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Tennessee Williams – Outcasts in His Plays

More than a half century has passed since critics and theater-goers recognized Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) as an important American playwright, whose plays fellow dramaturge David Mamet calls “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language” (qtd. in Griffin 13). Williams’s repertoire includes some 30 full-length plays, numerous short plays, two volumes of poetry, and five volumes of essays and short stories.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955), and was the first playwright to receive, in 1947, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in the same year. Although Williams’s first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels, closed in 1940 because of poor reviews1 and a censorship controversy (Roudane xvii), his early amateur productions of Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind were well received by audiences in St. Louis.

By 1945 he had completed and opened on Broadway The Glass Menagerie, which won that year’s New York Critics Circle, Donaldson, and Sidney Howard Memorial awards. Before his death in 1983, Williams accumulated four New York Drama Critics Awards; three Donaldson Awards; a Tony Award for his 1951 screenplay, The Rose Tattoo; a New York Film Critics Award for the 1953 film screenplay, A Streetcar Named Desire; the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1965); a Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club (1975); the $11,000 Commonwealth Award (1981); and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1982).

He was honored by President Carter at Kennedy Center in 1979, and named Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1981. In addition to kudos from critics, Williams held for many years the attention of audiences in America and abroad. By 1955 his reputation was firmly established; that year’s Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran for 694 performances (Roudane xx).

Some years after their first Broadway uns, four of his plays were revived successfully there: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1974), Summer and Smoke (September, 1975), Sweet Bird of Youth (October, 1975), and The Glass Menagerie (December, 1975). On the day of Williams’s death, the New York evening papers issued an impressive list of famous actors who have performed in his plays; these include Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Tallulah Bankhead, Burl Ives, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Bette Davis (Leverich 5-6).

Whether one argues that these actors were made famous by Williams’s work, or that the quality of his work attracted the most popular film and stage performers, the connection between Williams and these near-legends of film and stage establishes the playwright as one of the most important figures in twentieth century drama. R. Barton Palmer notes that Williams had more influence on the development of American cinema than any other twentieth century playwright. He writes: [U]nlike other noted playwrights, Williams’s work strongly influenced the development of the film industry itself.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine the course of fifties and early sixties cinematic history without his plays as source material; and if we could imagine such a history, it would be quite different from the one that actually played out on the screen. To my knowledge, no other author through his works alone has had this kind of influence on the history of a national cinema. (205) Despite Williams’s luminous career, when I turned to The Modern Language Association electronic database I discovered that relatively few scholarly examinations of Williams’s work exist.

The MLA lists only 589 entries using the descriptor, “Tennessee Williams”– a paltry figure compared to Eugene O’Neill (considered by many critics to be Williams’s main competitor for the title of premier American playwright). The MLA database lists more than 1,146 entries for O’Neill. The number of scholarly examinations of Williams’s work represents a fraction of the number of dissertations, essays, and books written about other important American writers–for example, the MLA database lists 4,019 entries using the descriptor “William Faulkner.

Why has so little been written about Tennessee Williams, compared to other important American playwrights such as O’Neill? My research has yielded no satisfactory answer to this question. Perhaps the most common theory is that Williams’s work is considered “popular”; academicians have ignored his work for the same reasons contemporary scholars avoid Tom Clancy and Stephen King. As my research continues, I find such prejudices common.

For example, the second most frequently iterated theory as to why Williams has been relatively neglected involves sexual prejudice–some scholars believe that the playwright’s homosexuality makes him unfit as a critical subject. Such prejudice appears to be common, particularly from some scholars in the new critical movement3. Regardless of the reasons for the relative neglect of Williams and his work, the fact is that his plays and other writings are pregnant with possibilities for scholarly research.

Even if we except from examination the new material recently made available by the Williams estate, there is a great deal to be discovered about this playwright. If we include this newly-available material–and, as scholars, we must–it is entirely possible that we will be inundated, over the next few years, with so much research that what has been written–including this dissertation–will be temporarily lost. Already, enough new information is available to afford a closer examination of Williams’s work.

For example, a considerable amount of biographical information concerning Williams can be found in accounts from family, friends, and professional acquaintances. Considering what we now know about his life, we can argue that the outcast characters examined in this dissertation seem central to Williams’s poetics. Through these outcast characters Williams outlines a struggle between the moral values of nonconformists, who are outcasts because they can not, or will not, conform to the values of the dominant culture; and conformists, who represent that culture.

The outcast characters in Tennessee Williams’s major plays do not suffer because of the actions or circumstances that make them outcast but because of the destructive impact of conventional morality upon them. They are driven, in the conflict between their values and those of conventional morality, to 1) confess their transgressions against humanity and 2) suffer, at their own hands or by placing themselves in dangerous situations, in atonement for their violations of conventional morality.

That Williams’s outcasts are miserable is evidence of his opinion that the demands of conventional morality can be destructive. In a 1939 letter to his editor, agent, and literary mentor, Audrey Wood, he makes this clear: “I have only one major theme for my work which is the destructive impact of society on the sensitive non-conformist individual” (Letter, 1939, to Audrey Wood)4.

I have created three categories into which Williams’s outcasts can be placed: first are sexual outcasts who, like the playwright, offer insight into Williams’s feelings about his own sexuality; second are religious outcasts, who are vehicles for the playwright’s commentary on contemporary Christianity; and third, fugitive outcasts, whose flight reflects Williams’s own insecurity and lienation.

These categories loosely reflect those noted by T. E. Kalem, in his examination of Williams’s work: “the odd, the lonely, the emotionally violated” (88). Such a threefold distinction serves as a useful way to group Williams’s outcasts. What can we gain from this examination of William’s outcast characters? I agree with Jack Fritscher, who argues that Williams’s work reveals “the more difficult dichotomies of the interior American experience” (7). The conflict between these outcast characters and conventional morality is tied to the myriad tensions that form twentieth century America.

To examine Williams’s outcasts is to open avenues toward understanding those tensions. Dianoia, the meaning of a work or works of literature, includes the symbols and archetypes that exist in the society that produced the texts (Frye 357). In iterating the dianoia of Williams’s outcast characters, I will extend our understanding of the social and spiritual agon that made those characters possible.

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