A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Tennessee Williams

“Tennessee Williams Explored” will celebrate the playwright in a festival from April to July at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  In addition to new productions of three Williams classics, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie, five one-act plays, three of them premieres, will be staged, as well as a reading of Williams’s letters, and the East Coast premiere of the opera version of “Streetcar.”  In London, Michael Grandage’s acclaimed production of Suddenly Last Summer opens at the Albery Theatre on May 14, starring Diana Rigg as Mrs. Venable and Victoria Hamilton as Catherine.  At the Washington festival, opening April 21, Patricia Clarkson portrays Blanche duBois in “Streetcar,” Sally Field plays Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” and Mary Stuart Masterson is Maggie and Dana Ivey Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Kathleen Chalfant will be seen in the one-acts.

Life and Works

Thomas Lanier Williams was born on 26 March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, where the family resided in the Episcopal rectory of his maternal grandfather.  Among the various versions he would offer as to how he acquired the name of Tennessee, I like best the version he told me: he was descended from "pioneer Tennessee stock" through his father, Cornelius. (In another version, fellow students at college gave him the name because of his Southern accent.) Throughout his life Tennessee was devoted to his sister, Rose, and cool towards his younger brother, Dakin, a lawyer of whom the author paints an unflattering portrait as Goober in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."  The same play reflects the difficulty Williams had in his relationship with his father, which he movingly recounts in his Collected Stories.

 His youthful love for a neighbor, Hazel Kramer, "the greatest extra-familial love of my life," he recalls in his autobiography, Memoirs, ended abruptly when his father refused to let young Tom attend the same college as Hazel.  He entered the University of Missouri in 1929, but when he failed ROTC and his father refused to pay further tuition, he left college and returned to St. Louis to work as a warehouse clerk for the International Shoe Company.  After a breakdown from combining working days and writing nights, he entered Washington University but soon transferred to the University of Iowa where he studied play writing.  Before he graduated in 1938, he submitted an early draft of "Not About Nightingales" as a classroom assignment to write a one-act play on an event reported in the newspaper.  He chose the report of a prisoners' strike over food, a protest that led to the deaths of the principal strikers.

As staged on Broadway by Trevor Nunn, "Nightingales" is a powerful work of social protest.  A corrupt warden, impressively portrayed by Corin Redgrave, orders the ringleaders of the strike to be confined to a cubicle where the heat is increasingly turned up until some of them literally roast to death.  In 1939 Williams sent four of his one-acts (collected as “Twenty-Seven Wagons full of Cotton” ) to a play contest sponsored by the Group Theater, won the prize, and acquired an agent, Audrey Wood.   His first play, "Battle of Angels," opened in Boston and closed  soon after. Williams reports in his autobiography that the play "included, among other tactical errors, a mixture of super-religiosity and hysterical sexuality coexisting in a central character.  The critics and police censors seemed to regard this play as a theatrical counterpart of the bubonic plague surfacing in their city."  But the fact that he was a professional playwright drew offers from Hollywood, where he worked for MGM.  Declining assignments to write scripts for Lana Turner and for Margaret O'Brien, he offered the studio instead a screenplay called "The Gentleman Caller," an early working of "The Glass Menagerie."  They turned it down.

"The Glass Menagerie" opened on Broadway in March 1945, and Williams was immediately hailed as an important new voice in the theater.  His most popular play, centering on the Wingfield (read Williams) family, it has been produced on stages around the world.  With humor and compassion, it transforms a central incident -- the visit of a dinner guest -- into a universal revelation about parent-child conflict and brother-sister bonding.  The mother, Amanda, is first in a line of memorable women created by Williams. The reduced circumstances in which the family must live (the father is a telephone man "who fell in love with long distance" and disappeared)  force Amanda to turn more and more to the past, when she was a popular young girl, with a host of "gentlemen callers."  She is disappointed in both her children, son Tom, who works in a shoe warehouse to support the family, and daughter Laura, a shy, fragile girl interested only in her collection of little glass animals, her "glass menagerie."  Williams describes Amanda in his introduction to "the characters" in the play: "There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at."

