This lesson provides insight into the life, work and style of one of the most influential playwrights of our time, Tennessee Williams. His major works include 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'
Williams is best known for his plays.
While Tennessee Williams wrote some short fiction and poetry, he is best known for his plays from the late 1940s through the 1960s, which include Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Today, his plays are heralded as classic examples of contemporary American literature, and they are still some of the most produced in the world. This lesson will explore the life, influences and major style elements of Tennessee Williams.
Born on March 26th, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams III (later known as Tennessee Williams) spent his first seven years growing up in Mississippi before he was uprooted and moved with his family to St. Louis because of his father's job.
Williams' family life was not perfect. His father was prone to drinking and abuse. It didn't help that Williams was smaller than most kids his age, and his father was often disapproving of him due to his more effeminate nature. Later in life, Williams would embrace his homosexuality, but not under the dominating influence of his father. Williams' mother was not so happy in her marriage and was at times hysterical - often obsessing over Williams' life. She was super interested in social pretenses and always looking to raise the family's status.
Enduring bullying from kids at school, as well as from his father at home, Williams took comfort in his close relationship with his older sister, Rose, who was his only close friend growing up. Williams' sister Rose was shy, and suffered from emotional anxiety. Later in life, Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent a frontal lobotomy, which was this common practice they used to do in the 1950s involving the removal of parts of a person's brain. Yikes! As you can imagine, this surgery was pretty traumatic, and afterwards, Rose was committed to an institution. Williams looked after her and often expressed worry and concern for his sister's wellbeing.
Williams didn't find the success of The Glass Menagerie until he was 33 years old, and he would struggle for years before he would find it. When he was 18, he managed to enroll in the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he studied journalism. He entered his stories and plays in writing contests to earn extra income, and he was the first freshman to receive honorable mention for his piece Beauty is the Word, which was a play about rebelling against religious upbringing. When he failed military training in his junior year, his father pulled him out of school and put him to work in a shoe factory. His work in the factory was tiring for Williams, but would later form the inspiration not only for his character Tom from The Glass Menagerie but for Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire - a role played by super-hunk Marlon Brando.
Brando played Stanley Kowalski in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The factory job took most of his time, and though Williams tried to write every hour that he wasn't at work - pecking late into the evenings on his typewriter - he found no success with his writing during the time he spent working at the factory. Exhausted and discouraged by the lack of any further successes, by the time he turned 24, he suffered from a nervous breakdown and quit his job. He went back to school, and in 1938 he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English. In 1939, he moved to New Orleans, using a grant from a federally funded program created by Franklin Roosevelt intended to put artists back to work. This program helped Williams survive, living in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the Great Depression.
If you are picturing him living the life of a starving artist - passionate about his art and looking to find his big break - you're right. It was during his time in the French Quarter that Williams fully embraced his sexuality and had several fleeting relationships before meeting his partner of 14 years, Frank Merlo. During his years in the French Quarter, he also began to intensely study theater, and it was as a playwright that Williams found his calling, producing The Glass Menagerie. Williams followed up on the success of The Glass Menagerie in 1947 with A Streetcar Named Desire. After this play, Williams became a total celebrity and wrote seven other critically acclaimed plays between 1948 and 1959, including Tony award winner, The Rose Tattoo, and his second Pulitzer Prize winner, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams would adapt much of his writing to screenplays for films, including The Glass Menagerie in 1950, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer and, his most recent adaptation, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, which is a film that came out in 2009, based on his 1957 screenplay.
Although his earlier works continue to be celebrated as classic examples of American literature, Williams' later works met mixed reviews, and he would increasingly turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for his failed work. In 1969, his brother had him hospitalized and he continued to struggle through the 1970s, eventually dying in 1983 in a hotel room surrounded by bottles of wine and pills.
His Life in His Work
The earlier works of Williams are among his most celebrated.
