Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 11) - Essay


(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 exemplify the characteristic stance toward time that Williams adopts in each period; each of these plays, moreover, employs a different technique to achieve an arrest of time.

The events of The Glass Menagerie are enactments of Tom Wingfield's memories; his monologues, addressed directly to the audience, frame the play's seven animated "tableaux" and mediate between past and present. In reliving the events surrounding the visit of his sister's "gentleman caller," Tom conveys to the audience the effect of the past on the present and endows the past with timeless significance….

Williams asks for non-realistic lighting in the play, in order to set off the events occurring in memory. A general dimness gives the effect of ethereality. Williams also specifies that "the light upon Laura should be distinct from the others" and resemble the light upon a madonna in a religious painting. At one point, he calls for special light upon Amanda: "the light upon her face with its aged but childish features is cruelly sharp, satirical as a Daumier print." Such lighting reflects Tom's emotional response to the other characters: his memory canonizes Laura and criticizes Amanda. (p. 156)

What is unique about the Wingfields is their retreat from the world of daily existence. Each of them has a fantasy world which is infinitely more real than the world of the St. Louis tenement…. (p. 157)

The play also makes extensive use of music, which, in framing each scene, serves as a mediator between the present situation of the narrator and his memories of the past. There are, in addition, three distinct musical themes played at intervals during the drama: Laura's theme, "The Glass Menagerie," which is light, delicate, and poignant; the nostalgic fiddling associated with Amanda's reveries; and the "theme three" adventure music which calls Tom to his wandering future. The music in all three cases is symbolic of the illusions which dominate the three main characters.

The techniques which emphasize memory and illusion in the drama reinforce the theme of the escape from time which controls the action. The survival tactic practiced by the Wingfields is to retreat from reality into a timeless world of their own making…. Laura's retreat can not be dismissed as lightly as Amanda's nostalgia and Tom's puerile dreams. Withdrawal from the world is a matter of necessity, not choice, for her. (pp. 157-58)

The picture of life presented in The Glass Menagerie is a disturbing one: the only defense against the relentlessness and cruelty of life in time is the ultimately unsatisfactory retreat into a world of illusion. None of the Wingfields has the capacity to "fight back." Amanda in her reveries is an incurable romantic whose practical schemes are doomed to failure. Laura is an object of pity; she backs away from life, not because she wants to, but because nature has ill-equipped her to fight for survival. Tom literally runs away, only to learn that his dreams were illusions and that reality mocks him wherever he goes. Williams, however, celebrates the attempt to flee the present as a noble failure. (p. 158)

Mind or spirit, in the form of Amanda's recollections, Tom's dreams, or Laura's fantasy, imposes itself on the recalcitrant material of experience and achieves, if only for a moment, a purity and beauty normally denied to those who are earthbound and timebound.

Most of the plays which Williams wrote during the 1940s depict the defeat of the light of spirit by the darkness of matter. His first play, Battle of Angels, is explicitly built on a set of dichotomies: light vs. darkness, imagination vs. practicality, life vs. death—or, in terms of the plot, the young free-spirited wanderer and the woman he impregnates vs. the woman's moribund husband and the hostile townspeople. If the hero, Val Xavier, has a "fault," it is pausing to fall in love; his lovers, past and present, prevent his escape from responsibility. When Williams rewrote the play, under the title Orpheus Descending, he retained the Manichean structure and added a set of classical analogies. Williams' mythological allusions suggest the utter incapacity for change or progress in the human situation. Like Orpheus, Val is an innocent alien, a visitor from a better world, who is destroyed by the evil forces which pervade this world. The only way to preserve one's purity, implies Williams, is to stay free of human ties.

Williams sets up similar struggles between matter and spirit in Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire…. Body and soul are irreconcilable opposites; in any direct clash, body or matter necessarily wins. In these early plays Williams presents the plight of human beings struggling with their dual natures and hemmed in by their mortality. Those who submit to the conditions of mortal existence are viewed as corrupt; those who defy them in pursuit of a timeless ideal are eventually destroyed by the corrupt anyway. No compromise between pure spirit and base matter is possible in a world in which the realities of timebound existence place limitations on the spirit's capacity to be free.


