism, an inner conflict between experience and meaning, poetry and logic, appearance and reality. Later plays, especially Suddenly Last Summer and The Night of the Iguana, show some signs of healing this aesthetic division, of achieving a more complete reconciliation within the form….
In [his] later works, [the playwright] comes to define the condition of man in terms very much like those of orthodox Christianity and to pose, therefore, for human redemption and reconciliation, the forgiveness of God. This "Christian" cycle of sin-suffering-expiation-redemption is perhaps most clearly defined in The Night of the Iguana, a play in which the protagonist seems to pass through all the stages of this progression in his time of life on the stage. (pp. 157-58)
The rise of Williams in the theatre of the twentieth century is not an accidental phenomenon. This dramatist, with his poetic penetration of the life of modern man, has made a distinctive contribution to the progress of the theatre toward a mature contemporary form. (pp. 158-59)
Esther Merle Jackson, in her The Broken World of Tennessee Williams (copyright © 1965 by Esther Merle Jackson), University of Wisconsin Press, 1965 (revised by the author for this publication).
What can I say about Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings that I have not already said about his three last plays? It is the work of a man out of touch with the changing world, yet unable or unwilling to write honestly out of the depths of his true, immutable self. The result is feeble self-parody, dilution of his former glories. The nine nonentities drifting in and out of this broken-down bar in Southern California are not new, fully realized creatures but ghosts of Williams' characters past; they monologize drearily about their clichéd pasts and presents, and if they engage in conversation at all, it is only the bandying of depleted words, not a dynamically structured progression of relationships and ideas. It is clearly the play of a man who has lost all sense of give and take with life, except for dimly recording the mumblings in barrooms from Tokyo to New Orleans. Pitiful decals are rubbed, row upon row, on a smudged, rickety background.
The only forthright thing about Small Craft Warnings is its title: it warns the theatergoer about the small craft that is left to the play's author. I suppose it is useless to urge Williams to take the homosexual relationship here between a fading, rich dilettante and an idealistically searching young drifter, and turn it into an entire play, the one play Williams might still endow with originality and significance. But let me at least urge those near to and concerned for him to guard Williams against himself, and save his fine and important plays from burial under these incontinent droppings. His future is at stake. (pp. 392-93)
John Simon, a review originally written in Spring, 1972, in Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1965, 1971, 1972 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.
Imagine a landscape as unconsoling as any conceived of by Beckett. Then people it with a feverish company of lonely, bitchy, somewhat histrionic characters restlessly prowling it for earthly joys and you have the quality of Mr. Williams' first full-length novel ["Moise and the World of Reason"]. A bawdy no drama on a lone prairie. Ostensibly, the action takes place in Greenwich Village, but it could be any large city…. Much of this is maudlin, a great deal of it is blurry and repetitive, and only the strong, self-mocking humor and the evocative reminiscences about the narrator's Southern past remind us of the author's singular gift as a playwright. (pp. 118-19)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 26, 1975.
It is sad to see the creator of Blanche and Amanda indulging in [the] … fantasising [he does] in Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed…. The man who once wrote lines like 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers' is now producing campy kitsch. There's little or no art in this dispiriting collection. The very occasional scrap of hilarious dialogue reminds one that the author is, arguably, the finest playwright of his generation; but they don't come often enough to compensate for the tedium….
The mind at work here is much like the mind that created the film (and, indeed, novel) Teorema, in which the understandably comatose Terence Stamp made his mark—it will be joyfully recalled—on every member of a Milanese family, including the maid, who was inspired to levitate as a result. Pasolini's movie was solemn and hysterical, and so are Williams's stories, despite a few welcome flashes of humour. By isolating, and romanticising, the sexual instinct, they rob it of human significance. (pp. 29-30)
Paul Bailey, "Dead Stork," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 4, 1975, pp. 29-30.
