Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Missouri, the grandson of an Episcopal clergyman and the son of a travelling salesman. The family moved to St. Louis, but he could not settle down to city life, and he chose the name 'Tennessee' to celebrate the Deep South where most of his plays are set. In 1938 he entered the University of Iowa, and in 1940 received a Rockefeller Fellowship for Battle of Angels, later rewritten as Orpheus Descending (1957), the first of the many plays, stories and poems Williams was to publish. Williams was awarded Pulitzer Prizes in 1948 and 1955.

Williams did not attempt to reproduce everyday reality on the stage, but was thoroughly theatrical in his approach. When he envisaged a play he saw not only his characters in his plot, but also his actors in his stage-set, under his lights and with a background soundtrack of his devising. In conversation with J. Devlin [1] Williams said he was, 'creating imaginary worlds into which I can retreat from the real world because I've never made any kind of adjustment to the real world’. The same might be said of his characters, many of whom have their own imaginary worlds.

Much of Williams's work has its roots in the stresses of his early family life; for example the fact that he had a physically disabled sister is reflected in his first critical and commercial success, The Glass Menagerie (1945), which many consider his best play. Amanda Wingfield lives with her son Tom and her disabled daughter Laura in a setting described by Williams, who characteristically asked for a fire-escape as part of the stage set, as 'one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres'. Tom is a writer, who has returned in memory to his family, Amanda lives on memories of the past, and Laura retreats from the real world into her imagination (through her collection of glass animals) to find safety and contentment. Tom and Amanda persuade a ‘gentleman caller’ to come to the house to meet Laura, and in the scene between the two Laura is gradually brought out of herself. She is made to laugh, and dance, and they even kiss - before he tells her that he is to marry someone else.

Williams's control of dialogue is crucial to The Glass Menagerie, the four characters' words being carefully orchestrated: the nostalgic chatter of Amanda, the halting hesitation and final silence of Laura, the smooth confident clichés of the ‘gentleman caller’, and the fluent speeches of Tom the narrator who, significantly, has the playwright's first name. The play ends at the only moment of real communication. Amanda, we're told, finds 'dignity and tragic beauty' as her silly chatter is finally silenced, while Laura merely smiles.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is much tougher and more violent than The Glass Menagerie. Indeed violence, especially sexual violence, became increasingly prominent in Williams's work as his career progressed, being particularly apparent in the pederasty and cannibalism of Suddenly Last Summer (1958). With reference to this violence Williams wrote: 'I prefer tenderness but brutality seems to make better copy'. [2] On another occasion, however, he said that the violence was the result of his fear of the world, and that his plays were 'defiant aggressions', which gave him a cathartic release.

In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella, and Stella's husband Stanley, and the whole play is concerned with the contrast between Blanche and Stanley. Blanche has the vulnerability of Laura Wingfield, and like her mother, hangs on to memories of being a Southern Belle. Stanley is violently physical, and as enraged by Blanche's affectations as she is shocked and fascinated by his physicality. There is almost a flirtation as well as an antipathy between them, and the tension leads eventually to rape.

At the end of the play, and much against her sister's wishes, a doctor and a matron from a state institution come to take Blanche away, in a scene in which the theatricality of Williams's vision is clear and masterly:

The 'Varsouviana' [A Mexican tune] is playing distantly.

Blanche rushes into the bedroom. Lurid reflections appear on the walls in odd, sinuous shapes. The 'Varsouviana' is filtered into weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle.

Matron: Hello, Blanche.

The greeting is echoed and re-echoed by other mysterious voices behind the walls, as if reverberated through a canyon of rock.

As they take her away, Blanche holds tight to the doctor's arm and says:-

'Whoever you are, - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.'

Summer and Smoke (1948) has similarities with The Glass Menagerie, but the symbolism which was so delicately handled in The Glass Menagerie seems too heavy-handed, and Summer and Smoke never enjoyed the same success.

The Rose Tattoo (1951) carries this heavy use of symbols even further, to the extent that it seems almost to take over the play. In Camino Real (1953) this is exactly what happens; symbols and theatrical effects swamp the whole plot, which is based on rather a puzzling hotchpotch of good and bad.

Williams gave up symbolism in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which although in many ways a highly successful, and perhaps truthful play, could be said to be flawed by being too complex, with too many disparate, incompletely developed themes. As well as the issue of Brick's relationship with Maggie, the ‘cat’, there is the issue of his alcoholism, and Big Daddy's cancer, and at the end, of the family greedily fighting over the estate.

In Act II of the play Williams writes,

The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent - fiercely charged! - interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.

'Fiercely charged' certainly defines the play, and 'flickering' suggests its underdevelopment.

Williams's later plays are not considered so successful as the earlier ones. Orpheus Descending (1957) is brilliantly written but dramatically flawed. Suddenly Last Summer is beautifully written and has the brightest imagery, but, as has been noted above, is extremely violent. Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), a drama on the theme of youth's transience, is rather melodramatic.

Drugs and alcohol played a large part in the final years of Tennessee Williams's life and by the late seventies other playwrights were claiming the attention of the American public. But the gentle poetic symbolism of The Glass Menagerie, the powerful and complete theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the sheer honesty and power of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof have earned Williams a lasting place in the history of American theatre.

References:
1. Devlin, Albert J. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. University Press of Mississippi. 1986.
2. Lumley, Fredrick. New Trends in 20th Century Drama: A Survey Since Ibsen and Shaw. Barrie & Jenkins. 1972.

Selected works: American Blues (1939); The Glass Menagerie (1945); A Streetcar Named Desire (1947); One Arm And Other Stories (1948); Summer And Smoke (1948 ); The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950 ); The Rose Tattoo (1951 ); Camino Real (1953); Hard Candy, A Book of Stories (1954); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); In the Winter of Cities (1956); Baby Doll (1956); Orpheus Descending (1957); Suddenly Last Summer (1958); Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); A Period of Adjustment (1960 ); The Night of the Iguana (1962); The Milk Train Does Not Stop Here Any More (1962); The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964); Slapstick Tragedy (1966); The Knightly Quest (1967); Kingdom of Earth (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) (1967); In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969); Dragon Country (1970); Small Craft Warnings (1973); Out Cry (1973); Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974); Flee, Flee This Bad Hotel (1974); Moise and The World of Reason (1975); Memoirs (1975); The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976); This Is (An Entertainment) (1976); Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977); Vieux Carré (1978); Where I Live: Selected Essays (1978); A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur (1978); Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980); Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis? (1981); Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981); The Bag People (1982); 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other Short Plays (1982); It Happened the Day the Sun Rose (1982); A House Not Meant To Stand (1982); Collected Stories (1985); Five O'clock Angel (1990).

Author: Hugh Croydon

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