Playwright, poet, and fiction writer, Tennessee Williams left a powerful mark on American theatre. At their best, his twenty-five full-length plays combined lyrical intensity, haunting loneliness, and hypnotic violence. He is widely considered the greatest Southern playwright and one of the greatest playwrights in the history of American drama. Born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, he suffered through a difficult and troubling childhood. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a shoe salesman and an emotionally absent parent. He became increasingly abusive as the Williams children grew older.
His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of Southern Episcopal minister and had lived the adolescence and young womanhood of a spoiled Southern belle. Williams was sickly as a child, and his mother was a loving but smothering woman. In 1918 the family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, and the change from a small provincial town to a big city was very difficult for William? s mother. Williams had an older sister named Rose and a younger brother named Walter. Rose was emotionally and mentally unstable, and her illnesses had a great influence on Thomas? s life and work.
In 1929, Williams enrolled in the University of Missouri. After two years he dropped out of school, compelled to do so by his father, and took a job in the warehouse of the same shoe company for which his father worked. He was an employee there for ten months, despising the job but working at the warehouse throughout the day and writing late into the night. The strain was too much, and Williams had a nervous breakdown. He recovered at the home of his grandparents, and during these years he continued to write.
Amateur productions of his early plays were put on in Memphis and St. Louis. During this time, Rose? s mental health continued to deteriorate. During a fight between Cornelius and Edwina, Cornelius made a move towards Rose that he claimed was meant to calm her. Rose thought his overtures were sexual and suffered a terrible breakdown. Her parents had her lobotomized shortly afterward. Williams went back to school and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. He then moved to New Orleans, where he changed his name to Tennessee. Having struggled with his sexuality all through his youth, he now fully entered gay life, with a new name, a new home, and promising talent.
That same year, he won a prize for American Blues, a collection of one-act plays. In 1940, Battle of Angels (later rewritten as Orpheus Descending), his first full-length and professionally produced play, failed miserably. Tennessee Williams continued to struggle. 1944-1945 brought a great turning point in his life and career: The Glass Menagerie was produced in Chicago to great success, and shortly afterward was a smash hit on Broadway. While success freed Williams financially, it also made it difficult for him to write. He went to Mexico to work on a play originally titled The Poker Night.
This play eventually became one of his masterpieces, A Streetcar Named Desire. It won Williams a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, which enabled him to travel and buy a home in Key West, a new base to which Williams could escape for both relaxation and writing. Around this time, Williams met Frank Merlo. The two fell in love, and the young man became Williams? romantic partner until Merlo? s untimely death in 1961. He was a steadying influence on Williams, who suffered from depression and lived in fear that he, like his sister Rose, would go insane.
These years were some of Williams? most productive. His plays were a great success in the United States and abroad, and he was able to write works that were well-received by critics and popular with audiences: The Rose Tattoo (1950), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Night of the Iguana (1961), among many others. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Williams his second Pulitzer Prize. He gave American theatergoers unforgettable characters, an incredible vision of life in the South, and a series of powerful portraits of the human condition.
He was deeply interested in something he called “poetic realism,” the use of everyday objects, which, seen repeatedly and in the right contexts, become imbued with symbolic meaning. His plays, for their time, also seemed preoccupied with the extremes of human brutality and sexual behavior: madness, rape, incest, nymphomania, as well as violent and fantastic deaths. Williams himself often commented on the violence in his own work, which to him seemed part of the human condition; he was conscious, also, of the violence in his plays being expressed in a particularly American setting.
As with the work of Edward Albee, critics who attacked the “excesses” of Williams work often were making thinly veiled attacked on his sexuality. Homosexuality was not discussed openly at that time, but in Williams plays the themes of desire and isolation show, among other things, the influence of having grown up gay in a homophobic world. The sixties brought hard times for Tennessee Williams. He had become dependent on drugs, and the problem only grew worse after the death of Frank Merlo in 1961. Merlo? s death from lung cancer sent Williams into a deep depression that lasted ten years.
Williams was also insecure about his work, which was sometimes of inconsistent quality, and he was violently jealous of younger playwrights. His sister Rose was in his thoughts during his later work. The later plays are not considered Williams best, including the failed Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Overwork and drug use continued to take their toll on him, and on February 23, 1983, Williams choked to death on the lid of one of his pill bottles. He left behind an impressive body of work, including plays that continue to be performed the world over.