"A Streetcar Named Desire" followed in 1947, winning both the Pulitzer and the Drama  Critics Circle prizes.  Blanche duBois is one of a number of Williams characters who is an outsider, a displaced person, a visitor who is ill at ease in new and hostile surroundings, like Val in "Orpheus Descending" or Kilroy  in "Camino Real."  Delicate and sensitive, yet with a questionable past, Blanche resorts to paper lanterns to disguise the harsh light of reality, and prefers lies to truth, lies that state what should be rather than what is.  She is no match for coarse, brutal Stanley, whom her sister has married and whose small New Orleans apartment is Blanche's last refuge.  When Stella defends her union with the virile Stanley, Blanche states, "What you are talking about is brutal desire - just - Desire! - the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old  narrow street and down another . . . ." “Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car?" asks Stella.  Blanche replies, "It brought me here," in one of Williams' many lines that have implications beyond the literal meaning.

Alma Winemiller in "Summer and Smoke" is a frustrated young woman in a small Southern town in the days before World War I.  Her insistence that the spiritual values should dominate in a love relationship is bound to clash with her neighbor John's belief that the physical is all-important, although Alma and John are attracted to each other.  Her frustration that prevents her from physical expression leads John first to a Latin dancer and then to a young music pupil of Alma's.  By the time John realizes that Alma's "Puritanical ice" conceals "flame, mistaken for ice," it is too late.  He is engaged to Nellie.  Alma, veering from one extreme to another, flirts with a stranger in the very park where she and John used to meet as children.  Although the original production in 1948 was not well received, an off-Broadway revival directed by Jose Quintero four years later, with Geraldine Page as Alma, was a triumph.  Ms. Page also starred in the film version.

Although there is humor in all the plays, "The Rose Tattoo" and "Period of Adjustment" are Williams's only comedies.  Set in an immigrant community on the Gulf Coast, "The Rose Tattoo" leans heavily on symbolism incorporating all aspects of the rose, the name of Williams's beloved sister.   Rosa delle Rose, an attractive and superstitious Sicilian widow, devoted to the memory of her dead husband, meets a Sicilian truck driver.  Before their planned assignation, and having learned that her husband had a rose tattooed on his chest, the trucker gets a similar tattoo.  "Period of Adjustment" concerns two couples; a pair on their honeymoon ,she sexually timid and he impotent, arrive on Christmas eve to visit the man's former buddy, who is in the midst of a fierce domestic imbroglio.  Both comedies became films.

"Camino Real" (1953), in which the central event is a visit by the hero, Kilroy, to an unnamed Latin American country, is described by Williams as a dream play, an allegory "of the time and world I live in."  Like a dream, events blend into one another, and characters drawn from literature and life drift in and out, to song and dance, while Gutman, a hotel proprietor, acts as an interlocutor introduces the "blocks" or scenes. The symbols, says Williams, are "drawn from the great vocabulary of images" in our "conscious and unconscious minds."

 Don Quixote and Sancho Panza begin the action. The setting consists of a public square with a dried-up fountain and two hotels opposite to one another, the exclusive Siete Mares and the Ritz Men Only, a flophouse. The characters Kilroy encounters include Byron, Marguerite Gautier (Camille), and Casanova, as well as a Gypsy and her daughter.  At the end Kilroy sums up his experiences as being "stewed, screwed, and tattooed on the Camino Real."  Although the original production was too realistic for a dream play, a revival a few years ago by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Swan Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon captured the atmosphere Williams sought to achieve.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,"(1955) "Sweet Bird of  Youth" (1959) and "The Night of the Iguana" (1960) are regarded by many as Williams' best plays.  All three were made into successful films, the first two starring Paul Newman. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" concerns the Pollitt family and is set on their large Southern plantation.  Big Daddy, the paterfamilias, is returning from a famous cancer clinic where he has gone for a diagnosis.  Gathered to welcome him home are his elder son Goober, a lawyer, and his wife Mae, with their five children, and his favored younger son, Brick, married to Maggie, the "cat" of the title, with whom he is at odds over the death of his best friend.  Although the misunderstanding of the married couple is not resolved, the central and more interesting issue is the misunderstanding between father and son.  It comes to a head in a scene between the two that is pure theater, as shattering to the audience as to the participants.  Much of the imagery is drawn from games, as Brick is a former football hero.  But as he admits to Big Daddy, Time is the real winner: "Time just outran me, Big Daddy -- got there first."  After recalling how Brick as a child played "wild games," Big Mamma reflects, "Time goes by so fast.  Nothin' can outrun it.  Death commences too early -- almost before you're half-acquainted with life -- you meet with the other. . . ."