Williams' gifts as a writer make it difficult to dismiss this novel [Moise and the World of Reason] as the superficial piece of writing that it is. "Moise" is an attempt to explore characters so gratuitously insouciant that there is little worth exploring; individuals, homosexual and straight alike, whose mundane lives are filled with platitudinous hyperbole. These are exceedingly loathesome characters, made all the more offensive by the manifest sympathy in which they are portrayed. A repellent book filled with pretentious nonsense. (p. cxliv)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975).
Carefully built and realized, [the "little story" of "Summer and Smoke"] would have been as affecting in its littleness as an incident out of Flannery O'Connor, and not without its depths and resonances. But Williams is ever anxious to impose larger meanings on his tiny structures, until they begin to look absurd, the way the giant statue of a fiery angel looks absurd in the small Mississippi town where the action takes place. Alma and John are not enough; we must have the Faulknerite attempt to paint the entire spectrum of small-town life, and the Romeo-and-Juliettish hint of a war between the rectory and the consulting room, and the exotic local color of wicked stage Mexicans toting guns, and the symbolism….
Williams is a gifted writer, but the idea of working "As I Lay Dying," "Main Street," "Romeo and Juliet," a turn-of-the-century melodrama, and several one-acts by Maeterlinck into a coherent evening's entertainment, under severe advisement from St. Augustine, Dr. Freud, and Sidney Lanier, is not a feasible project. Naturally, in the strain of keeping up with all the subsidiary material, Williams gets absent-minded about his principal characters, who don't really change as much as they simply switch positions, as if they were playing musical chairs for the author's convenience….
The result more ironic than Williams' original irony about the characters' reversed positions, is that a play which could have seemed huge in its smallness, seems thin and minor in its attempts to be big, as well as crude in its attempts to describe the town's life, satirize it, and cram it into a philosophical schema all at once. Ultimately it makes Williams, rather than his preacher's daughter, look like a crazy kid.
Michael Feingold, "Tennessee Williams Plays Musical Chairs," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), October 20, 1975, p. 111.
Tennessee Williams stands in an apostolic succession from Aeschylus in that slender company of men who, by vocation, are destined to write high drama. Within his own life span, Williams' characters, scenes and lines have become part of the civilized world's fabric. But Williams is a lyric playwright, and [his Memoirs], no matter how candid, cannot quite resolve the mystery of his artistic gifts. Since he writes as naturally as birds fly …, the book is immensely readable as well as valuable. It radiates good humor, randiness, poignancy and a gallant resilience of spirit. (pp. 83, K9)
The memoirs are not written chronologically. They shift backward and forward in time without warning. The whole "thing," as he calls his book, is a relief map of the Williams temperament. One particularly pertinent section concerns early traumas. The family move from Mississippi to St. Louis, when Tennessee was about eight years old, was devastating to the boy. In his mind, it became an expulsion from the Elysian fields to a dingy urban purgatory….
A second trauma was his elder sister Rose's prefrontal lobotomy in 1938, one of the earliest performed in the U.S. In some fundamental way, Rose was Tennessee's muse, the "White Goddess," in Robert Graves' term, who inspired him to write…. But his mother, whom he calls "Miss Edwina," has been the love-hate pivot of his life….
Whatever cocktail-party gibber is stirred by the Memoirs will not stem from any of the above. It will arise from a portrait of the artist as a homosexual superstud. Why Tennessee chose to make this assault on his own privacy is not entirely clear. The confessional mode has been much in vogue in recent years, and perhaps he wanted everyone to know that he has had plenty of "gentlemen callers" in his time. In any case, his reminiscences take the reader on detailed "cruising" tours for sailors, to gay bars, to one-night stands…. It is a gamy, scarcely edifying spectacle; yet Tennessee's all-too-human needs elicit compassion. Loneliness terrifies him, as it does most of us, and he has a hunger for tenderness and love, as do most of us. (p. K9)
Williams has … been pursued by … self-imposed guilt, and though he has learned to live with culpability, it never entirely leaves him. The stained past has become part of an abiding sense of sin, and of God's redeeming grace, with which Williams' life and dramas are saturated. One of his students once asked the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich about the meaning of Christian existentialism. Tillich replied: "Read the plays of Tennessee Williams." The book of Tennessee Williams may now be added to that testament. (pp. K9, 84)
