27 Waggons Full of Cotton

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ENGL 650
American Drama in the 20th Century

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27 Wagons Full of Cotton
as a Collection of Ideas for
Williams' Three Masterpieces

1 INTRODUCTION

Tennessee Williams‘ early work such as his second collection of one-act plays 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (written between 1939 and 1945) is unknown to most readers. It was not before the publication of The Glass Menagerie in 1945 that Williams earned public attention. Why has 27 Wagons Full of Cotton been obscured by the success of his later work ?

Compared to his more famous and popular plays such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Summer and Smoke (1948), his one-acters seem to be considered markedly inferior to his later work. Both his characters – especially the female ones - and the plots of these early plays are not fully elaborated as can be said about his later plays, in which he perfects his females. Therefore, this early work is rightly neglected as mere exercises in creating characters and themes for his famous and much more elaborated later work: The one-act plays that will be examined more closely in this paper barely present a picture, much like a still-frame or a captured moment, but nothing much happens as regards the action or development. Yet, many themes that Williams would later refine and develop further, are raised for the first time these plays. It seems as if this early conglomeration of short plays serves as a collection of ideas that he could later return to draw ideas from in order to use them as starting points in his long plays. In fact, already in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton he touches upon significant issues that will earn him fame and popularity in his later years. Williams himself even admits a kind of self-plagiarizing: „My longer plays emerge out of earlier one-acters and short stories...I work them over and over again"1

As his longer plays such as ASND, SAS, and TGM are by far considered his best work, I will try to find out and explain what is missing in his early plays that prevented them from being as successful as his masterpieces. In doing so, I will put an emphasis on ASND.

2 CHARACTER CREATION

When contrasting several elements of his one-act plays to his three masterpieces, I will focus on Williams character creation and those characters' development, particularly the design of his female characters. Their psyche and emotional condition has been of central importance to Williams and thus to the readers/spectators. An emphasis will be put on one of his major themes: Dealing with TRUTH and ILLUSION, or as Hirsch puts it "the workings of memory, and the collision between a dream of the past and the realities of an increasingly urbanized present " 2 as presented in the following oppositions:

TRUTHILLUSION
Physical Love Spiritual Love
FleshSpirit
Desire Religion
Leads to:
FreedomOppression
FreedomMorality
SanityInsanity

The reason why I will focus on character creations is that Williams – predominantly in the three plays that will be discussed - has put a lot of effort into the design of his invented personalities. He has the talent of making them appear extremely realistic by providing them with complex and captivating emotions. This way, these characters almost invite readers to feel empathy with or even identify with them.

"We do not read Williams for his ideas, or for his stories, or for his depiction of contemporary affairs. We read him instead for the surging emotion of the plays, for his tortured, contradictory, often sexually masked, passionate characters and the resounding conflicts in which they are entrapped." 3

His haunted, dispossessed, mutilated characters are among the most vivid in American Drama [...]. His colorful, neurotic characters are joyously theatrical. 4

3. ILLUSIONS: Their Necessity and their Destructive Power

Williams' opinion about illusions seems to be divided: He obviously...
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