illustrated portrait of American playwright Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

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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

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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 health. The love that previously dared not speak its name has now grown hoarse from screaming it.

Still, the really significant thing in these pages for biographers, analysts, and just plain literary gossips is not Williams' erotomania but rather his treatment of friends and acquaintances, for this provides the most revealing and, let us admit it, the most amusing passages of the book….

Less entertaining is the tendency, already seen in his relationship with Windham, to sacrifice people to his personal and professional needs. Williams admits that his "ratio of concerns" puts friendship well below his work and his hypochondria, but protests that, despite being "fantastically self-centered," he is not a disloyal friend; there is not much evidence here to support that contention….

Williams seems ruthless on behalf of his career….

The tone is exculpatory and sympathetic, but if one listens carefully, one can just hear the shrill whistle of a long-suppressed rage. Donald Windham has published a very damaging book, in which a man who tended to treat people as objects becomes something of an object himself. And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

Robert Brustein, "The Perfect Friend," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 20, 1977, p. 9.

Gerald Weales

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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...

(This entire section contains 580 words.)

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speech, of the play as a whole, masks the fact thatMenagerie 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 and Helena, the schoolteacher who expects Dorothea to share an apartment, want to use her—not quite as the principal did, on the reclining seat of his brand-new Reo touring car—as a defense against loneliness. Bodey, who knows that she will never have children of her own, envisions a marriage which will make her an aunt, give her a surrogate family which might bring meaning to her preoccupation with the kitchen. Helena, who somehow confuses the history of art with tea sandwiches and contract bridge, needs Dorothea financially (to pay for the expensive apartment she covets), but her brief soliloquy on eating alone indicates that Dorothea's presence is as important as her money. Both Bodey's blowzy cheerfulness and Helena's thin-lipped bitchiness (she has most of the good lines) are forms of desperation, but Dorothea's decision to ally herself with Bodey suggests that warm vulgarity is more desirable than waspish correctness although even that warmth is cold comfort.

Familiar Williams theme then, relentlessly explicit, and characters that bring echoes of so many Williams women who have gone before, but how are we to take the play?…

Perhaps a comic variation on the familiar Williams theme is intended (remember Slapstick Tragedy), but the mention of Blanche in this context is a reminder that Williams has always used comedy in his serious plays—particularly verbal comedy (think of Amanda on the telephone, Blanche's conjuring "Mr. Edgar Allan Poe" to describe Stella's apartment). The four women in Creve Coeur lack the urgency of the early Williams heroines and, contrariwise, the comedy fails to penetrate the surface and set up shop in the viscera of the characters. The problem, I suspect, is that there is an idea rather than dramatic substance at the heart of their speeches—conversation and soliloquy alike—and it takes more than the proclamation of crève-coeur to provide a substantial theatrical picnic. (p. 147)

Gerald Weales, "Tennessee's Waltz: Familiar Williams Themes," in Commonweal (copyright © 1979 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVI, No. 5, March 16, 1979, pp. 146-47.

W. Kenneth Holditch

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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

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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 carbon copies of past routines. A vivid caricature of a voracious woman called the Actress Invicta is presented in Williams's florid, Rabelaisian grand manner; but a scene between the narrator and his conservative Southern mother, who is shocked by her son's bohemian ways, is shrill and mechanical. (pp. 8-9)

[Williams] is one of those writers for whom telling all may have a therapeutic effect on his spirit but a dampening result on his art. Written before gay liberation, his major plays required distance from and transformation of his actual experience, and Williams benefited, artistically, from the pressures imposed by social convention. (On one level A Streetcar Named Desire is a homosexual fantasy with Blanche as an effeminate male masked as a magnificently neurotic Southern belle; but American drama can be grateful that Williams didn't write Blanche as a man!) Except for Memoirs, Moise and the World of Reason is Williams's most open personal statement, and yet it has little of the surging erotic comedy or the dynamic tensions of the great partially closed plays.

