illustrated portrait of American playwright Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

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

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2540 words.)

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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.

Most of the plays which Williams wrote during the 1950's assert the spirit's capacity to be free in the face of heavy odds. Time is still the enemy, but those who strive to overcome it are victors, not necessarily on a literal level, but very clearly on a spiritual plane. In changing from a Manichean to a modified Pelagian stance, Williams enlarges the possibilities for heroism. At least, in the middle plays, one's choices are related, not irrelevant, to the outcome of one's life. Although Williams, unlike the Pelagians, does not deny the existence of original sin, he does extol the ability of man to rise by sheer force of will power above the limitations his mortality imposes upon him. Camino Real reveals how Williams' attitude toward the plight of humanity in time alters to offer the possibility for greatness to man.

Williams suspends the rules of strict chronology and causality by adopting in Camino Real a structure based on association. He writes in the play's foreword that his aim is to give the audience a sense of "the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream." (pp. 158-59)

[Like so many of Williams' characters], the characters in Camino Real are wanderers, rootless, displaced persons…. Camino Real is a way station, albeit a most depressing one, on the journey from birth to death. Williams uses the opening lines from Dante's Inferno as the play's epigraph. The inferno experienced by the characters on the Camino Real is caused by the inevitable change and dissolution which accompany time's forward motion….

As demanded by the stage directions, the legendary characters wear modern clothes with only vestigial touches of the period costume. The combination of contemporary and historical costuming suggests that each character represents a legend or myth that is still operative in the present. The drama indicates which is the saving myth. Camino Real is a paean to dreamers and idealists of all ages. The only way out of the plaza is through the Terra Incognita, and the only characters to take that route are Byron, Don Quixote, and Kilroy—romantics all. (p. 160)

Camino Real in offering the Terra Incognita as a remedy for the pain of being human, denies the possibility of a resolution in time of the problems posed by mortality. By including the Casanova-Marguerite subplot, Williams avoids complete escapism. Even as Don Quixote and Kilroy leave to follow their dreams, Casanova and Marguerite remain on the Camino Real to find "salvation" in their mutual love. Williams' point is obvious: idealism can conquer the limitations of mortality, love can make them bearable.

Pelagianism provides the philosophic framework of Camino Real…. [The] Pelagian stance in the modern drama is the exaltation in the last act of the energy and competence of man, alone and without aid…. Whether or not the gesture of defiance in Camino Real really succeeds in overcoming the limitations of the world, time, and necessity is irrelevant. The act of defiance itself is courageous, heroic, and therefore worthwhile.

A tinge of Pelagianism is also evident in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer, in which Williams commends characters who rebel against their present situation, whether with good or bad results. One play of Williams' middle period is noteworthy, both for its emphatic treatment of time as the source of man's problems and for its obvious Pelagianism. Unlike Williams' memory play and dream play, Sweet Bird of Youth uses a conventional technique and structure. (pp. 161-62)

In Williams' Pelagian world man exercises free will, but only within the narrow sphere of deciding whether to face reality and the burden of time…. Williams does not suggest that human beings can alter their destinies in time.

Williams' dramas of the sixties and seventies, however, reveal a different approach to the human predicament. His later characters discover the significance of their existence and the possibility of control by immersing themselves in time, rather than by escaping or defying it. In Night of the Iguana, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Kingdom of Earth, and Small Craft Warnings, it is not the "loners," but those who need each other, not the defiers, but the accommodators, who are set up as ideals. And in the later plays there is no doubt that the archetypal sin-suffering-atonement-redemption pattern is fully realized. (pp. 162-63)

The attempt to break down the barriers of time does not so obviously affect Williams' techniques in Night of the Iguana as it does in The Glass Menagerie and Camino Real. Nevertheless, Night of the Iguana resembles Camino Real in that the Costa Verde functions as a kind of Never-Neverland, placed on a hill overlooking, but somehow apart from the time-drenched world below. On this hill each character strives to come to terms with time and the duality of human nature, though earthbound, strives for the infinite. The play is like The Glass Menagerie in that memory is an important part of each character's conception of himself…. More than the iguana is freed before the night is over, for all the characters learn to abjure the past to which they are tied. (pp. 163-64)

Although the classical myth of Orestes defines the basic dramatic situation of Night of the Iguana, the Christian myth provides the key to the resolution of the drama. More is involved in the play's Christian perspective than the simple equation of Shannon tied in his hammock and Christ nailed to the cross, both "atoning" for the transgressions of mankind, although this relationship is clearly implied by Williams. The religious ritual structure of sin-suffering-atonement-redemption works itself out, not in Shannon's assumption of the role of Christ-figure, but in his progress toward a truly Christian outlook on the world. Shannon has always been willing to "suffer" and "atone"; he does it every eighteen months with a vengeance. What makes this encounter different from all others is the new knowledge of what must come after atonement, of what constitutes a redeemed life. Shannon comes to this realization largely through his contact with Hannah.