They say that art imitates life, and that is definitely the case with Tennessee Williams. For example, his first big success, The Glass Menagerie, is about a family struggling to make it after being abandoned by their alcoholic father. The play shows Tom, a young worker at a shoe factory, who just wants to pursue a career as a writer, his disabled and intensely shy sister Laura, and their controlling mother Amanda. It is easy to see how his troubled family life must have inspired his characters. Williams' work at the shoe factory gave him sympathy for the plight of the industrial worker, which can be seen in his portrayal of Tom, who, like the young Tennessee Williams, struggles to make ends meet (let alone find time for his writing while working at the factory). Also like Tom, Williams found himself haunted by his devotion to his sister, Rose, whose sensitive and introverted personality are immortalized in the character Laura, and whose experience of being institutionalized would later show up on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire. It is easy to see how his relationships impacted his portrayals on stage, and it is clear that the realism in his plays is heightened because he blended his life into his art.
Williams was influenced by some famous writers, including D.H. Lawrence and William Faulkner - as well as the famous playwrights William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov. But Williams' greatest influence came from the work of a poet named Hart Crane. Williams admired Crane so much that he wanted to be buried at sea in the exact same location where Hart Crane was buried. A Streetcar Named Desire even begins with a segment of poetry by Hart Crane:
'And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.'
- 'The Broken Tower' by Hart Crane
Both Crane and Williams have a strong appreciation for metaphor, and Williams' reference to 'The Broken Tower' is a clear example of metaphor in his work. In the play, the main character, Blanche, physically visits a run-down area of New Orleans - or 'a broken world.' But in the play, we are also visiting another broken world - the one in her mind - as she is constantly dealing with turbulent emotional outbreaks, hearing voices from the past, and literally hallucinating fantasies of what she would like to be or have. Setting up the play with a reference to 'The Broken Tower' is a clear illustration of Williams' flair for poetic meaning, and we can picture the broken landscape of Blanche's mind throughout the play. Metaphor and symbols are a major element in all of Williams' plays, and they are defining characteristics of his style.
Elements of Williams' Style: Southern Gothic
Williams was greatly influenced by poet Hart Crane.
Much of Tennessee Williams' work is classified as Southern Gothic, a specific genre of writing unique to American literature. Gothic, in the literary sense, does not mean the characters ran around shopping at Hot Topic and dying their hair black. Rather, it is a style of writing that focuses on the mysterious, supernatural, unexplained or unusual. Whereas traditional Gothic literature may include supernatural qualities to drive the plot, the unusual or supernatural qualities of Williams' work come out often as 'demons' in the mind, and major themes in Southern Gothic literature include addiction, madness and sexuality. In A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, Blanche has a drinking problem, is hyper sexual and often hallucinates shadows on the wall, or hears voices and music from the past.
Unlike traditional Gothic writing, the Southern Gothic writer specifically depicts the mindset or culture of the American South. Southern Gothic literature transforms old-school figures, like the damsel in distress, into more modern versions, like the out-of-work school teacher who lost her family estate and needs a place to stay. These characters tend to embody both qualities and darker tendencies, and to be tragically fated (meaning it typically doesn't work out for them). The complex mixture between both the light and the darker elements of the human psyche is what makes the Southern Gothic drama so bewitching. We are captivated by the disturbing parts of the human psyche and also taken in by the fantasy world they invoke.
To sum up, Tennessee Williams' life was full of emotional struggle, and his hardships serve as inspiration for his plays. In terms of style, Williams' plays are known for their symbolism and metaphor, as well as for being examples of Southern Gothic writing. His plays depict realistic portrayals of psychology of the South, as well as realistic portrayals of powerfully tragic and psychologically disturbed characters.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the life of Tennessee Williams as well as how his experiences and family life influenced his works
- Summarize the plots of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire
- Discuss the elements of metaphor and symbolism in Williams' works
- Explain how Williams' works fit into the Southern Gothic genre