Tennessee Williams Analysis

Discussion Topics

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

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

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).


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

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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