T. E. Kalem, "Of Sin and Grace," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 1, 1975, pp. 83, K9, 84.
Age has not refined Sweet Bird's effulgent bathos. The reduction of personality to sex organs is the dynamic of skin flicks and soap opera. Sad to say, Williams wrote this Petit Guignol sideshow in the late '50s, soon after completing his masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Today it seems fatally misconceived, a sentimental melodrama instead of a savage, black comedy on southern mores.
Gina Mallet, "Petit Guignol," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 15, 1975, p. 71.
Some people consider The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams's finest play. For me A Streetcar Named Desire is his masterpiece. The earlier play has the quality of a lovely minor poem, a tender miniature portending a wider horizon…. [What conveys the play's poetic essence] is the text's subdued key, the sense of regret which, as a play of memory,… [permeates] its every scene. All its characters are dreamers, "in love with long distance." Amanda, the mother, floats in a mist of old recollections of gentle grace and decorum, while she putters about in the shadows of present distraction. Her daughter Laura, frightened out of her wits by the twist in her leg and the dark of the household environment, takes refuge in the fragile fantasy of a glass unicorn and other such toys. The son Tom, immured by pity, imagines an escape from the viscous gloom of home and workshop. Even Jim, the kindly gentleman caller, hopes to rise above his mediocrity by entering a world he doesn't fully understand. None of these people can achieve a fullness of being because all of them have too long been submerged in the soot of a benighted city. What redeems them for us is the faint pulse of their need and longing. (p. 28)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 10, 1976.
To write as well for actors as Williams does is almost to be independent of them. Just speak Williams' words and something will happen. But there's more. Although The Glass Menagerie is smaller than A Streetcar Named Desire, it is uniquely lovely: one of the few plays I know whose drama comes, successfully, from the opposition of mood and world. The story is negligible. The agon is between a lyric poem and a context of the passing of time. (p. 28)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Acting in Williams," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 17, 1976, pp. 28-9.
Pluck away the excess plumage, and Sweet Bird of Youth turns out to be Chicken Little. It shrieks with terror and rage at the demons that haunt its dark corners, cajoles belief in monsters neither seen nor named, bestirs itself into fearful tizzies at evils which the slightest scrutiny would cause to evaporate. It is not a negliglible play, and Tennessee Williams has struggled over the years to rewrite into it a more realistic tone….
First there is the Princess, the aging movie star rendered catatonic by her hunger for love and adulation. She is convinced of her own monstrousness; she must draw it around her as her last sustenance. Those who will touch her—currently the aging stud, Chance Wayne—she must also identify as monsters. But it is Williams's failure that their monstrousness is never defined, merely named. The discrepancy between the very loud howl and the very small source of that howl is the play's basic weakness. (p. 67)
Alan Rich, in New York Magazine (© 1976 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), January 19, 1976.
Some years ago, Tennessee told me that he had been reading (that is to say, looking at) my "memoir in the form of a novel" Two Sisters. In this book I-alternated sections describing certain events in 1948 with my everyday life while writing the book. Memory sections I called Then. The day-by-day descriptions I called Now. At the time Tennessee found Two Sisters interesting because he figured in it. He must also have found it technically interesting because he has serenely appropriated my form [for his Memoirs] and has now no doubt forgotten just how the idea first came to him to describe the day-to-day life of a famous beleaguered playwright acting in an off-Broadway production of the failing play Small Craft Warnings while, in alternating sections, he recalls the early days not only of Tennessee Williams but of one Thomas Lanier Williams, who bears only a faint familial resemblance to the playwright we all know from a thousand and one altogether too candid interviews. (p. 13)
Not only does Tennessee have a marvelous comedic sense but his gloriously outrageous dramatic effects can be enormously satisfying. He makes poetic (without quotes) the speech of those half-educated would-be genteel folk who still maintain their babble in his head. Only on those rare occasions when he tries to depict educated or upper-class people does he falter. Somewhat reproachfully, he told me that he had been forced several times to use a dictionary while reading Two Sisters.
