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date: 14 June 2024

Williams, Tennesseelocked

Williams, Tennesseelocked

  • John A. BertoliniJohn A. BertoliniDepartment of English and American Literatures, Middlebury College


Tennessee Williams’s career as a playwright followed the traditional trajectory—from parental objection and the confinements of middle-class life and small-town mentality to the struggle for success, the achievement and flourishing of that success and worldwide fame, followed by drug and alcohol abuse, to less favor from his muse, and finally to death in a hotel room. Williams’s writings sing for the individual soul in torment and isolation. His protagonists hang desperate with loneliness, in frenzied pursuit of the carnal as a stay against aloneness and death. They use language seemingly to decorate reality, but actually they are attempting to protect themselves from it. They border on hysteria, loss of control, loss of self-possession. Violence lurks near them always, or menaces them; it finally destroys possibility for them, when it does not destroy their actual bodies.

Much of Williams’s imaginative output, both the dramatic and the fictional, reworks material from his experience of his own family. Indeed, it was not until he dramatized his family in The Glass Menagerie (1944)—so closely based on his own family that he gave the character based on himself his own name, “Tom”—that he had a clear success on stage. It also matters that his family was southern, for everything that the South meant by way of traditions, codes of manners, behavior, dress, conduct, and a way of looking at the world provided for him a whole system with which he could make his individual characters clash. His next hit play, A Streetcar Named Desire, gave American Literature two immortal characters: Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski, two individualized archetypes—refined feminine gentility and masculine animal vitality—who play out a tragic dance that leads to Blanche’s destruction, leaving her dependent “on the kindness of strangers.” With 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams completed the triumvirate of his most highly regarded plays. Williams knew he had created two more memorable characters: Maggie the cat and Big Daddy, whose determination not to accept his own mortality was meant by Williams to signal that he was writing his own version of King Lear. Both Streetcar and Cat were directed by Elia Kazan, a collaboration that resulted in another Broadway success, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Williams’s last Broadway success, The Night of the Iguana, recapitulated almost all of his major themes: the impoverished poet at odds with his society, now grown into an old and saintly figure who meets his end serenely; the necessity for tolerance and kindness where unconventional sexual needs express themselves; the desire for human connection to overcome the confinement of the self in loneliness; the longing for freedom and transcendence of the earthly prison; the transient status of life’s sojourners.

The succession of failed productions of his subsequent plays in New York, the site of his previous theatrical triumphs, could be called “the long parade to the graveyard.” Only one of these plays lasted more than two months, a humiliating indication that this brilliant playwright either had lost his talent or found only unwilling auditors among the younger generation that dominated the culture of the two decades of Williams’s decline.


  • North American Literatures

Updated in this version

Summary, Keywords, and Discussion of the Literature added; some minor textual changes

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