In his worst work, his writing is melodramatic and overwrought, but at his best Tennessee Williams is a haunting, lyrical, and powerful voice, one of the most important forces in twentieth-century American drama. Samenvatting About A Streetcar Named Desire During the incredibly successful run of The Glass Menagerie, theatre workmen taught Williams how to play poker. Williams was already beginning to work on a new story, about two Southern belles in a small apartment with a rough crowd of blue-collar men.
A poker game played by the men was to be central to the action of the play; eventually, this story evolved into A Streetcar Named Desire. Streetcar hit theaters in 1946. The play cemented William’s reputation as one of the greatest American playwrights, winning him a New York’s Critics Circle Award and a Pullitzer Prize. Among the play’s greatest achievements is the depiction of the psychology of working class characters. In the plays of the period, depictions of working class life tended to be didactic, with a focus on social commentary or a kind of documentary drama.
Williams’ play sought to depict working-class characters as psychologically evolved entities; to some extent, Williams tries to portray these blue-collar characters on their own terms, without romanticizing them. Tennessee Williams did not express strong admiration for any early American playwrights; his greatest dramatic influence was the brilliant Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, with his elegant juxtaposition of the humorous and the tragic, his lonely characters, and his dark sensibilities, was a powerful inspiration for Tennessee Williams’ work.
At the same time, Williams’ plays are undeniably American in setting and character. Another important influence was the novelist D. H. Lawrence, who offered Williams a depiction of sexuality as a potent force of life; Lawrence is alluded to in The Glass Menagerie as one of the writers favored by Tom. The American poet Hart Crane was another important influence on Williams; in Crane’s tragic life and death, open homosexuality, and determination to create poetry that did not mimic European sensibilities, Williams found endless inspiration.
Williams also belongs to the tradition of great Southern writers who have invigorated literary language with the lyricism of Southern English. Like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams wanted to challenge some of the conventions of naturalistic theatre. Summer and Smoke (1948), Camino Real (1953), and The Glass Menagerie (1944), among others, provided some of the early testing ground for Williams’ innovations. The Glass Menagerie uses music, screen projections, and lighting effects to create the haunting and dream-like atmosphere appropriate for a “memory play. Like Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Williams’ plays explores ways of using the stage to depict the interior life and memories of a character. In Streetcar, stage effects are used to represent Blanche’s decent into madness. The maddening polka music, jungle sound effects, and strange shadows help to represent the world as Blanche experiences it. These effects are a departure from the conventions of naturalistic drama, although in this respect Streetcar is not as innovative as The Glass Menagerie.
Nevertheless, A Streetcar Named Desire uses these effects to create a highly subjective portrait of the play’s central action. On stage, these effects powerfully evoke the terror and isolation of madness. Plot summary Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher from Laurel, Mississippi, arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski. Despite the fact that Blanche seems to have fallen out of close contact with Stella, she intends to stay at Stella’s apartment for an unspecified but likely lengthy period of time, given the large trunk she has with her.
Blanche tells Stella that she lost Belle Reve, their ancestral home, following the death of all their remaining relatives. She also mentions that she has been given a leave of absence from her teaching position because of her bad nerves. Though Blanche does not seem to have enough money to afford a hotel, she is disdainful of the cramped quarters of the Kowalskis’ two-room apartment and of the apartment’s location in a noisy, diverse, working-class neighborhood. Blanche’s social condescension wins her the instant dislike of Stella’s husband, an auto-parts supply man of Polish descent named Stanley Kowalski.
It is clear that Stella was happy to leave behind her the social pretensions of her background in exchange for the sexual gratification she gets from her husband; she even is pregnant with his baby. Stanley immediately distrusts Blanche to the extent that he suspects her of having cheated Stella out of her share of the family inheritance. In the process of defending herself to Stanley, Blanche reveals that Belle Reve was lost due to a foreclosed mortgage, a disclosure that signifies the dire nature of Blanche’s financial circumstances.
Blanche’s heavy drinking, which she attempts to conceal from her sister and brother-in-law, is another sign that all is not well with Blanche. The unhappiness that accompanies the animal magnetism of Stella and Stanley’s marriage reveals itself when Stanley hosts a drunken poker game with his male friends at the apartment. Blanche gets under Stanley’s skin, especially when she starts to win the affections of his close friend Mitch. After Mitch has been absent for a while, speaking with Blanche in the bedroom, Stanley erupts, storms into the bedroom, and throws the radio out of the window.