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Michael Lassell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Memoirs, which Williams consistently refers to as a "thing," moves back and forth between the near and distant past, between the struggle for success and the struggle to retrieve it. Quite legitimately, Williams may be capsulizing, rarefying facts to manageable size and form, presenting the essence rather than the graph of actuality. The author's life, as he sees it, is made accessible through the medium of written expression; we do not come to see what it is like to be Tennessee Williams, but what it is like to see Tennessee Williams more or less as he is willing to be seen. But no matter how faithful to events a writer may wish to be, memoirs are a compromise; they exist as aesthetic works apart from fact as...

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John Whitty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams has written some of the most moving dramas of the modern theatre. He is such a grand old man that I suppose no one will tell him when a play simply stinks. And that is what This Is (An Entertainment) does—rankly and raucously.

If this were merely an entertainment, we might try to respond in kind, but … [this is] an empty pretentious script….

It is of course possible to satirize politics and even revolution, as Dürrenmatt has done in grotesque tragicomedies, but Williams's revolution is simply irrelevant to his single character in a densely populated play. It is of course possible to laugh at a munitions maker as a crawling, sex-starved cuckold, but such figures would look better in Daily Worker cartoons than on [a] set. It is even possible to share the zest of a Countess for several lovers, but not when she mislays her children as easily as her cigarette lighter; and not when she buys that amatory zest with the profits of her husband's munitions. Are these objections too realistic for a play insistently called an entertainment? To avoid them, Williams should not violate the boundaries of fantasy…. (p. 406)

John Whitty, in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1976 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), October, 1976.

Mary Ann Corrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams synthesizes depth characterization, typical of drama that strives to be an illusion of reality, with symbolic theatrics, which imply an acceptance of the stage as artifice. In short, realism and theatricalism, often viewed as stage rivals, complement each other in this play. Throughout the 1940s Williams attempted to combine elements of theatricalist staging with verisimilitudinous plots and characters. His experiments either failed utterly, as in Battle of Angels in which neither literal nor symbolic action is convincing, or succeeded with modifications, for instance … in The Glass Menagerie. In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams is in control of his...

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Charles Marowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What has always fascinated me about Tennessee Williams, particularly in his early work, is the sense that the plays are never about what they appear to be about. They contain an opposing duality. In Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield's mannered gregariousness is constantly at odds with Laura's fragile introversion; just as Tom's poetic yearnings tug against the Gentleman Caller's traditional American drive for 'getting on'. In Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche du Bois' gentility is virtually at war with Stanley Kowalski's primitive aggression—just as it ultimately clashes with her Gentleman Caller Mick, in a last act dénouement reminiscent of that in Menagerie. In Cat On A Hot Tin...

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Michael Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The storm-waters are rising around the farmstead somewhere in rural Mississippi when Lot, coughing ominously, comes back to the family home with his new bride; everyone has fled except his half-brother Chicken, who sits morosely in the kitchen downing liquor from an earthenware jug when he is not carving indecent figures on the wooden table or entertaining his new sister-in-law by hurling a startled cat into the flooded cellar….

[Kingdom of Earth] reminds one occasionally of Pinter, but more frequently of Victorian melodrama, hinging as it does upon that old standby, a disputed inheritance….

[The] Southern air is heavy with symbolism, too: the farmstead … stands for the...

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Richard Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Tennessee Williams takes] familiar characters, situations, and themes and then weaves them into a baroque conceit possessing neither original substance nor extrinsic value. The world so imagined hardly exists—or, at least, hardly deserves consideration—on any other level than the decorative: it offers us a group of charming grotesques, preserved in amber. What is Southern about it, really, is not a certain quality of perception, a sense of engagement between past and present, the public and the private, myth and history: but a turn of phrase or personality, a use of the bizarre and sensational for their own sake, which has the net effect of creating distance. For regionalism is substituted a form of local color,...

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