While Shannon conscientiously sets himself apart from the mass of men in his search for God, Hannah offers him a different approach to this search, based upon her own experience: find God in ministering to the needs of others. (p. 165)

An author who updates myths can break down the barriers between past and present. If he stresses "the eternal return of the same," the effect of the myth may be to undermine the importance of timely existence. But myths may also be used to define basic human situations or problems confronted differently by each age and existentially by each individual. It is this latter function which the myth serves in Night of the Iguana, the message of which is the necessity of finding one's place in the present. The characters of the play, as Williams says …, "reach the point of utter despair and still go past it with courage." Their despair results from the burdens placed on them by their mortality and by the changes which accompany the passage of time. The drama consists in their coming together, enlightening, and helping each other through this "dark night of the soul."

The characters of Williams' later plays resolve their problems, not by taking refuge in an idealized past or in imaginative leaps, but by courageously accepting present reality and assuming responsibility for the future….

In the first stages of his career, whether he is depicting the defeat of the forces of light by the forces of darkness or exalting the energy of self-sufficient man. Williams adopts an essentially negative attitude toward time. He views the inexorable march of time as destructive of man's work and dreams. The quest in The Glass Menagerie and Camino Real is for what is untouched by time. By contrast, in Williams' later plays the forward march of time—in extending to human beings the opportunity to create anew, to change and progress—is a source of meaning. The courage to become is what the characters of Williams' later plays seek and find….

That the later plays of Williams embody a more satisfying philosophy of living is no guarantee of their dramatic worth. Indeed, Williams' earlier plays are generally considered his best. Yet there is a paradox involved in Williams' attempt in his early plays to fashion for the stage actions which are supposedly devoid of human meaning in order to prove the significance of what cannot be humanly enacted. For it is the plaza which comes to life on stage, and the Terra Incognita which is doomed to remain without artistic form. (p. 166)

Just as the lack of a philosophy that comes to terms with man's temporality and mortality does not necessarily make a bad play, so the embodiment of a philosophy that provides a viable rationale for living does not of itself insure success. All that can be said is that given two plays of similar dramatic merit, the one in which mortality is seen as a source of insight rather than a hindrance to vision is the one that will be more humanly satisfying…. [It] is only from Night of the Iguana on, that Williams' characters have confronted time to find its human significance. (p. 167)

M. A. Corrigan, "Memory, Dream, and Myth in the Plays of Tennessee Williams," in Renascence (© copyright, 1976, Marquette University Press), Spring, 1976, pp. 155-67.

Michael Lassell

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573

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 surely as they may represent an attempt to unite objective and subjective impulses in literary form, and Memoirs exists, unassailable, immune to charges of faulty, truncated, or manufactured memory….

What is most remarkable about Memoirs is its frankness, especially related to sexuality, and, paradoxically, its guarded tone.

Williams' highly touted openness about his homosexuality is both commendable and dangerous: commendable because he has chosen to make this important part of his life known (which precluded his residence at a major American university theatre) and dangerous because his attitude toward homosexuality is likely to confirm any number of armored stereotypes. Williams attributes the genesis of his homosexuality to childhood illness and to a classic Freudian family situation: overbearing mother and distant father, a model long suspect within the psychiatric profession itself. He experienced a not uncommon guilt that made early expression of his homosexuality impossible, a guilt, however, that persists in maturity…. (p. 79)

Memoirs fails on at least one level, an aesthetic level primarily, but in such a way as to affect our reception of the life and its work. The failure is in the tone of the book and is related to Williams' perception of the role of writing and of language. Perhaps this is not a failure in the usual sense, but an evident resistance to or disregard of recent speculation about language. Williams has made an attempt to incorporate formal "advances" in his plays, juxtaposing new presentational theatrical techniques against an essentially representational vision and illustrative purpose. The relationship to writing has not changed.

