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Tennessee Williams is acknowledged as one of the 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 these works as well as The Glass Menagerie (1944) and The Night of the Iguana (1961). 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 notes, ”Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Child Escapes into Writing
Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. His mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, prim daughter of an Episcopal minister, had been ”swept off her feet” by robust salesman Cornelius Coffin Williams, descended from a line of East Tennessee frontiersmen and political officeholders. During Williams’s early years, his father was on the road a great deal, so he, his mother, and his older sister, Rose, lived in the rectory— or living quarters attached to a church—with his maternal grandparents. The family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, when young Williams entered school.
An early childhood plagued by illness—a near-fatal bout with diphtheria left him convinced that he had suffered irreparable heart damage—kept him from the company of other children. A weak physical condition, combined with the influence of his delicate and protective mother, earned him the ridicule of both other children and his boisterous, highly masculine father, who, according to Williams, nicknamed his son ”Miss Nancy.”
When Williams was eight years old, his father’s promotion to a managerial position uprooted the family from the safe and serene world of small-town Mississippi. Negative effects of the move to industrialized St. Louis were felt by Williams, his mother, and his sister. His brother, Dakin, was born soon after the relocation. A few years later, the unhappy young Williams turned to writing as a means of both escape and recognition. Through poetry and short stories, he won prizes from advertising contests, school publications, and women’s clubs.
The Beginnings of a Career
Williams’s first published work came in 1927. The essay answering the question ”Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” was awarded third prize in a contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine. The next year his short story ”The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in Weird Tales, he received thirty-five dollars.
In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri, where he won small prizes for poetry and prose, pledged a fraternity, and discovered alcohol as a cure for the extreme shyness that had thus far kept him in virtual isolation. When he failed the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a military officer training program, during his third year, his father withdrew him from school and set him to work in the International Shoe Company warehouse. Williams’s days were spent in the monotony and drudgery of dusting shoes and typing order forms; during the nights, he turned to writing. The tedium and repression of his job led to a nervous breakdown in 1935, from which he recovered by spending a year in Memphis with his sympathetic grandparents.
During the year in Memphis, Williams was introduced to drama. A farce about two sailors on shore leave, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! (1935), was his first produced play. Returning to Saint Louis to enroll at Washington University, he had decided that writing would be his career, and he proceeded through the next several years writing a number of works, such as Candles in the Sun (1937), Orpheus Descending (1937), and The Long Goodbye (1940). However, his breakthrough would not be staged until nearly a decade after his debut.
In 1944 Williams captured the public’s attention with his first major play, The Glass Menagerie. Tom, the narrator of the play, dreams of being a writer and is said to represent 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 she hopes 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, as his father had before him, to pursue his own destiny. The simplicity of The Glass Menagerie is counterbalanced by lyrical language and a great deal of 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 the typical Williams heroine in that she is too fragile to live in the real world. Laura 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 in 1947 with A Streetcar Named Desire, which many critics consider his best work. The play begins with the arrival of Blanche DuBois at the home of her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, 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 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 A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams uses Blanche and Stanley to illustrate conflicts that recur in his plays: illusion versus truth, weakness versus strength, and the power of sexuality to both destroy and redeem.
Although none of Williams’s later plays attained the universal critical and popular acclaim of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, several works from the 1940s and 1950s are considered significant achievements in American drama. In Summer and Smoke (1947), Williams continues his exploration of the tension between the spirit and the flesh begun in A Streetcar Named Desire. In The Rose Tattoo (1950), one of his most lighthearted plays, he celebrates the life-affirming power of sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is set on a Mississippi delta plantation, revolves around lies and self-deception. This play involves some of Williams’s most memorable characters: Brick, a homosexual, who drinks to forget his guilt over the death of a lover; Maggie, his wife, who struggles ”like a cat on a hot tin roof’ to save their marriage; and Big Daddy, whose impending death from cancer prompts his family to compete for the inheritance. 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 gain critical and popular favor.
Fading from Glory
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 (1956), which are filled with violence, grotesquerie, and black comedy, reflect Williams’s traumatic emotional state at the time of their composition. In his Memoirs (1975), he referred to the 1960s as his ”Stoned Age,” and he explained in an interview that ”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. Writer Gore Vidal said in 1976: ”Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues …. 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 that caused critics to denounce Williams’s later work, but the absence of freshness and dramatic soundness in his treatment of these themes.
