Williams writing seemed to “flourished off of controversy” (Falk 28). He began writing at the age of fourteen as an escape from bullies and the abusive relationship he had with his father. He began as a poet and would always consider himself a poet. Williams often laced his work with poetic verses and simple rhymes to make the words flow with ease. Inspiration for Williams’ play came from his own life. Often, he uses the character, the “southern gentleman who can not cope with contemporary society” (Falk 37) for the basis of his male characters. Williams considered himself a “southern gentleman who could not cope with contemporary society” (Falk 37) therefore, he could easily draw from his own life experiences. Williams centers many of his plots around mental illness and sex, two very un-spoken-of topics discussed in the 1940’s. Williams was also fond of symbolism, which often plays key roles in his writing. The symbols in Williams’ plays represent some form of escape from the distorted reality in which the characters are living. By integrating personal experiences into his work, writing gave Williams a means of escape into an ideal world. Tennessee Williams was born in Colombus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911 as the fist son and second child of Cornelius Williams and Edwina Williams. In 1919, Williams’ father was promoted and moved the family to Saint Louis. “The move represented a traumatic change in lifestyle for both Tennessee and his sister Rose” (Alder 497). Williams’ life had been deeply affected not only by leaving the deep South at a young age, but also by the mental illness of his sister Rose, to whom he was very close. Williams’ mind too was greatly conflicted by a childhood disease which left him a hypochondriac. There was an “ill feeling between himself and his father” (Alder 497) which often gave Williams a feeling of distance from his parents. Williams too later discovered, and accepted (as revealed in his memoirs) his homosexuality.
The parallels seen in Williams’ life and his writing are best illuminated by his first major play “The Glass Menagerie.” It tells the story of an eccentric southern mother, a crippled daughter and a depressed son who are trying to find a sense of stability in their chaotic lives. Amanda Wingfeild is a single mother living in a run-down apartment in Saint Louis with her son Tom and Daughter Laura. Amanda came from a prominent southern family and often reminds herself and her children of her affluent past. Amanda had married a “telephone man who had fallen in love with the distances” (Williams 23). He left Amanda at a young age to raise her two children. The play, however, takes place when the children are much older. Tom is working as a factory manager supporting his family on a minimal monthly pay while Amanda fruitlessly attempts to find Laura a husband. Reminiscent of his own life, Williams constantly places the characters in “The Glass Menagerie” under scrutiny of one another or themselves. Each character is unknowingly isolated from the world in their own way, each relating back to Williams and his own life. Amanda lives her life in the past. She often reminisces about her old life which keeps her from focusing on the poverty of the one she is in now. Williams would often live his life in the past, before he left the south, before his sister’s lobotomy, and before he was well known and famous. Tom lives his life in fear. He fears rejection from other people and his family, which in reality keeps him from achieving his goals. Like Tom, Williams feared the rejection of his peers and family, but for his homosexuality. The fear of not being cared for kept him in constant fear. Laura on the other hand, is disabled and uses that as an excuse to seclude herself from the world. When she becomes uncomfortable, she polishes and plays with her menagerie of glass animals. Like Laura, Williams would often seclude himself from the world by his writing. It was a way to escape from his own life and create the ideal life he would like to be living. In the beginning of the play, the narrator, Tom says “I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (Williams 22). This line refers to Williams’ own life struggles being told through the characters and events in the play.
Often in Williams’ writing, characters have a hard time distinguishing between reality and illusion. More than less, Williams’ characters live in a world of illusion, rather than reality: “In his best plays Williams is able to maintain the uneasy alliance between reality and illusion” (Falk 76). This showed Williams’ personal opinion on the matter and how unavoidable he believed it could be for people in everyday life to fall into a state of insanity or illusion. Williams deduced this fact from a life experience with his sister Rose in which he states “memory takes a poetic license” (Williams 23). At a young age, Rose went “insane” and became schizophrenic. Williams believed at first she would return to health, but she never did. Williams and his family had lived in a world of illusion when it came to dealing with Rose and her condition. Not until later in his life did he realize that she would not return to health and he had to accept the emotional defeat. The experience with Rose and the feelings he went through are strongly depicted in the character Laura and the feelings of other characters surrounding her in “The Glass Menagerie.” Laura is crippled and her mother Amanda is continually living in a world of illusion where she thinks that Laura will get married and move on with her life, but in reality she will not, being that she is crippled. Amanda is lives in a world of illusion about her daughter resulting in a skewed image of the family, much like that of Williams’ own life. “Tennessee Williams uses the theme of escape… throughout his plays to covey a feeling… of hopelessness and isolation” (Londre 57) within his characters. Throughout his life Williams always had considered himself an outsider or a loner. He dealt with an abusive, alcoholic father, a schizophrenic sister and a mother who never understood him; therefore, he was no stranger to escape. “Writing was his escape into a world of emotional security and happiness” (Nyren 173). In many of his plays, his characters are confronted with emotional problems where they feel they must escape into a world of illusion to calm themselves. In most of Tennessee Williams’ plays, the symbols are in direct correlation with “escape” from the real world and entry into a world of peace and serenity for that character. Often, Williams uses a door or a balcony in his plays as the characters escape from reality. In “The Glass Menagerie” the fire escape is used as a portal to an alternate world for the characters. For Tom, the fire escape is a way out of the lives of Laura and his mother. It is also a portal into the world of imagination and goals for Tom. Here, he often dreams about leaving Saint Louis and joining the Army or Navy. For Laura, the fire escape is an entrance into her own world of solitude. On the balcony, she plays with her animals as the world ironically passes by. For Amanda, the fire escape is an entrance for men to come into her house to meet her daughter. She often gazes over at the door and dreams of a man entering and whisking Laura away. However, by dreaming of this, she is only drowning herself in hopes that will never come to be. Williams also uses this fire escape as a door to his own life. When Tom is narrating the play, he is always placed on the fire escape (“he strolls across to the fire escape and lights a cigarette” (Williams 23). When he is standing here, it is almost as if Williams is speaking, and not Tom. Tom states, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (Williams 23). The stage directions then include a long pause, giving depth to the statement. Williams is saying through this line that he is telling his story, but with different characters and a different plot. Statements directly pertaining to Williams’ life are only made on the fire exit, revealing an entry of Williams’ life into the play using a balcony and a door.
Many elements of Williams’ plays have been greatly altered by events in his own personal life. By using his own personal experiences as a basis, writing gave Williams a means of escape into an ideal world. The personal effects of his life and the emotional power of his work gave him the strong characters and gripping plots he isknown for. Although many people did not agree with him and his lifestyle choices, they still managed to understand him and give him credit for being one of the greatest self-inspired American playwrights.