Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 19) - 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 illusion and reality, most notably in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. Because loneliness and disappointment are recurrent in his work, Williams 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 plays, Williams also writes novels, short stories, and screenplays. In his Memoirs he acknowledges his homosexuality. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If revenge is a dish that tastes best cold, then Donald Windham has certainly fixed himself a satisfying frozen dinner. He has published all the letters sent to him between 1940 and 1965 by Tennessee Williams [as Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham]. And, without ever losing his poise as a reticent editor and admiring friend, Windham allows the glorious bird to dip his own tail feathers in a pot of tar….

Throughout the quarter-century of mistreatment chronicled in the book, Windham maintains an air of sympathetic understanding, in a display of what Williams characterizes as his "morbid humility." The yeast of hurt feelings, however, has fermented enough in the meantime to rise subtly in the publication of this private correspondence, where Williams emerges as a figure with no apparent interest in anything but the advancement of his career and the satisfaction of his appetites….

Landscape, architecture, nature, food, politics, philosophy, the social climate—none of these arouse much commentary from Williams, or assume much importance, as compared with that long parade of hustlers, rough trade, sailors, and young boys that cruise through his waking and dreaming life like so many wind-up toys. As in "Memoirs," this book shows a man inordinately, obsessively preoccupied with announcing his erotic adventures—a concern that is eclipsed, and only momentarily, by his hypochondriacal worries over his...

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Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The final image in The Glass Menagerie is that of Laura, alone, illuminated by the candles which, for all that they are the Gentleman Caller's "favorite kind of light," will bring no warmth to the girl…. The quiet, almost sentimental quality of that final speech, of the play as a whole, masks the fact that Menagerie ends with the starkest picture of loneliness in the Williams canon. The heroines who follow tend to have more Amanda than Laura in them. The specter of separateness haunts them too, but, whether lyric victims or comic grotesques, beset by violence or desperation or plain indifference, they manage a kind of vitality which insists that they try to escape, to outsmart, to smother the loneliness that Williams sees as central to the human condition.

Now, almost thirty-five years after Laura's disappearance into darkness, Williams is back [in A Lovely Summer for Crève Coeur] with a quartet of women coping with or succumbing to the perennial Williams problem…. The Crève Coeur of the title is not simply the heartbreak of Dorothea, the leading character but an amusement park to which her roommate, Bodey, regularly goes with her twin brother for Sunday picnics…. [What] little plot the play has carries Dorothea beyond her crève-coeur to the amusement park, to an acceptance of life in which one settles for what one can get instead of what one wants. (pp. 146-47)

Both Bodey...

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W. Kenneth Holditch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reader who approaches Tennessee Williams' Where I Live in the expectation of finding a unified statement of the playwright's philosophy of art or his metaphysics will be disappointed. There is really no pattern to the thirty short prose pieces included here other than chronology, since most of them are incidental works, written either as forewords or afterwords to published editions of the plays or written for newspapers in advance of the opening of new productions. However, for the reader who is content with brief and fleeting insights into the attitudes and feelings of the author on a wide range of topics—from a consideration of Elizabeth Taylor as "one of the great phenomena and symptoms of our time in America" to defenses of freedom and nonconformity as essential conditions for the creation of viable art—Where I Live is an exciting and gratifying work. Despite the fact that the essay is not Williams' forte—a fact he himself more than once acknowledges—the prose here makes for pleasant reading…. (p. 760)

When Tennessee Williams writes of other authors, he usually reveals more about himself than about his subject. The evidence of the plays and other works makes it clear that the playwright is not, relatively speaking, a well-read man, that his choice of reading has indeed been somewhat eccentric. Those writers he has chosen to pursue, however, he has read well, and his fierce loyalty to those he admires is well exhibited here in two essays devoted to Carson McCullers…. He alludes frequently to his ardent devotion to three poets, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Emily Dickinson, and his evaluations of them seem, like many of his views in Where I Live, to be more of the heart than of the head. Often he seems more drawn to the character of the particular poet than to the work. His description of Dickinson, for example, as "that lyrical spinster of Amherst, Massachusetts, who wore a strict and savage heart on a taffeta sleeve," is indicative of Williams' romantic viewpoint; but it is also, one must admit, a peculiarly apt description of the poetess and evidence of the power of Williams' own poetic language at its best. (p. 761)

W. Kenneth Holditch, "Surviving with Grace: Tennessee Williams Today" (copyright, 1979, by W. Kenneth Holditch), in The Southern Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 753-62.

Foster Hirsch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although they often contain sensational elements, Williams's plays are as moralistic as they are literary…. The plays are a series of moral allegories in which Williams, an entrenched puritan fascinated by his own and others' sinfulness, judges his characters. He is a moralist who exposes corruption: "I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy is the most dangerous of all sins. The moral contribution of my plays is that they uncover what I consider to be untrue." Williams's characters are thus examples of various roads to ruin and the consequences of sin. Since Williams has never shaken the notion that sex is at least partly sinful, all of his sexually troubled characters are held to a strict moral reckoning; and their unhappy histories are designed as warnings. Williams concocts exotic sexual fantasies, yet he hovers puritanically over the revels, seeing to it that the misbehaving characters are properly punished. Though Williams believes that sex is a form of grace, he also feels that sex is impure, and he often resolves his contradictory attitudes by contriving horrible destinies for his sexual athletes. Williams is a confused moralist, and his continuing battle with his puritanical impulses frequently complicates the dramas in interesting ways. The plays are filled with tantalizing ambiguities. (p. 4)

Williams's special gift is exactly his ability to give universal dimension to his private fantasy figures. In his successful period, from 1945 to 1961, his plays appealed to millions …, from adolescents to English professors….