Memoirs is Williams's ultimate coming out statement, and a vigorous reinforcement of the playwright's belief that the work and the life of a writer are inextricably bound. Like all of Williams's writing, these private revelations are obsessively concerned with sex, but here sexuality offers joy and refuge from isolation without the darker aspects of self-punishment and loss of self that often taint sex in the plays…. There is a serene self-acceptance evident here that represents a marked difference from the tortured, divided, sexually frustrated characters in many of his plays. He seems to have shed the puritanical values that have nagged him for most of his life: at long last, after years in the shadows of his grandfather's rectory, after years of analysis and conflict, Williams seems to be a free spirit, a true, guiltless voluptuary. (p. 10)

Memoirs doesn't change the plays but it compels us to admit their masks and transpositions. Many critics have hinted at the homosexual aura of the plays, pointing out that it is almost always the men who are the sex objects, the sexual saviors and magicians. Now the atmosphere of critical innuendo, the veiled charges, can be dispelled, for Williams has given his critics enough frank details to liberate them as well as himself….

Perhaps it is [his] sense of life's comedy that has saved Williams. Memoirs reveals his mordant sense of humor, his healing irony in the midst of pain, his great capacity for laughter. Williams's recent confessional writing, lively, direct, immediate, nevertheless misses the soaring, lyrical intensity of his best work. Yet an innocence emanates from these revved-up self-portraits; there is something, finally, unspoiled about Williams. As revealed in both the novel and Memoirs, his goal of unwavering dedication to his art and his ambition to be the best writer that he is capable of being, are altogether admirable. Memoirs shows enormous courage. It is a landmark in American letters that enriches our understanding of the work of a great playwright. (p. 11)

[As] he has often said, he identifies more with his women than with his men, but this does not mean that Williams's females are merely effeminate men in disguise, or that Williams is cheating by trying to pass off a character like Blanche as a woman. The millions of viewers and readers who have accepted Blanche as a woman have not been duped by a clever dramatist writing plays in code…. As either gay or straight, she is an outsider, like most of the playwright's characters, a reject from conventional society, and it is this sense of her absolute isolation that Williams creates so powerfully [that] audiences throughout the world have continued to respond to with great empathy. (p. 12)

Plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Period of Adjustment present heterosexual relationships in an unattractive way, but this derision is never the central focus of Williams's work. The playwright may often exalt the male and humiliate the female, but he identifies always with his victims, and so his sympathy is reserved for his hounded, rejected, dishevelled women rather than his cool, self-absorbed Adonises, upon whom he inflicts appalling punishment…. (p. 13)

[Williams] is distinctly a regional writer, steeped in the Southern writer's absorption with the past. The workings of memory, and the collision between a dream of the past and the realities of an increasingly urbanized present provide inspiration for the plays as much as they do for the novels of Faulkner. Williams is writing in the tradition of the Southern "Renaissance."…

Williams, in fact, has exerted far more influence on American drama than he has absorbed from it. His dissection of sexual conflicts anticipated the greater sexual frankness in the plays as well as the films of the sixties and seventies. There is, however, no "school of Williams"—no major writer, or group of writers, has emerged who can claim Williams as a primary inspiration. Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality. Williams has continued, that is, to borrow from and to be influenced by his own work; as critics of the later plays have only too frequently observed, Williams, heedless of external influences, plagiarizes from himself. The later Williams is still nourished by the distinctive dramatic world created in the earliest plays. That world was so spectacularly scaled and intensely realized that Williams's persistent use of it has come to seem like self-parody. In a sense the playwright has been a victim of his own immediately recognizable style.

Tennessee Williams is a great American original whose work does not reflect his times in any direct way. His plays, though, contain social implications insofar as they are a barometer of what Americans will tolerate or respond to in the way of sexual fantasy and insofar as their acceptance by the public tells us something about the public…. But Williams is not interested in being a recorder of public attitudes or social concerns; being among the most private and self-enclosed of famous authors, he writes in order to exorcise his own demons, and he is always triumphantly and inescapably himself. (pp. 16-17)

Foster Hirsch, "The Man and His Work," in his A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams (copyright © 1979 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1979, pp. 3-17.

John Beaufort

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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

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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

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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.


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 15)


Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 2)