Williams writes, he says, to come out of himself: writing as therapy, confession, purgation. He believes that every writer must draw from the material of his own life to create art in which the personal experience is treated in such a way as to be of greater significance than the author alone. All of Williams' work is autobiographical in some measure; Memoirs reveals how much it is. All artists, of course, draw from their own experience, whether it be physical or imaginative, but the impulse to universalize (central to Williams' process), to submit experience to metaphor in an attempt to expand significance, is becoming increasingly archaic. Certainly, Williams has created vivid aesthetic masks for his life in his best plays, Streetcar and Cat for example, but he sacrificed the poignant reality of The Glass Menagerie in order to do so…. [Williams] invests his masks with too much power, divesting himself of a certain responsibility for the very animation that gives the masks meaning.

Williams seems to have a complete, almost naïve faith in the power of language to communicate, to express, to represent his intention…. This belief in the efficacy of words to effect an identity of intention and expression places a burden on the book, the play, the story, the poem that may be too heavy for the aesthetic "artifact" to bear. Williams seems to write from the assumption that the audience will find in the work itself all it needs to understand or feel what is going on, what is meant to be going on. For Williams, the fragile balance among artist, object, and observer tilts toward that of the artist and his work of art. In a sense, Williams closes his writing before it becomes public; he does, perhaps, too much. The audience may therefore experience a Williams' piece as effect rather than cause, as response rather than stimulus. It is as if he does not trust his audience, is unwilling to authenticate any response except the one he wishes us to have. Thus, Williams' metaphoric constructs are sometimes justifiably open to the charge of obvious, heavy-handed symbolism; the symbols reverberate only within limits set by the author. The irony of his situations falls leaden as often as it startles because, perhaps, it is underscored by an intruding author and not by the created events. Williams' language, too, is closed; he does not leave enough unsaid.

This same vision creates a disarming detachment in Memoirs, where Williams attempts to speak directly to his audience, ostensibly without the intermediary of an aesthetic mask. Characteristically, however, he erects a screen between himself and the reader that serves the function of the aesthetic artifact. The result produces an extraordinary effect; Williams goes into great, untidy detail about his illnesses, his shock therapy, his sexual relationships, yet these details fail to resonate. Memoirs, for all its candor and humor, lacks the passion of the best plays. It is as though Williams does not trust us to pull the details together into the portrait he wishes us to have. (p. 80)

Increasingly, one suspects that Williams has quite clearheaded objectives in Memoirs—that he wishes to present a being represented by experience and by predilection. He wishes to counter his image as a Romantic sot, so he presents a Williams immune to the sentiments that surround being in love and trying to write about it. Williams seems to have a penchant for such fictive biography; Tennessee, after all, is not his home state but that of his paternal ancestors. (p. 81)

In Memoirs, Williams has written not so much an autobiography, but a novel about a writer named Tennessee Williams. Williams emerges as a character in his own life rather than an autonomous being, a character who expresses himself in memoirs just as his characters express themselves in his plays as masks and mask-wearers…. The aesthetic nature of the Memoirs and its narrator suggests that if this character were not in fact sickly, he would have to be invented as a hypochondriac.

If Memoirs is by nature almost useless as factual history and somewhat confused in purpose (confessional or creative?), what is its value or use?… Williams' image of himself is both useful and valuable in its relation and applicability to his less obviously autobiographical work; the book increases our understanding of both the work and the process. By itself, it is generally well-written. It raises a number of social issues related to sexuality, fame, and the role of the artist. It provides new perspectives on other luminaries. It provides a great deal of detail that fills in the cartoon of Williams' reputation, and it is in large measure through the detail that we come to understand the relationship between Williams' life and art: what details are chosen? how are they used in Memoirs and then in the plays or fiction? how is Williams' life different from art, his art different from his life? Memoirs is a kind of map with which we can further explore the territory of Williams' mind, work, and method. (pp. 81-2)

[Moise and the World of Reason] is a perfect "companion piece" to the Memoirs and cannot be understood on perhaps its most significant level without it. This level is the relationship of Moise to the totality of Williams' work and its centrality to his vision. It may be possible to assume without biographical information that the old playwright in Moise is meant to represent Williams himself. With Memoirs, however, that old "derelict" emerges without further embellishment as the same character who narrates the autobiography.

But Williams has rationed his own biography and distributed some of its excess to other characters in Moise…. [The incidents in Moise] are Williams' experiences as revealed in Memoirs, and Moise begins to come across as a subtle self-portrait, as unromanticized as Memoirs is indulgent. It is as if Williams came to present himself by assigning three sets of his own psychic patterns to three distinct characters, the sum of which is Tennessee Williams….

