The Fiction of Tennessee Williams

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Author: Ren Draya
Editors: Sharon R. Gunton and Laurie Lanzen Harris
Date: 1980
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,948 words

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Tennessee Williams is a good storyteller, as theater audiences have long known.... Unlike most playwrights who try their hands at different forms, Williams is a remarkably strong prose writer—his fiction perhaps even more consistent in quality that his drama. (p. 647)

[Williams' first collection, One Arm and Other Stories,] provides an interesting and characteristic sampling. “The Poet,” “Chronicle of a Demise,” and “The Yellow Bird” are clearly the experiments of a young writer. “The Yellow Bird” has some fine comic moments, but the prose is too jerky and the ending too garbled to sustain the broad humor. The other stories in the book, however, are skillfully written: in particular, “One Arm,” “Desire and the Black Masseur,” and “The Night of the Iguana.” (pp. 647–48)

While “One Arm” succeeds as compelling narrative, it also is an early catalogue of Williams' concerns: an openly homosexual theme, the fascination with mutilation and its attendant psychic loss, the power of words ... to effect change, the theme of guilt and atonement, and the importance of sex both as a means of human communication and as a channel to awaken acceptance of one's existence.

Williams' fiction often serves as a drawing board for themes and characters later amplified in drama.... (p. 648)

Occasionally, the works are quite similar, as with the full length play and the story of the same title: Kingdom of Earth. Both are set against the loneliness and violence of the Mississippi Delta at flood level; the play is an expansion of the characters and images from the story. Both describe a pathetic-comic love triangle, and both use raw images of nature as backdrop to the elemental emotions.

Williams' ability to approach his material from such differing vantage points enables us to examine both his narrative and his dramatic strengths—and weaknesses. An easy judgment of quality is impossible ; comparative discussions are most likely to yield interesting differences rather than deficiencies. The two versions of The Night of the Iguana are illustrative.

The playwright's remarks on setting and characters for the play are a more detailed account of the descriptions which open the story. The play, a full three acts, contains many more characters and thereby more conflicts and secondary motifs than the twenty-seven page story. The drama centers on Shannon: his disintegrating emotional condition, his intellectual attraction to Hannah Jelkes, his various physical lapses, and his relationship to Maxine. In the story, Maxine is called simply “the Patrona,” Shannon is not presented at all, and Miss Jelkes (a painter, here called Edith) is the focal point. Perhaps because of Williams' talent in presenting sympathetic women characters—especially southern women—the story version seems the more satisfying and complete. (p. 649)

In both story and play, the iguana is captured, left tied up all night, and finally released. Miss Jelkes of the play requests Shannon to cut it free: he recognizes the lizard's tethering as a “parallel situation” to her elderly...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100001570