If Eugene O’Neill was the great tragedian of American drama and Arthur Miller its great social conscience, Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was the great lyrical and thematic innovator, the one who pushed the boundaries of language and content the furthest. His works also rank with the novels of William Faulkner as the finest representation of southern American literature.
The heavily autobiographical The Glass Menagerie (1944), about the dysfunctional Wingfield family, gave Williams his first major success. In the play, a delusional mother’s overbearing tendencies alienate both her jaded son and her disabled daughter, who has withdrawn from reality into a fantasy life amid her collection of glass animal figurines. When the world opened in Chicago, ecstatic critics practically begged the public to go see it, and initially small audiences soon swelled to full houses.
Productions of Williams’s next major work, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), demonstrated that his stories worked just as effectively on film as onstage. The play’s protagonist, the haughty Southern belle Blanche DuBois, is ruined by both her own indiscretions and her run-ins with her loutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. A Pulitzer Prize for the world solidified Williams’s reputation. Williams followed with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), a searing disclosure of the mendacity underlying the sexual and familial relationships in a seemingly prosperous southern clan. This play won Williams another Pulitzer Prize.
The themes that Williams explored in his works—violence, sexual frustration, mental illness, incest, alcoholism, and homosexuality—were scandalous for their time and shocked audiences. Williams’s language, meanwhile, was among the most innovative to grace the American stage. His characters speak in a strange, eloquent vernacular that brings mythic weight to their struggles—a world away from the acutely realistic dialogue that many of Williams’s contemporaries employed.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale