[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Sarote examines Williams's treatment of discrimination and resistance to mainstream American "normalcy" in his three major plays. According to Sarote, " Streetcar, like most of Williams's works can be interpreted as a plea for a less repressive, more fluid, more androgynous American Society."]
At the age of fourteen I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable. It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge. From what? From being called a sissy by the neighborhood kids, and Miss Nancy by my father, because I would rather read books in my grand-father's large and classical library than play marbles and baseball and other normal kid games, a result of a severe childhood illness and an excessive attachment to the female members of my family, who had coaxed me back into life. (Emphasis added)
When Tennessee Williams wrote these lines, in 1959, he was already a widely acclaimed, forty-eight year old playwright, the author of a number of Broadway hits including the three plays under consideration--The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). As an adolescent, reading had enabled him to escape Reality, that is to say the hostility of his father, a paragon of normalcy and virility, American style, according to Williams's biographers. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the playwright makes fun of the conformist couple Mae and Gooper's "nawmal children" that Maggie describes as "no-neck monsters." As a child and teen-ager, Tom (before he became Tennessee) felt different from "normal" children and uncomfortable in the company of other (male) kids, the reason being, according to his own interpretation, that he was excessively attached to the women in his family. Further down, in the same text, he describes himself as "neurotic."
In the closely autobiographical The Glass Menagerie (henceforward referred to as Glass) the world of normalcy is that of the urban petty bourgeoisie to which Williams's family belonged when they moved to Saint Louis in 1918. The first stage direction evokes, to use Tom's own words, "the social background of the play": in the "overcrowded urban centers," the "lower middle-class" is "fundamentally . . . an enslaved section of American society" whose main purpose in life is to "avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism." Indeed, one of the driving forces of the plot appears to be Tom's desperate desire to disengage himself from this undifferentiated mass: he writes poetry in a cabinet of the "washroom" of the shoe warehouse, where he is not even a shipping clerk, and he dreams of enlisting in the Merchant Marine. In the apartment where he lives between Amanda, his overbearing mother, and Laura, his crippled sister, whose "difference" is even more acute than her brother's, Tom feels caught as in a trap. He secretly plans to follow in the footsteps of his absent father, "a telephone man...