Tennessee Williams

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Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6,914 words.)