Williams was subject to much negative and even hostile criticism during his lifetime. Many of the qualities for which he is faulted are praised in his other works. His lyricism and use of symbols are hallmarks of such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire, but in other plays, critics accuse him of being overly sentimental or heavy-handed. Williams is lauded for his compassionate understanding of the spiritually downtrodden, but he has also been accused of crossing the line between sympathetic interest and perverse sensationalism. 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 are quick to point out that the writer’s contributions to American theater has been remarkable. He died in New York on February 24, 1983.
Works in Literary Context
Local color (also known as regionalism) refers to literature that hones in on a specific region. The work may be written in a local dialect or overly concerned with regional customs, landmarks, or topography. As filtered through the author’s worldview, the resulting work is often imbued with a strong sense of sentimentality or nostalgia. Williams often used local color to conjure a strong sense of the southern regions in which his works take place.
The Southern Gothic genre is an American development upon the English Gothic fiction genre, which dates back to Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). American Southern Gothic literature picked up on the gloomy combination of horror and romance that defined its English equivalent, but used these elements more to comment on the strangeness of the American South than to create suspense. Writers of Southern Gothic works also use the uniquely grotesque character of the genre to draw attention to social issues by depicting grotesque stereotypes. Among the defining writers of the Southern Gothic genre are William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, and Williams.
Works in Critical Context
A Streetcar Named Desire
The tremendous reputation of A Streetcar Named Desire did not take long to earn. Upon its first staging in 1947, the play was praised by critics and adored by theatergoers. A review in The New York Times wastes no time in stating the critic’s evaluation of the play. The review opens by declaring, ”Tennessee Williams has brought us a superb drama.” The reviewer goes on to describe the playwright as ”a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.” The raves of The New York Times were echoed in the New York Daily News, The Saturday Review, and The New Republic. However, some periodicals took issue with the play’s frankly sexual themes, which many considered shocking at the time. The New York Journal American sarcastically referred to the play as, ”The Glands Menagerie,” while declaring its subject matter ”unpleasant.” A similarly mocking review also appeared in Partisan Review, but such assessments were few. Overall, A Streetcar Named Desire was greeted with applause from the critical community.
Suddenly, Last Summer
Some of Williams’s early works like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roofwere often deemed shocking for their depictions of sexuality, but in terms of the sheer bizarre, they could not compare to the playwright’s Suddenly, Last Summer. Williams expected the play, which sports one of the weirdest climaxes in his catalog, to be too much for critics to stomach. He said that he expected to be ”critically tarred and feathered and ridden on a fence rail out of the New York theatre.” Much to Williams’s surprise, the tense, one-act play was reviewed quite favorably. A year after its stage debut, a film version of Suddenly, Last Summer (with a screenplay by celebrated writer Gore Vidal) was released. In spite of the film’s all-star cast (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift), the film received some mixed notices. The New York Times wrote, ”Whatever horrifying import there may have been in Tennessee Williams’s short play…has been drained out of it through tedious talking and a terminal showdown that is irritatingly obscure.” Variety was similarly critical, comparing the film unfavorably to the play: ”Nothing that’s been added is an improvement on the original; they stretch the seams of the original fabric without strengthening the seamy aspects of the story.”
- Adler, Thomas P. “A Streetcar Named Desire”: The Moth and the Lantern. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
- Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
- Donohue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Ungar, 1964.
- Griffin, Alice. Understanding Tennessee Williams. Columbia, S.C.: Univeristy of South Carolina Press, 1995.
- Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else is An Audience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
- Leavitt, Richard. The World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Putnam, 1978.
- Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee. New York: Crown, 1995.
- Pagan, Nicholas. Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
- Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
- Williams, Edwina Dakin and Lucy Freeman. Remember Me to Tom. New York: Putnam’s, 1963.
- Atkinson, Brooks. ”First Night at the Theater.” The New York Times (December 4, 1947).
- Crowther, Bosley. ”Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).” Variety (January 15, 1959).
- McCarthy, Mary. ”Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life: A Streetcar Named Desire.” Partisan Review 15 (March 1948): 49-53.
- Nathan, George Jean. ”The Streetcar Isn’t Drawn by Pegasus.” New York Journal American (December 15, 1947): 14.
- ”Suddenly, Last Summer.” The New York Times (December 23, 1959).
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