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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

[7282] Dorothea Lange, Antebellum Plantation House in Greene County, Georgia (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-017941-C DLC].

“A morbid shyness once prevented me from having much direct communication with people,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “and possibly that is why I began to write them plays and stories.” Considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright, Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi. Though some critics see Williams’s work as overly obsessed with “perversion”–murder, rape, incest, and nymphomania–Williams’s characters inhabit a world as emotionally unstable as their author’s. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a southern belle who, despite enduring a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse from her husband, was a strong anchor for Williams and protected him from his father in his youth. Williams’s father, CC, was a traveling salesman and an alcoholic with whom Williams was never close.

Williams was forever marked by the alienation and psychological pain of his childhood. After he flunked ROTC, his father forced him to drop out of the University of Missouri and got him a job in his shoe company’s warehouse. Williams wrote furiously by night, but after three years the pressure of the factory work resulted in his first nervous breakdown, in 1935. Not long afterward, his beloved but reclusive sister, Rose, suffered a mental breakdown so devastating that their mother signed the papers to give her a prefrontal lobotomy. Williams changed his name to “Tennessee” while living in New Orleans, where he continued to write. During this period he also continued to explore his sexual attraction to men, which he’d discovered while finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa. Recognizing his homosexuality deepened a belief Williams had formed while watching his sister’s slow decline–that the pressure to conform to the American mainstream could be a powerful and dangerous force. After producing several plays in local theaters, Williams enjoyed his first big success with The Glass Menagerie (1945) and followed it up with such powerful plays as the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Other plays include The Rose Tattoo (1950), Camino Real (1953), and The Night of the Iguana(1961).

Although he continued writing throughout his life, by the early 1960s, Williams had already produced his greatest work. The death of his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, in 1963, as well as Williams’s continued abuse of alcohol and sleeping pills, forced Williams into a decline from which he never fully recovered. Williams wrote several more plays in the 1970s, including Out Cry (1971) and Small Craft Warnings (1972). He died after choking on the cap of a medicine bottle in a New York hotel room.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students choose parts and stage an impromptu performance of the first scene in A Streetcar Named Desire to give them some idea of the difficulties involved with dramatic readings and to show them how performance can change their impression of a play. This will work best if your students have time to prepare, but it can also be done “cold.” Students generally enjoy dramatic readings, and Scene One sets out the major issues of the play, introduces all the main characters, and is a great way to begin a more general discussion of Streetcar.
  • Blanche and Stanley can be problematic characters, and student responses to A Streetcar Named Desire can sometimes be polarized by their reaction to either Stanley or Blanche. One way to deal with this is to ask students to focus on the characters independently. After you’ve polled them for initial reactions, divide your students into several groups. Ask half of the groups to describe Stanley and assess his pros and cons as a character; meanwhile, ask the other half of the groups to do the same with Blanche. You might provide your groups with some of the more common assessments of each character: Is Stanley a caged animal whose sexuality is so “natural” that his violence is somehow excusable or understandable? Or does he represent a patriarchal authority and social order that are threatened by the changing social mores of the 1950s? Is Blanche a representative of the Old South, of tradition and idealism, and as such a dying breed? Or is her struggle to come to terms with a reality that does not match her desires a more universal struggle that we all must face? Is the conflict between Stanley and Blanche one between the working class and a dying southern aristocracy? These are not, of course, the only ways to interpret Stanley and Blanche, nor are they mutually exclusive; however, they should provide a good basis for discussion and provoke your students to move beyond their “gut” reactions to these characters.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Who seems to be the protagonist in A Streetcar Named Desire? With whom do you sympathize?
  2. Context: In light of Williams’s homosexuality, it might be tempting to see the violence in Stanley Kowalski’s interactions with Stella and Blanche as a critique of the strict heterosexual norms Williams had seen and experienced in his lifetime. However, the 1950s were a period of social repression in more ways than one, and A Streetcar Named Desire is a play that addresses multiple levels of 1950s culture. Besides sexuality, what other social norms might the play be attempting to address?
  3. Context: Nearly thirty years before the debut of A Streetcar Named Desire, the American South was outraged by national press coverage of the Scopes evolution trial, which depicted the South as backward, hidebound, and repressed. The Southern Agrarian movement developed partially as a response to this experience and was an attempt by the writers involved to defend southern values and ways of life. How do you think the Southern Agrarians would have responded to A Streetcar Named Desire? How had the United States changed in the thirty years between the Scopes trial and the debut of Williams’s play? Consider both the critical and the popular responses to the play.
  4. Exploration: In describing the main character of his most successful play, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller said that in Willy Loman, “the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind” (see Unit 14). Miller’s description of Willy Loman could also describe Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, as she struggles to move beyond her past and the loss of Belle Reve. Why do you think two of the most important American plays of the twentieth century would be so concerned about the relation of the past to the present or the future? Consider this question in the larger context of the other southern writers in this unit: Which authors and works also seem centrally concerned with the way the past relates to the present, and why is this preoccupation so common to southern writers?

Selected Archive Items

[5170] Marion Post Walcott, Saturday Afternoon, Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030640-M3 DLC].
Urban scene with African American men, cars, and store-fronts. Blanche Cutrer, who was used by Tennessee Williams as a model for Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, lived in Clarksdale.

[5368] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Marlon Brando, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-116613].
Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Marlon Brando starred as the sexual and brutal Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway version and in the censored 1951 movie co-starring Vivien Leigh.

[7282] Dorothea Lange, Antebellum Plantation House in Greene County, Georgia (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-017941-C DLC].
Neoclassical pillars and porch of large plantation house. The “plantation myth” exemplifies ideas about the Old South’s benevolent, paternalistic institutions and traditions.

[7497] Walter Albertin, Tennessee Williams, Full-length Portrait, Walking, at Service for Dylan Thomas, Facing Front (1953), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115075].
Known to incorporate themes of alienation and pain in his work, Williams wrote a number of well-known plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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