Discussion Topics

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Tennessee Williams is often called a poetical playwright. What is poetical about his plays?

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What techniques does Williams use to blend illusion and reality in The Glass Menagerie?

What is the relevance of the symbolic names in A Streetcar Named Desire?

Is Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire Williams’s most fully realized character?

Compare the father-son confrontation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with that in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).

Consider The Night of the Iguana as a play about survival.

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his three dozen collected and uncollected stories, Tennessee Williams wrote two novels, a book of memoirs, a collection of essays, two volumes of poetry, numerous short plays, a screenplay, and more than twenty full-length dramas. Among the most important of his plays are The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and The Night of the Iguana (1961).

Achievements

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Tennessee Williams’s most obvious achievements in literature lie in the field of drama, where he is considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright, a standing supported by two Pulitzer Prizes, a Commonwealth Award, a Medal of Freedom (presented by President Jimmy Carter), and an election in 1952 to a lifetime membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Williams himself, however, felt that his short fiction contained some of his best writing. Indeed, besides stories appearing in his own collections, Williams published stories in many of America’s most prestigious magazines, including The New Yorker and Esquire, and many have been selected for various anthologies, including three in Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories annual anthologies. Williams’s short stories and plays alike dramatize the plight of the “fugitive,” the sensitive soul punished by a harsh, uncaring world; in the stories, however, readers find specific and frequent voice given to a theme and subject only hinted at in Williams’s drama, at least until his later, less memorable, plays: the plight of the homosexual in a bigoted society.

Other Literary Forms

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Besides his plays, Tennessee Williams produced essays, letters, memoirs, music lyrics, original screenplays, poetry, short stories, and novels.

Achievements

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By critical consensus, Tennessee Williams ranks second after Eugene O’Neill among American dramatists. He was greatly influenced by Anton Chekhov in his ability to universalize strongly realized local settings, in his portrayal of frail characters in a cold and alien world, in his frequently superb use of symbol and in his development of a natural structure that does not call attention to itself. Like Chekhov’s best works, Williams’s best plays appear to unfold as naturally as life itself. Williams has been accused at times of “purple” writing, sentimentality, and an overemphasis on violence and depravity. Although such criticism may occasionally be justified, Williams remains one of the most dramatically effective and profoundly perceptive playwrights of the modern theater.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection of critical essays carries an introduction by Bloom that places Williams in the dramatic canon of American drama and within the psychological company of Hart Crane and Arthur Rimbaud. Authors in this collection take traditional thematic and historical approaches, noting Williams’s “grotesques,” his morality, his irony, his work in the “middle years,” and the mythical qualities in his situations and characters.

Crandall, George W. Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. An important bibliographical source.

Falk, Signi Lenea. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Though devoting most of her attention to Williams’s plays, Falk addresses many of the short stories. Falk’s discussions of “One Arm,” “Desire and the Black Masseur,” and “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” are especially interesting. Contains a useful, though dated, bibliography.

Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven: Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Kolin, Philip C. The Tennesse Williams Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A useful guide to Williams and his work. In 160 informative entries, Williams scholars offer the reader a wealth of information.

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995. This first volume of a two-volume biography traces Williams’s life for the first thirty-three years. Draws on previously unpublished letters, journals, and notebooks. Discusses Williams’s focus on how society has a destructive influence on sensitive people and his efforts to change drama into an unrealistic form.

Martin, Robert A., ed. Critical Essays on Tennessee Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. An excellent, accessible collection of criticism of Williams’s works.

Pagan, Nicholas. Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993. Discusses the symbolism of Williams’s characters in relation to his life.

Rader, Dotson. Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. A chatty biography that, while it does not have the virtue of notes or a scholarly biography, does have the appeal of a firsthand, fascinating account, filled with gossip and inside information, to be taken for what it is worth.

Roudané, Matthew C., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains copious amounts of information on Williams and his works.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Reprint. New York: DaCapo Press, 1998. Spoto’s lively chronicle details Williams’s encounters with such diverse influences as the Group Theatre, Frieda and D. H. Lawrence, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Fidel Castro, Hollywood stars, and the homosexual and drug subcultures of Key West. Forty-two pages of notes, bibliography, and index make this study a valuable resource for further scholarship.

Tharpe, Jac, ed. Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977. A collection of fifty-three essays on various aspects of Williams’s art. Many note Williams’s short fiction in passing, and four are fully (or in the main) devoted to the short fiction. Contains a bibliography.

Thompson, Judith. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: P. Lang, 2002. A Jungian analysis of Williams’s plays, focusing on the manifestation of archetypes in his work.

Tischler, Nancy Marie Patterson. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A well-known Williams scholar brings together the playwright’s biography and critical assessments of his works to provide students with a thorough introduction and appreciation of Williams’s achievements.

Vannatta, Dennis. Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. The only book-length study of Williams’s short fiction. Contains a selection of essays concerning Williams’s short fiction by various scholars and a selection of Williams’s own letters, essays, and reviews.

Williams, Dakin, and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1983. One of the more bizarre duos in biographical writing, Williams (Tennessee’s brother) and Mead (Tennessee’s childhood friend) produce a credible biography in a highly readable, well-indexed work. Their account of the playwright also helps to capture his almost schizophrenic nature. A solid index and extensive research assist the serious scholar and general reader.

Williams, Tennessee. Five O’Clock Angel. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Windham, Donald. As if. . . Verona, Italy: D. Windham, 1985. This reminiscence of Williams’s one-time friend portrays the writer as a man of bizarre contradictions and reveals in telling vignettes the downward spiral of his self-destructive lifestyle.

Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Includes a chapter on Williams’s gay short stories; claims the most astonishing thing about the stories is their lack of special pleading, that while they are not graphic, they are not apologetic for their homosexuality. Provides an extended analysis of the story “Hard Candy.”

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