When Stella yells at Stanley and defends Blanche, Stanley beats her. The men pull him off, the poker game breaks up, and Blanche and Stella escape to their upstairs neighbor Eunice’s apartment. A short while later, Stanley is remorseful and cries up to Stella to forgive him. To Blanche’s alarm, Stella returns to Stanley and embraces him passionately. Mitch meets Blanche outside of the Kowalski flat and comforts her in her distress. The next day, Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave Stanley for a better man whose social status equals Stella’s.
Blanche suggests that she and Stella contact a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh for help escaping from New Orleans; when Stella laughs at her, Blanche reveals that she is completely broke. Stanley walks in as Blanche is making fun of him and secretly overhears Blanche and Stella’s conversation. Later, he threatens Blanche with hints that he has heard rumors of her disreputable past. She is visibly dismayed. While Blanche is alone in the apartment one evening, waiting for Mitch to pick her up for a date, a teenage boy comes by to collect money for the newspaper.
Blanche doesn’t have any money for him, but she hits on him and gives him a lustful kiss. Soon after the boy departs, Mitch arrives, and they go on their date. When Blanche returns, she is exhausted and clearly has been uneasy for the entire night about the rumors Stanley mentioned earlier. In a surprisingly sincere heart-to-heart discussion with Mitch, Blanche reveals the greatest tragedy of her past. Years ago, her young husband committed suicide after she discovered and chastised him for his homosexuality. Mitch describes his own loss of a former love, and he tells Blanche that they need each other.
When the next scene begins, about one month has passed. It is the afternoon of Blanche’s birthday. Stella is preparing a dinner for Blanche, Mitch, Stanley, and herself, when Stanley comes in to tell her that he has learned news of Blanche’s sordid past. He says that after losing the DuBois mansion, Blanche moved into a fleabag motel from which she was eventually evicted because of her numerous sexual liaisons. Also, she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher because the principal discovered that she was having an affair with a teenage student.
Stella is horrified to learn that Stanley has told Mitch these stories about Blanche. The birthday dinner comes and goes, but Mitch never arrives. Stanley indicates to Blanche that he is aware of her past. For a birthday present, he gives her a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. Stanley’s cruelty so disturbs Stella that it appears the Kowalski household is about to break up, but the onset of Stella’s labor prevents the imminent fight. Several hours later, Blanche, drunk, sits alone in the apartment. Mitch, also drunk, arrives and repeats all he’s learned from Stanley.
Eventually Blanche confesses that the stories are true, but she also reveals the need for human affection she felt after her husband’s death. Mitch tells Blanche that he can never marry her, saying she isn’t fit to live in the same house as his mother. Having learned that Blanche is not the chaste lady she pretended to be, Mitch tries to have sex with Blanche, but she forces him to leave by yelling “Fire! ” to attract the attention of passersby outside. Later, Stanley returns from the hospital to find Blanche even more drunk.
She tells him that she will soon be leaving New Orleans with her former suitor Shep Huntleigh, who is now a millionaire. Stanley knows that Blanche’s story is entirely in her imagination, but he is so happy about his baby that he proposes they each celebrate their good fortune. Blanche spurns Stanley, and things grow contentious. When she tries to step past him, he refuses to move out of her way. Blanche becomes terrified to the point that she smashes a bottle on the table and threatens to smash Stanley in the face. Stanley grabs her arm and says that it’s time for the “date” they’ve had set up since Blanche’s arrival.
Blanche resists, but Stanley uses his physical strength to overcome her, and he carries her to bed. The pulsing music indicates that Stanley rapes Blanche. The next scene takes place weeks later, as Stella and her neighbor Eunice pack Blanche’s bags. Blanche is in the bath, and Stanley plays poker with his buddies in the front room. A doctor will arrive soon to take Blanche to an insane asylum, but Blanche believes she is leaving to join her millionaire. Stella confesses to Eunice that she simply cannot allow herself to believe Blanche’s assertion that Stanley raped her.
When Blanche emerges from the bathroom, her deluded talk makes it clear that she has lost her grip on reality. The doctor arrives with a nurse, and Blanche initially panics and struggles against them when they try to take her away. Stanley and his friends fight to subdue Blanche, while Eunice holds Stella back to keep her from interfering. Mitch begins to cry. Finally, the doctor approaches Blanche in a gentle manner and convinces her to leave with him. She allows him to lead her away and does not look back or say goodbye as she goes. Stella sobs with her child in her arms, and Stanley comforts her with loving words and caresses.