Tennessee Williams - Outcasts in His Plays


More than a half century has passed since critics and theater-goers recognized Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) as an important American playwright, whose plays fellow dramaturge David Mamet calls "the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language" (qtd. in Griffin 13). Williams's repertoire includes some 30 full-length plays, numerous short plays, two volumes of poetry, and five
volumes of essays and short stories. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955), and was the first playwright to receive, in 1947, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in the same year. Although Williams's first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels, closed in
1940 because of poor reviews1 and a censorship controversy (Roudane xvii), his early amateur productions of Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind were well received by audiences in St. Louis. By 1945 he had completed and opened on Broadway The Glass Menagerie, which won that year's New York Critics Circle, Donaldson, and Sidney Howard Memorial awards. Before his death in 1983, Williams accumulated four New York Drama Critics Awards; three Donaldson Awards; a Tony Award for his 1951 screenplay, The Rose Tattoo; a New York Film Critics
Award for the 1953 film screenplay, A Streetcar Named Desire; the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1965); a Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club (1975); the $11,000 Commonwealth Award (1981); and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1982). He was honored by President Carter at Kennedy Center in 1979, and named Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1981.
In addition to kudos from critics, Williams held for many years the attention of audiences in America and abroad. By 1955 his reputation was firmly established; that year's Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran for 694 performances (Roudané xx). Some years after their first Broadway
runs, four of his plays were revived successfully there: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1974), Summer and Smoke (September, 1975), Sweet Bird of Youth (October, 1975), and The Glass Menagerie (December, 1975). On the day of Williams's death, the New York evening papers issued an impressive list of famous actors who have performed in his plays; these include Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Tallulah Bankhead, Burl Ives, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Bette Davis (Leverich 5-6). Whether one argues that these actors were made famous by Williams's work, or that the quality of his work attracted the most popular film and stage performers, the connection between Williams and these near-legends of film and stage establishes the playwright as one of the most important figures in twentieth century drama. R. Barton Palmer notes that Williams had more influence on the development of American cinema than any other twentieth century playwright. He writes:

[U]nlike other noted playwrights, Williams's work strongly influenced the development of the film industry itself. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the course of fifties and early sixties cinematic history without his plays as source material; and if we could imagine such a history, it would be quite different from the one that actually played out on the screen. To my knowledge, no other author through his works alone has had this kind of influence on the history of a national cinema. (205) Despite Williams's luminous career, when I turned to The Modern Language Association electronic database I discovered that relatively few scholarly examinations of Williams's work exist. The MLA lists only 589 entries using the descriptor, "Tennessee Williams"-- a paltry figure compared to Eugene O'Neill (considered by many critics to be Williams's main competitor for the title of premier American playwright). The MLA database lists more than 1,146 entries for O'Neill. The number of scholarly examinations of Williams's work represents a fraction of the number of dissertations, essays, and books written about other important American writers--for example, the MLA database lists 4,019 entries using the descriptor "William Faulkner."2 Why has so little been written about Tennessee Williams, compared to other important American playwrights such as O'Neill? My research has yielded no satisfactory answer to this question. Perhaps the most common theory is that Williams's work is considered "popular"; academicians have ignored his work for the same reasons contemporary scholars avoid