The passing of time also is the theme of "Sweet Bird of Youth," the title suggesting the flight of youth.  Fading film star Alexandra Del Lago, known as the Princess, is fleeing from the bad reviews she anticipates will greet her comeback film.  She is accompanied by a young male pickup, Chance Wayne, who drives her to a hotel in his Southern home town so that he can meet with his sweetheart, Heavenly, the daughter of a local Senator, the ruthless Boss Finley.  Boss Finley never accepted low-born Chance as suitable for his daughter, and now threatens Chance with castration if he persists in seeing Heavenly.  The political rally for Finley, who claims God spoke to him, both satirizes and reveals the inherent danger in such appeals to mass hysteria.  When the Princess learns in a phone conversation with a columnist that her comeback was a triumph, she tells Chance the truth about himself:  time has passed him by, just as she knows it will soon do to her, but she will enjoy the interim.  Chance urges her to tell the columnist about him.  Princess: "Talk about a beach boy I picked up for pleasure, distraction from panic?  Now, when the nightmare is over? . . . .Chance, you've gone past something you couldn't afford to go past; your time, your youth, you've passed it   It's all you had, and you've had it."  Although she offers to take him with her as she departs, he refuses, and alone, awaits Finley's gang of ruffians.

The Night of the Iguana" celebrates human endurance and dignity in the person of Hannah Jelkes, a spinster of forty, who accompanies her aged grandfather, a poet, to the Mexican mountain-top resort high above the sea where Larry Shannon, a former minister, is having a breakdown.  Forced out of his congregation ten years earlier for "fornication" and seducing a young parishoner, Larry has been conducting tours around the world, and has left the busload of teachers he was ushering through Mexico to flee to the hotel and his friends, the proprietors Maxine and Fred.  In a long talk on the verandah, Hannah is able to save Shannon from his despair by relating her experience in overcoming hers.  The iguana, captured and tied up by the house servants, Shannon sees as representing himself, and the others -- confined and unable to escape.  But as she persuades him to set it free, it is implied that there might be freedom for them as well.

After 1960, there ensued what Williams referred to as his "stoned" age.  He continued to write every morning, fortified by black coffee and cigarettes, and his output, though large, was below the level of his earlier work.  The best plays of his later period are "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" (1980) in which F. Scott Fitzgerald visits his wife Zelda in the mental institution where she is confined and in which later she dies when it burns down, and "Two Character Play" also called "Out Cry" (1973), about a brother and sister who are actors locked in a theater and performing the play they have been rehearsing, based on their earlier lives.

The greatness of Williams lies in his writing; the plays are dramatic poetry, in that the symbolism and the rhythm and the lyricism of the lines are all contained in dialogue that sounds like everyday speech. His characters are unforgettable, unique individuals, but also universally understood.  He insisted on theatricalism -- sound effects like the New Orleans jazz and the voices Blanche hears in "Streetcar, " or the ticking clock in the last scene of "Sweet Bird of Youth," when Chance says, "I didn't know there was a clock in this room," and the Princess replies, "I guess there's a clock in every room people live in.”

When Williams suffered a breakdown, his brother Dakin confined him to a mental institution, from which Tom soon escaped.  Troubled by cataracts throughout his adult life, he had several operations, but nothing helped.  It was trouble with his eyes that inadvertently led to his death.  In 1983, alone in a hotel room in Manhattan, he undid a bottle of eyedrops with his teeth, and holding the top between his teeth, bent his head back to insert the drops in his eyes, swallowed the cap, and choked to death.

Note: The above information is from my book published in 1995, by the University of South Carolina Press, Understanding Tennessee Williams.