Tennessee Williams

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tennessee Williams 1911–1983

(Pseudonym of Thomas Lanier Williams) American dramatist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and scriptwriter. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 111.

Along with Arthur Miller, Williams is universally acknowledged as one of the two greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era. His stature is based almost entirely upon works he completed during the first half of his career. He earned Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for The Glass Menagerie (1945), Streetcar, Cat, and The Night of the Iguana (1961). His later plays are considered by critics to be derivative of and less successful than his earlier works. Williams's lyrical style and his thematic concerns are distinctive in American theater; his material came almost exclusively from his inner life and was little influenced by other dramatists or by contemporary events. One critic noted, "Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality."

Recurrent in Williams's work is the conflict between reality and illusion, which Williams sometimes equates with a conflict between truth and beauty. A whole range of thematic concerns center around human sexuality: sex as life-affirming, contrasted with death and decay; sex as redemptive, contrasted with sex as sin; sex as an escape from the world, and sex as a way of being at one with the world. Williams followed D. H. Lawrence in attaching a cosmic significance to sex, and audiences and critics initially saw his "preoccupation" with sex and violence as perversion. Williams's protagonists are usually lonely, vulnerable dreamers and misfits who confront stronger, more worldly characters. Williams shows the attractive and unattractive qualities of both types of people, but critics agree that he identifies more with the "lost souls," exemplified by Blanche DuBois of Streetcar. While the vision of human nature and the world usually presented in Williams's plays ranges from bleak to sordid, in some he offers comfort in the form of a transitory moment of human communication—the type which Blanche ironically refers to in Streetcar as "the kindness of strangers."

Williams once told an interviewer, "My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life." Critics and biographers have made much use of Williams's family background as a means of analyzing his plays. Williams's father, Cornelius, was a coarse businessman from a prominent Tennessee family who traveled constantly and moved his family several times during the first decade of Williams's life. Biographers say that Cornelius called his son "Miss Nancy" because the child preferred books to sports. His mother, Edwina, was a southern belle and the daughter of a clergyman; Williams portrays her in his plays as domineering and possessive. Williams was very close to his older sister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of her life. His insight into lonely, outcast characters, as well as the warring inclinations towards Puritanism and liberality demonstrated in his plays, is often traced to his family life.

Williams's most explicit dramatic portrayal of his family occurs in The Glass Menagerie . The play is set in St. Louis, where the Williams family lived after 1918. Tom, the narrator of the play, dreams of being a writer and represents Williams. Tom's sister, Laura, is crippled both physically and socially. His mother, Amanda, is a fading southern belle who lives in the past. The action of the play concerns Amanda persuading Tom to bring to the house a "gentleman caller," whom they hope will marry Laura and provide for her future. Tom brings a man who is already engaged, upsetting his mother and causing Laura to retreat more deeply into...

(The entire section is 24,765 words.)