Small Craft Warnings is the play that figures prominently in the "present" of Memoirs, the play, it turns out, that the old playwright in Moise was using as a vehicle for an off-Broadway come-back. After reading Memoirs, it is almost gratuitous to see Williams at the center of all the characters in Small Craft Warnings….

In Memoirs, in Moise, in Small Craft Warnings we find direction by finding indirection out. If Williams realizes the extent of his revelation in Memoirs and the nature of its real success, he may come upon the breakthrough in his writing that critics, public, and playwright are demanding. By being more specifically personal, less ostensibly "creative," Williams has produced in Memoirs a work that comes closer to subtlety and to art than a good many of his more self-consciously "aesthetic" enterprises; we see the mask and the face behind the mask and realize it may have been the face that interested us all along. The myth is in the man; the works are allusions to himself. (p. 82)

Michael Lassell, "Williams on Williams," in yale/theatre (copyright © by Theater, formerly yale/theatre 1976), Fall, 1976, pp. 78-82.

John Whitty

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132

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 symbolic devices. They enable the audience not only to understand the emotional penumbra surrounding the events and characters, but also to view the world from the limited and distorted perspective of Blanche. (p. 385)

The conflict between Blanche and Stanley is an externalization of the conflict that goes on within Blanche between illusion and reality. The illusion sustaining her is her image of herself as a Southern belle, a fine, cultured, young lady. The reality is a lonely woman, desperately seeking human contact, indulging "brutal desire" as an affirmation of life. Blanche's "schizoid personality is a drama of man's irreconcilable split between animal reality and moral appearance." This drama is played out not only in Blanche's mind, but between Stanley and Blanche as well. Stanley strips away Blanche's illusions and forces her to face animal reality. In doing so, he demonstrates that reality is as brutal as she feared. She has no choice but to retreat totally into illusion. Thus, the external events of the play, while actually occurring, serve as a metaphor for Blanche's internal conflict.

In pitting Blanche and Stanley against one another, Williams returns to his oft-told tale of the defeat of the weak by the strong. But, for a change, both figures represent complex and morally ambiguous positions. Blanche is far from perfect. She is a liar, an alcoholic, and she would break up the Kowalski marriage if she could. Despite his rough exterior. Stanley genuinely loves and needs his wife, and he cannot be blamed for protecting his marriage against the force that would destroy it. The ambiguity of Blanche and Stanley makes them more realistic than many of Williams' characters, who are often either demons (philistines with power, wealth and influence) or angels (helpless, sensitive, downtrodden artists or women). Although Williams depicts both positive and negative personality traits in Blanche and Stanley, his attitude toward the two characters changes in the course of the play. In the beginning Williams clearly favors Stanley by emphasizing his wholesome natural traits, while dwelling on Blanche's artificiality. But such, we learn, are the deceptive appearances. The more Williams delves into Blanche's inner life and presents it on stage, the more sympathetic she becomes. Stanley's true nature also becomes apparent, in its negative effect upon her psyche, and, in the end, she is the undisputed moral victor. (pp. 392-93)

Williams remains as much as possible within the conventions of verisimilitude in using theatrical devices to reveal Blanche's distorted vision of reality. The audience is, however, aware that baths and light bulbs have a meaning for Blanche apart from their functional existence. The further Blanche retreats from reality, the more Williams distorts the surface realism of the play. (pp. 393-94)

The characters of his early one-act plays, of The Glass Menagerie and of A Streetcar Named Desire who doggedly cling to an imaginative vision of what life ought to be, while resolutely ignoring what life is, are invested with a dignity denied those who accommodate themselves to imperfect existence. The theme of the necessity of illusions lends itself to theatricalist treatment, since the non-objective world, which is far more important to Williams' characters than the objective one, must somehow be made tangible on stage. Williams' use of theatrical devices to objectify thoughts and feelings is much more sophisticated in A Streetcar Named Desire than in his hitherto most successful play, The Glass Menagerie. In the earlier play Williams thought he needed a screen to depict exact and obvious equivalents for his characters' thoughts. In A Streetcar Named Desire he relies more upon the suggestive qualities of costuming and staging to communicate psychological tendencies more subliminal than thought. The Glass Menagerie's musical themes, particularly the sentimental fiddling and the jolly roger tune, reflect not so much the characters' inner lives, as the author's ironic perspective on them. On the other hand, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the nightclub music and the Varsouviana convey the emotional states of the characters at each stage of the action.