What, I asked, was one of the words you had to look up? "Solipsistic," he said. Tennessee's vocabulary has never been large (I note that he still thinks "eclectic" means "esoteric"). But then he is not the sort of writer who sees words on the page; rather he hears them in his head and when he is plugged into the right character, the wrong word never sounds. (p. 14)
There have been complaints that [these] Memoirs tell us too much about Tennessee's sex life and too little about his art. Personally, I find the candor about his sex life interesting if not illuminating. At the worst, it will feed that homophobia which is so much a part of the national psyche. Yet perhaps it is better to write this sort of thing oneself rather than leave it to others to invent. (p. 16)
Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes. Constantly he plays and replays the same small but brilliant set of cards. I am not aware that any new information (or feeling?) has got through to him in the [past] twenty-eight years…. (p. 17)
As he ends the Memoirs, he thinks back upon Hart Crane, whose legend has always haunted him. But though a romantic, Tennessee is no Crane. For one thing, it is too late to choose an abrupt death at sea. For another, art is too beguiling and difficult: "life is made up of moment-to-moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions, and try as you may, you can't commit them to the actualities of your own history."
But Tennessee continues to try. Now he has invited the world to take a close look at him, more or less as he is (the lighting of course has been carefully arranged, and he is not one to confuse an Entrance with an Exit). The result should be gratifying…. In any case, artists who continue to find exhilarating the puzzles art proposes never grow bored and so have no need of death.
As for life? Well, that is a hard matter. But it was always a hard matter for those of us born with a sense of the transiency of these borrowed atoms that make up our corporeal being. (pp. 17-18)
Anyway, be happy that your art has proved to be one of those stones that really did make it to Henge, enabling future magicians to gauge from its crafty placement not only the dour winter solstice of our last days but the summer solstice, too—the golden dream, the mimosa, the total freedom, and all that lovely time unspent now spent. (p. 18)
Gore Vidal, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), February 5, 1976.
[Williams' Memoirs are gentle] and proud and fey and fearful and elegiac; so honest that honesty itself seems a put-on…. Williams has suffered; Lordy, how he has suffered. For him, pain is the imprimatur that stamps genius, the sign of attention given by an otherwise inattentive world. Society has unloaded this myth on us: nothing great can be pleasant…. This is the romanticism behind Williams' romanticism. But give him credit, he didn't cheat: Williams' life has been a U.S. prime disaster….
Reading Memoirs, you learn more about anality, cruising, clap, homosexual dynamics, than you ever learn about American theater. A terrible, hungry love-lust charged Williams' writing. In this he is not unique, just gossipy, extra overt…. [But] one can sense that creative processes are somehow more immodest, certainly more fragile, than the most express and enormous sexual act. "Work!!—the loveliest of all four-letter words, surpassing even the importance of love…." Work is the significant intimacy and he will not, will not, discuss it…. Gentlemanly, protective silence hides the author-typewriter relationship: romanticism again, self-drama. (p. 405)
Williams' oeuvre is spectacularly uneven and dated. But that datedness comprises a momentous decade in American theater…. Williams balanced the personal and the real with lyric romance. It happened to be an unnatural equipoise; it couldn't last. Drama, given sophistication, spurned him in just a few years. For the man this had sad consequences. (pp. 405-06)
D. Keith Mano, "A Round on the House," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 16, 1976, pp. 405-06.