High up on the shrine of great playwrights, a certain Williams, née Thomas Lanier III, stands firmly, alongside Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, in the corner of American geniuses of the XX century. Unquestionably among the most influential writers of the past century, Tennessee Williams created some of the most recognizable and iconic characters in film or stage – because he was as prolific on Broadway as he was successful in Hollywood. From the close-up of Marlon Brando, ripped undershirt and all, shouting from the top of his lungs “Hey Stella,” to Liz Taylor lifting her skirt and changing her stockings with Paul Newman on the background, Williams has permeated popular culture with his work to such an extent that his most famous plays have now become part of our collective consciousness. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth we get a chance to revisit some of his work and to reassess the extent of his legacy.
Born on March 26, 1911 in Columbus (Mississippi) into a highly conservative Protestant family, he moved to St. Louis in 1918, where young “Tennessee” was given his nickname, due to the strong southern accent that would remain a trademark of his work throughout his career. He enrolled at university in St Louis, before heading towards his beloved New Orleans, in 1939. His breakthrough came in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie, a one-act play about the troublesome relationship between a single mother and her pathologically shy daughter, whose sole interest in life is her collection of figurines. Typically dire, The Glass Menagerie forebodes the dark realism that Williams, like Arthur Miller, would make so prominent in the following two decades on Broadway and beyond. The play also highlights the personal and social issues that would feature most prominently in his work right up to the end of the 1960s, from the fear, the guilt, the anger that assailed him after he learned that his sister had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and subjected to a lobotomy as part of her treatment, to the blind bigotry bred by the strict, self-righteous society of The South.
Just three years after the success of The Glass Menagerie Williams would reach the top of the American literary establishment, when he was awarded the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his enormously influential A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Set in New Orleans, this play addresses universal issues (intellect and force, desire and reason, past and future) through the highly individualized circumstances of the central characters: the unfulfilled Stella Kowalski, her brutish husband, Stanley, and her debauched but refined sister Blanche DuBois. Most famous for the 1951 film adaptation, starring Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire continues to this day to be a fixed date in major theatres around the world.
From the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1960s, Williams lived the charmed life of a revered celebrity. During those years he had as many as eight plays performed in Broadway, including The Rose Tattoo (1951), which merited him his first Tony Award, and The Night of the Iguana (1961), for which he got his third. And in the middle of it all, Williams’ plays hit the big screen, with The Glass Menagerie, featuring Kirk Douglas, coming out in 1950, and Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire hitting the cinemas the following year, both of them to great acclaim.
Nevertheless, Williams’ greatest success came, arguably, with his 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a venomous analysis of a prominent Southern family whose traditional values are poignantly questioned by the imminent death of the patriarch. This play earned Williams his second Pulitzer and his second Tony Award, before it was taken to the celluloid in 1958, in a touching film that has resurfaced of late, primarily due to the passing away of the great Liz Taylor. Indeed, the other day, watching Paul Newman at his most beautiful and Liz Taylor as the quintessential “cat” (hissing and purring and meowing, all at once in her role as Maggie), it dawned on me that Tennessee Williams’ legacy reaches far beyond the stage: somehow, he has managed to become cult and pop, high-brow, down-low and gay-pride, all in one.
This, however, is the happy bequest of a life that bordered on the tragic. After working past his humble origins and establishing himself as one of the most prominent intellectuals in the country, Williams endured a long spell of depression and addiction, following the loss of his long-time companion, Frank Merlo, to lung cancer in 1963. The years that followed were far from happy, although his productivity remained relatively high. But his plays never again enjoyed the success of which they had partaken until 1961, and the literary establishment seemed all too happy to pay back in spite the boldness of a writer who had dared to question the core, the absolute fundamentals, of the society that made him. At a time when censorship was the rule in America, and when patriotism took the sinister guise of nepotism and repression, Tennessee Williams had the sensibility, the courage and the talent to explore sexual taboos and cultural issues with less tact than was acceptable and more shrewdness than could be ignored.
He went through a detox treatment in 1969 and began to write in earnest again during the ’70s. Between then and his death, in 1983, he wrote his memoirs, two collections of short stories, a novel and a collection of poems as well as nearly two dozen plays and short plays, only a few of which (Vieux Carré, 1977; Clothes for a Summer Hotel, 1980) made it to Broadway. He met his end at age 71, in the Elysee Hotel in New York, when he chocked on a cap from his eyedrops, a sad ending to the tormented life of a restless creator, whose universe, both real and fictional, was overcrowded with troubled, hopeless characters.
But not all in Williams’s theatre is doom and gloom. Indeed, often his plays share a sense of the unreal that invests the dark predicament in which his protagonists are found with a dreamlike eeriness. Moreover, there is a distinctive vein of dark humor that seeks to shed an ounce of banality to the transcendental issues he addresses in his work. At his best, Williams is both funny and tragic, amusing and ruthless. And given the quality of a great number of his plays, it seems to me like the time is right, on his centennial, to go back to some of the obscurer pieces he wrote towards the end of his career and reassess them – because one thing is for certain: he still felt like he had something to say. Few listened then, and even less of us do now – which might, just might, be our loss.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011.