Late Tennessee Williams

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Author: Ruby Cohn
Editors: Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz
Date: 1987
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,885 words

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Sex, South, and violence brought Tennessee Williams to a Broadway which then allowed him no deviations. From A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) set in New Orleans to Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) set in Florida, Williams usually wrote true to type. Even though The Night of the Iguana (1961) garnered his fourth (and final) New York Drama (Critics Circle Award, Williams was edged out for the Pulitzer Prize, a more responsive barometer to current climate. Night started his descent from popularity, as his Lord Byron had prophesied in Camino Real (1953); “There is a passion for declivity in this world!” (p. 336)

In the 1960s Williams began to stray from the triad that endeared him to Broadway. Although many of his characters continue to be Southerners, his settings are not necessarily in the South. Although sex continues to be frankly discussed and dramatized, it often goes unconsummated. Violence is muted or even absent; the explosive scenes of his earlier plays simmer down to an atmosphere of resignation. Never one to rest on his laurels— or magnolia—Williams during the 1960s and 1970s moves into new territories, fashions new kinds of characters, experiments with new forms. ... Opposing most viewpoints in print, I think that three major Williams plays date from the last decade of his life; perhaps he sometimes worked simultaneously on The Two Character Play, Vieux Carré, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which were produced in that order.

The final version of The Two-Character Play was published in 1976, and two earlier versions were published in 1969 and 1973. Other, unpublished revisions may exist among Williams's scattered papers, but the three printed versions show a movement toward economy of language within an increasingly ambiguous and inclusive context.

From the first, The Two-Character Play is cast in the old baroque form of a play within the play— Williams's only venture in that form. The play within Williams's play is called “The Two-Character Play,” and it contains major elements of Williams's drama when he was Broadway's golden boy. It is set in a small town in the American South. Its two characters, brother and sister, Felice and Clare Devoto, are perhaps incestuous lovers. Violence accounts for the deaths of the siblings' parents; their father, having been threatened by their mother with commitment to an insane asylum, has shot first her and then himself. The siblings are not only orphaned, but also destitute because suicide voids collection of life insurance. And the siblings are not only destitute, but also ostracized by the townspeople. ... In this play within the play, with its family resemblance to earlier Williams plays, brother and sister are so introverted and fearful that they do not dare to leave their Victorian home, which is bordered by sunflowers as high as the house. During the course of the play within the play, the two characters dramatize their isolation as a fugitive kind—to use an old Williams phrase—or as unnatural creatures—to use the phrase of this play. Fantasy is their heritage—in the form of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100001572