The realism of A Streetcar Named Desire distinguishes it from Summer and Smoke …, with which it is superficially related. In Summer and Smoke the conflict is between two abstractions; in A Streetcar Named Desire, it is between two people…. [In Summer and Smoke] John, who represents first Body and later Soul, lacks the ambiguity that makes Stanley a good dramatic character and a worthy opponent for Blanche. Stanley is as much a bundle of contradictions as his antagonist. His strength, brutality, and virility are balanced by his vulnerability to Blanche's attacks, his awkward attempts at tenderness, and his need for his wife's approval. The unexpected character changes of Summer and Smoke, the "turnabouts" necessary to demonstrate the proposition that Body and Soul are irreconcilable, have no parallel in A Streetcar Named Desire. The only event of any significance in Summer and Smoke, Alma's transformation, is not depicted on stage; it occurs between the acts. By contrast, Blanche's gradual emotional collapse is presented stage by stage. When Williams can no longer convey the disintegration of her mind by depicting only objective reality, he resorts to distortion of verisimilitude in order to present subjective reality. Blanche does not mechanically move from one extreme to the other; she suffers and undergoes—on stage. The difference between A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke is not, as an occasional critic has suggested, between a melodramatic and a "subtle" presentation of the same action, but between a play that finds adequate expression for the conflicts between and within individuals and one that sidesteps such conflicts completely.

Williams achieves his most successful revelation of human nature in its totality in this play in which he distorts the realistic surface as little as possible and only when necessary. The audience accepts as believable the direct depiction of Blanche's fantasies because the necessary touchstone in recognizable reality is consistently maintained…. A Streetcar Named Desire reveals an unerring sense of when and how to combine realism and theatricalism. (pp. 394-95)

Mary Ann Corrigan, "Realism and Theatricalism in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1976, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), December, 1976, pp. 385-96.

Charles Marowitz

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

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 Roof, Maggie's materialist thrust is pitted against Brick's passivity. It is as if the secret centre of every Williams play is a dramatisation, by proxy, of the interplay that characterises certain kinds of homosexual relationships; active partners and passive partners; doers and done-to. What gives the early plays a curious kind of force is that heterosexual relationships are being dramatised from the standpoint of homosexual experience. In a way I cannot adequately explain, Williams captures (I believe by accident), the character of two opposing life-forces; one, thrusting and materialistic; the other, submissive and spiritual.

Because art works best when it wears masks, the disguises that Williams' characters wear give them an extra dimension: a sense of operating above and beyond their particular concerns. (p. 26)

When Williams began writing for the stage, in the mid-'forties, the American theatre would not permit the degree of explicitness which is, at present, the rage of almost every western theatre capital. He was obliged to use artistic subterfuge in order to transmit his experience and this gave his work greater depth. In his later work, when permissiveness was the by-word, and Williams could deal with all his obsessions without inner censorship, the plays became squat and murky—curiously lacking the deeper texture of the earlier work. In that early work, the plots were part of Williams' disguise. The need to disguise put a greater pressure on him to invent and, in relationships like Stanley's and Blanche's, Amanda's and Laura's in the narrative structure of a play like Suddenly Last Summer and even a short work like Something Unspoken, the events themselves have a resonance which does not rely upon the language employed by the characters who inhabit them.

In the later period, Williams begins to depend more and more on direct statement or dialogue whose inference is abundantly clear which, in theatrical terms, is the equivalent of direct statement. For this reason, The Red Devil Battery Sign strikes me as forced and self-conscious. It's not that the political equation drawn by the play (which concerns an affair between an omnipotent senator's daughter and a mariachi) is not convincing (which it isn't) but that the frame-of-reference of Williams's characters does not legitimise his political commentary. Sexual politics and power politics do interconnect, but in order to accept the equation, one needs a more persuasive political framework for the dramatic characters. Without it, one feels that Williams is telling one story (the one he's really concerned about, impetuous promiscuity in an exotic Texan Setting) and only making reference to the political parallel in order to give that tale a greater significance. (pp. 26-7)

No one quite forgives [Williams] for not producing another Streetcar Named Desire—which is gruesomely unfair. Orpheus Descending was a fine play and even so small-scale a work as Period of Adjustment had virtues which only Tennessee Williams could have produced. Williams writes too much, which is another way of dealing with writer's block—the conventional one being not to write at all. My admiration for the man (and the talent) is so great I am quite prepared to sweat out all his five-finger exercises in the hope that the next full-fledged concerto will eventually arrive…. It is not more plays that we need from Tennessee Williams, but a new insight into the experience the writer is attempting to deal with in those plays, and that is achieved (sometimes) by reflection rather than proliferation. (p. 27)

Charles Marowitz, "Tennessee Revisited," in Plays and Players (© copyright Charles Marowitz 1977; reprinted with permission), September, 1977, pp. 26-7.