After The Night of the Iguana, though, the writer who converted private trauma into dramatic fireworks lost most of his audience. Williams's personal obsessions derailed him and the plays—from The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here in 1963 to Out Cry in 1973—failed to communicate to most theatergoers. The pre-eminent popular playwright of the fifties became the coterie dramatist of the sixties and early seventies. Theatrical and engaging plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth gave way to small-scaled, experimental chamber plays like Gnadiges Fraulein, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Small-Craft Warnings, and Out Cry. Consumed by his own neuroses, Williams wrote these decidedly unpopular plays as forms of self-analysis, and the exorcism through his art was more important to him than the courting of public favor. (p. 5)

Williams has been preoccupied in his plays with two consuming themes that are the dominant struggles in his own life: the conflict between the puritan and the cavalier, which absorbs him throughout his early and middle periods, and the artist's relation to art, which has detained him throughout the last decade. The body and the soul, life and art—these great dualities provide the conflicts in both the plays and the life of Tennessee Williams. (p. 7)

[In 1975, in the novel Moise and the World of Reason] and particularly in Memoirs, Williams writes openly about homosexuality, in a way that he never felt free to in his great masked plays. The novel reads in fact like a dry run for the revelations in Memoirs, though the tone of Moise is darker than that of the autobiography, its treatment of sexuality less jubilant: its homosexual love story is an intimation of the expansive confessional mode that explodes full-force in Memoirs.

Moise and the World of Reason reads like a series of journal entries in which the author muses at random on art and sex, his twin preoccupations…. Since it has no real story or tangible dramatic conflict, the novel is designed to show off its author's sensibility—Williams attempts to hold us with the fractured, fevered ruminations of a fictional character who nakedly enacts his own fears of artistic failure and isolation…. Characters, anecdotes, images from Williams's own past compete for our attention. Williams is an exuberant, though inconsistent, master of ceremonies, and the quality of the remembered moments varies. Some are tantalizing, while others seem like pale...

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John Beaufort

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a program note [to "Clothes for a Summer Hotel"], Mr. Williams writes: "Our reason for taking extraordinary licence with time and place is that in an asylum and on its grounds, liberties of this kind are quite prevalent; and also these liberties allow us to explore in more depth what we believe is the truth of character."

The central subjects of this dramatic exploration are the now legendary couple Zelda and her husband, writer Scott Fitzgerald, fragments of whose fractured lives and relationships have been assembled in a kaleidoscopic montage….

As the play opens, ghosts of the past emerge in a swirl of mist and disappear as the action centers on a sobered Scott Fitzgerald … come to visit his mentally disturbed wife. With the belated arrival of Zelda … the once golden couple of the '20s resumes what clearly has been an ongoing battle of recrimination and acrimony. It is a histrionic tour de force … but it grows wearisome before Mr. Williams introduces the series of flashbacks which probe the sources of the tragedy to come.

[Like "The Glass Menagerie,"] "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is a play of memory as well as of ghosts. The specters come vividly, at times touchingly, to stage life as the action recalls earlier, if not happier, days….

Nor surprisingly, the dialogue abounds in tapestried eloquence, flights of lyricism, and a humor that can be delicate or ironically biting….

The conspicuously lacking element in "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is any real suggestion of the glamourous people the Fitzgeralds had once been….

"Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is a bleak play, a play of defeat and dejection. One cannot help wondering whether this plunge into a ghostly purgatory was worth all the trouble it has taken.

John Beaufort, "Brooding Drama from Tennessee Williams," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), March 27, 1980 (and reprinted in NY Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXI, No. 6, March 24-31, 1980, p. 313).

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most dismaying thing about Tennessee Williams's pursuit of the poor, sad ghosts of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," is the fact that Mr. Williams's personal voice is nowhere to be heard in it. It is as though the playwright's decision to deal with actual people—not only the Fitzgeralds but Ernest Hemingway and the Gerald Murphys as well—had momentarily robbed him of his own imaginative powers….

[We] feel no personal contact between this Scott, this Zelda. Both are nearing the end of their lives; the past is irretrievable….

[We] bide our time, knowing that in this variant on the memory-play we'll be dipping back into earlier, somewhat saner years, years when communication must have been possible. We do dip back, only to discover that nothing has changed….

[There's] no growth, no change, no flow of life anywhere for us to piece together.

For which the playwright must bear his share of responsibility. It would seem that, out of all his interest and research, Mr. Williams hasn't arrived at a defined attitude toward either of his unhappy artists. There is no fresh, idiosyncratic insight into what made two miserable people click. We are simply being told what we already know. We don't know why we are bothering to retrace the terrain now.

The play is structurally wasteful…. (p. 312)

Strangest of all, though, is the absence of the author's inimitable flair for language. The stiffness of routine biographical drama intrudes: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Patrick Campbell!" Platitudes are offered ever so solemnly: "The solitude of a lunatic is never broken." Though there are occasional echoes of the real thing … the finest playwright of our time has spent his evening trying hard, much too hard, to sound like other people. People out of books.

"Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is Tennessee Williams holding his tongue. (pp. 312-13)

Walter Kerr, 'Clothes for a Summer Hotel,' in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1980 (and reprinted in NY Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXI, No. 6, March 24-31, 1980, p. 312-13).

Roderick Mason Faber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Today [The Glass Menagerie] seems to stand as squarely in [an exhausted] realistic tradition as if it were a small-town Beaux Arts bank building. Although it is often praised for its lyricism and delicate fragility, Menagerie now looks glued together with self-pity, soft at the core, less a tragedy than an overexquisite lace-doily melodrama.

What has kept Menagerie being produced year after year—aside from its people-pleasing sentimentality and safely low-key lyricism—are its well-turned-out roles for actors. (p. 92)

Roderick Mason Faber, "Brittle Chutzpah" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 46, November 12-18, 1980, pp. 92-3.