Emotionally Disturbed Characters in Tennessee Williams's Selected Plays

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CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION

Tennessee Williams is one of the most significant playwrights of the twentieth century, and almost certainly the most important of American Southern Dramatists. He is distinguished for his psychologically complex dramas that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. Breaking from the realistic tradition in American Drama, Williams introduced his concept of the “plastic” theater by incorporating expressionistic elements of dialogue, action, sound, setting, and lighting in his works. Williams’s reputation rests on his three award-winning plays-- The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Each of his plays is set in the American South, employing lyrical dialogue and inventive stage techniques, and represents a powerful study of family dynamics and the solitary search for meaning in the modern world, particularly through the depiction of emotional abuse, sexual relations, and violence. Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a travelling salesman, was frequently absent. As a young child, Williams survived a near–fatal bout with diphtheria that left him physically weakened and in the constant care of his overprotective mother. Williams also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, whose schizophrenia and later mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy had a profound effect upon him. At age twelve Williams moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was transferred to a managerial position. Away from the security and familiarity of his rural upbringing, Williams became the subject of ridicule among his new urban peers and unsympathetic father. In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third Year. He worked in a shoe warehouse and continued to write until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. Deciding on a career as a writer, Williams returned to St. Louis to attend classes at Washington University, then transferred to the University of Iowa where he studied playwriting and earned a degree in English in 1938. After winning an award from the Group Theater in 1939 for a series of one-act plays, Williams received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship which he used to compose Battle of Angels (1940), a short-lived critical failure that opened in Boston. During this time he wrote The Glass Menagerie, the first of his major accomplishments, which received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. Though struggling with fame and pressure to duplicate this success, Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. During the 1950s, Williams produced the dramas The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Real (1953) along with the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and adapted the script of A Streetcar Named Desire into a popular Hollywood film that appeared in 1951. In the second half of the decade, Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1959). After The Night of the Iguana (1960), his last notable success, Williams continued to produce numerous dramatic works of diminishing critical importance until the end of his life. In 1969, Williams converted to Roman Catholicism and was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. Eight years after the publication of his Memoirs (1975), Williams accidently choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle. Many critics have commented on the distinctive ambiguity of Williams’s plays, most notably in the significance of Blanche’s...
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