Tennessee Williams

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams, Tennessee 1914–

Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Williams is one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century. His work is characteristically concerned with the conflict between the illusions of an individual and the reality of his situation, most notably in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. Because loneliness and disappointment are so typical in his work, he has often been criticized for having a limited perception of the human condition. His later work is generally considered to be of uneven quality, none of it meeting the standards of his prize-winning plays. In addition to drama, Williams also writes novels, short stories, and screenplays. His fiction is criticized for being sketchy and undeveloped. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For some time now, any number of epigones have been turning out better imitation Tennessee Williams plays than Williams himself has written lately. As a result, Williams was forced to abandon self-imitation for self-parody and produce several rather unsuccessful Williams pastiches. But In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel does not even qualify as poor parody: it makes The Seven Descents of Myrtle look, by comparison, like a triumphal ascent of Parnassus. It is a play by a man at the end of, not his talent (that was long ago), but his tether—a man around whom the last props of the dramatic edifice have crumbled and who, in an impotent frenzy, stamps his feet on the few remaining bricks. That someone who was a major American and world dramatist should come to this is a tragedy almost unparalleled in the annals of literature, never mind drama; it would have been a fit subject for a play by the former Tennessee Williams.

In a sense, to be sure, Williams has always been a confessional playwright—and even a confessional being, going from psychoanalysis to Catholicism. But the trouble with his quasi-confessional plays is that they are not honest confessions. In them, Williams appears either as a middle-aged hysterical woman (archetype: Blanche DuBois), or as a sensitive, oversensitive young man, a little too good (Orpheus Descending) or too wicked (Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer) for his milieu. These are the two sides of the same trick coin (it always comes up tails): on the one hand, the fear of aging and death and the insatiable hunger for sex as both specific and panacea; on the other, the artist's victimization by society or his own overexacting vision. While Williams was in command of his art, these disguises and fragmentation hardly mattered. Now, in this play, he comes closer to fusing the two falsely complete personas into his one genuinely incomplete one; but, alas, he still lacks the guts to do it, and besides it is too late. (p. 197)

John Simon, "'In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel'" (1969), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 197-99.

M. A. Corrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tennessee Williams' writing reveals a striking preoccupation with the problem of time. Like other modern dramatists, he has juxtaposed past and present, created worlds of fantasy, and employed mythical substructures in order to suspend the irrevocable forward direction of time in his plays. Williams frequently expresses the conflict between real and ideal in temporal terms; time, often as arch-enemy, is ranged with fact, necessity, body, mortality, and locked in combat with eternity, truth, freedom, soul, immortality. Williams' dramas are marked by a thematic obsession with time and its effect on human life to such a degree that his whole career can be viewed from the perspective of his changing attitude toward time. (p. 155)

Three major periods, coinciding approximately with the last three decades, emerge in a consideration of Williams' plays from the standpoint of the time theme. The Glass Menagerie, Camino Real, and Night of the Iguana

(The entire section is 7,718 words.)