Michael Anderson

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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 corrosive influence of long-dead parents…. Chicken, loutish and sensual, relishes only the physical pleasures of life and never penetrates far beyond the culinary regions of the house…. Lot, pouring sherry wine from a cut-glass decanter in the tarnished opulence of his mother's parlour, embodies a feminine search for some kind of other-worldly refinement: in Tennessee Williams's over-heated world even his sickness is a gesture of defiance in the face of Chicken's rude health.

Kingdom of Earth is sub-titled 'The Seven Descents of Myrtle', but it might well have been called 'Southern Comfort Farm'. Williams himself, apparently, has called it 'my comic melodrama', and indeed it is difficult to know how seriously the author wants us to take this play. The brooding atmosphere, the sudden eruptions of violence, the hostility to brute masculinity, are familiar from his other plays, but here they tip over into the sort of luxuriant excess that makes one suspect the author has his tongue in his cheek: as an exercise in Mississippi Gothic there can't be much to beat Lot's macabre end: having plundered his mother's wardrobe, preserved in the marital bedroom he struggles into the whitest of her gowns and, pale and gasping, expires before his incredulous wife. (p. 39)

Michael Anderson, in Plays and Players (© copyright Michael Anderson 1978; reprinted with permission), April, 1978.

Richard Gray

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[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, and a very precious and slightly decadent form at that, in which the gap between drama and audience seems deliberately widened so that the latter can revel without compunction in a contemporary "Gothick" fantasy. (p. 258)

[Williams] himself, I think, remains less than fully aware of [this reductive process]. Of course, Williams does have some suspicion of what he is doing, as his references to his own literary exhibitionism indicate. But these references are scattered and nearly always discreetly qualified. More to the point, they have never prevented him from reaching for some larger theme in his plays—and reaching in such a way, unfortunately, as to emphasize his limitations rather than go beyond them. Far from helping to charge his rich style with a vision equal to it, all his occasional ventures into moral statement tend to do is to remind us how very much he depends on the romantic commonplace; our attention is directed above all to the passing of time, the fragility of innocence, the loneliness of the sensitive person in a brutal world. This can hardly provide the sort of framework he requires, within which each play's images could be satisfactorily accommodated; and without it the audience is left to experience those images at random, to enjoy, in a fairly casual way, a series of Gothic—… largely Southern Gothic—effects. Often, if we look closely at the different elements in the series, we can even see from exactly where they came. Many of the characters, for example, seem when examined to trail the shadow of Yoknapatawpha behind them…. [There] is nothing intrinsically strange or suspect about this kind of borrowing: Faulkner is so much a part of the South by now that it would have been stranger, in a sense, if Williams had tried to ignore him. But there is, surely, something suspect and even wrong about the manner of this borrowing. For all Williams has been able to do with his adopted characters, really, by way of making them new is to vulgarize and dilute. His people (like his tropes, his settings) have been deprived of the functions and meanings assigned to them in their original context, and they have assumed no satisfactory fresh ones to replace them. They are there in the plays for the interest they inspire as exhibits, curios of human nature, and that is just about all they are there for. Thus, Williams's predatory women are not dangerous and frightening as Faulkner's are, a subversive commentary on sexual and family relationships; they are just neurotics, and rather silly neurotics at that. His girl-children are not mythic, Southern avatars of the Earth Goddess, merely Gothic pinups. And, as for his aristocratic young men, they are treated with the kind of approval, and taste for the pathetic or bizarre detail, that recalls the literature of the fin de siècle more than anything else. The funereal mansion, the intimations of incest, violence, and miscegenation, the brooding over the past and the desperate attempt to recover some of its memories: many, if not all, of the familiar elements of Southern writing reappear, but only, we must suspect, for the local excitement they can produce—to punctuate the narrative and, possibly, to intrigue. Yoked together as they are here, the most that Williams is able to create out of them is an exotic, broken world—a place that may provoke our lively curiosity at first but which, precisely because it is so very much less than the sum of its constitutent parts, is likely to leave us feeling a little cheated. (pp. 259-60)

Richard Gray, in his The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (copyright © 1977 by Richard Gray), Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 1)


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 111)