Playwright in focus: Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams has long been hailed as one of America’s greatest dramatists, translating his own troubled personal life into his plays, showing a dark reality of abandonment, decay and human violence whilst simultaneously presenting hope for romance and emotional fulfilment. Finding most of his success in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Williams’ brilliance was duly awarded two Pultizer Prizes for his plays A Street Car Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. These plays truly stapled him amongst Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill as great modern dramatists, whilst smaller plays such as, Camino Real and The Night of the Iguana, are underrated gems that contributed in showing off this troubled man’s genius. 

Said to be a sensitive and bright young man, Williams was faced with troublesome home life. His parent’s marriage was tenacious and problematic, leading to estranged relationships with his father, particularly after he gave the go-ahead for an operation on his mentally ill sister that ended up killing her. From mental illness to repressed sexuality, tragic love affairs, estranged familial relationships and drug and alcohol abuse – these problems translated from Tennessee’s own life into his works.

His mother is often compared to the naive and stubborn Amanda in The Glass Menagerie with his father said to be represented through the controlling Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams also comes through in characters, mostly ones that seem to challenge psychical and obtain brutish masculinity. These characters, such as Mitch in Street Car, or Jim in Glass Menagerie, offer some form romantic delicacy, often being the characters that tender both physically and emotionally to other characters that are seen as undesirable or fragile. Some have even noted Williams’ own sexuality resembling that of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, particularly in the characterisation of concealed homosexuality and the resulted rejection of it by the orthodox and traditional characters.

It is these romantic characters that are most notably afforded the more sensitive and delicate moments in his plays. They often show a glimpse into Williams’ hope for love, romance and acceptance of identity and place in society. Underlying conflicts and violence often surround these moments, uniquely giving Williams’ plays the basis for the exploration into problematic human connections through outcasts and violent behaviour, whilst seeing the potential for tenderness and sensitivity as a means of discovering emotional stability and fulfilment. No doubt a complex playwright, but also one that shines in the romantic and tender moments placed amongst chaos.

A Street Car Named Desire, arguably his most critically acclaimed and popular play, utilises New Orleans, his home for much of his adult life and a source of inspiration. The play is a look at destructive desire and a progression into a New America that is unforgiving and brutish. Delicate Southern Belle, Blanche, struggles to find emotional stability against feelings of sexual and romantic loneliness, tendencies of alcoholism and fear of abandonment. Similar ideas are found in Camino Real, a mix of traditional and expressionist theatre, with dream-like characters being used to explore darker realities of gender expectations and emotional trauma. Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, equally explores disturbing aspects of love, gender and identity, again with sexuality being a point of violent tension and tragedy. 

Despite not all of Williams’ plays being critically acclaimed, they all show a playwright powerful in representing the emotional turmoil he was living through in his own life. Williams’ use of trauma and struggle help him present his brilliant mind that saw romantic potential in the most destructive forces.

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3rd Year English Lit student, interested in all thing literature! Big lover of Romantics, Modernism and American poetry.

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