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 her fantasy world of records and her glass animal collection. Tom then leaves his family, following in his father's footsteps. The simplicity of Menagerie's plot is counterbalanced by lyrical language and profuse symbolism, which some critics consider overwhelming. However, this emotionally compelling play was extremely popular, and Williams followed its formula in his later work. Laura is a typical Williams heroine in that she is too fragile to live in the real world. Laura's and Amanda's escapes from the world through fantasy and living in the past, respectively, foreshadow later plays where the characters escape through alcohol and sex.
Williams established an international reputation with his next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which many critics consider his best work. The play begins with the arrival of Blanche at the home of her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley, a lusty, crude, working-class man. Blanche has presided over the decay and loss of her family's estate and has witnessed the suicide of her young husband. She comes to Stella and Stanley seeking comfort and security, but clashes with Stanley. While Stella is in the hospital giving birth, Stanley rapes Blanche, causing her to lose what little is left of her sanity. At the end, Blanche is committed to a sanitarium. In Streetcar, Williams uses Blanche and Stanley to illustrate dichotomies and conflicts, several of which recur in his plays: illusion vs. truth, weakness vs. strength, and the power of sexuality to both destroy and redeem. But he does not allow either character to become one-dimensional or to dominate the audience's sympathies. Stanley's brutishness is balanced by his love for Stella, his dislike of hypocrisy, and his justifiable anger at Blanche's mockery of him and her intrusion on his home. Blanche's hypocrisy—her pretentious refinement despite her promiscuity—is balanced by the audience's knowledge of the ordeals she has endured and by her gentleness and capacity for love. Williams's skillful balancing of Stanley and Blanche and the qualities each represents, both in Streetcar's dialogue and plot and on a symbolic level, has provided subject matter for many scholarly essays and has earned the admiration of critics. Some find that Williams's portrayal of strengths and weaknesses in both characters is ambiguous and detracts from the play, but most contend that his thorough character development heightens dramatic interest in the conflicts they represent.
Although none of Williams's later plays attained the universal critical and popular acclaim of the first two, several works from the 1940s and 1950s are considered significant achievements in American drama. In Summer and Smoke (1948), Williams continues his exploration of the tension between the spirit and the flesh begun in Streetcar, and in The Rose Tattoo (1951), one of his most lighthearted plays, he celebrates the life-affirming power of sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is mainly concerned with questions of truth, lies, and self-deception, and contains some of Williams's most memorable characters: Brick, a weak man who drinks to forget guilt; Maggie, his strong wife who is determined to save them both; and Big Daddy, whom critics see as a dramatization of Williams's own father. The Night of the Iguana, which Williams said is about "how to get beyond despair and still live," was his last play to win a major prize and heralded the end of Williams's period of critical and popular favor.
Later in his career the "emotional currents" of Williams's life were at a low ebb. Such plays as Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), which are filled with violence, grotesquerie, and black comedy, reflected Williams's traumatic emotional state. In his Memoirs (1975), Williams referred to the 1960s as his "Stoned Age," and he explained in an interview that "after 1955, specifically after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof … I needed [drugs, caffeine, and alcohol] to give me the physical energy to work…. But I am a compulsive writer. I have tried to stop working and I am bored to death." Williams continued to produce plays until his death, but critical reception became increasingly negative. Much of Williams's later work consisted of rewriting his earlier plays and stories, and his new material showed little artistic development, according to critics. Gore Vidal said in 1976, "Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes…. I am not aware that any new information (or feeling?) has got through to him in the [past] twenty-eight years." It was not only a lack of new themes which caused critics to denounce Williams's late work, but the absence of freshness and dramatic soundness in his treatment of these themes. Gerald Weales, a noted Williams scholar, voiced the critical consensus when he said, "Audiences have withdrawn from Williams—I suspect, not because his style has changed or his concerns altered, but because in his desperate need to cry out he has turned away from the sturdy dramatic containers which once gave the cry resonance and has settled for pale imitations of familiar stage images … and has substituted lyric argument for dramatic language."
Williams was subject to much negative and even hostile criticism for a writer of his stature. Many of the qualities for which he is faulted in his less successful works are directly related to those for which he is praised in his earlier successes. His lyricism and use of symbols are hallmarks of such plays as Streetcar, but in other plays critics accuse him of being overly sentimental or heavy-handed when he allows symbols to take the place of characterization through dialogue. Williams is lauded for his compassionate understanding of the spiritually downtrodden, but he has sometimes been accused of crossing the line between sympathetic interest and perverse sensationalism in his portrayal of these characters. Although critics are nearly unanimous in expressing their disappointment and sadness that the mastery of Williams's early work was not continued in his later plays, they were quick to point out upon Williams's death that his contributions to American theater had been remarkable. This opinion was expressed in an editorial in The Nation: "The plays for which Williams will be remembered … are not the 'first act of some mysteriously unfinished life in art—they are that life. They transformed the American stage, they purified our language, they changed the way we see ourselves. None of his later plays, however erratic they may have been, diminish that accomplishment by so much as a hair."
In this volume commentary on Tennessee Williams is focused on his play A Streetcar Named Desire.