[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Timpane examines Williams's creation of female characters whose dynamic ambiguity resists the tendency toward idealization or oversimplification. Timpane contends that Williams offers "an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error."]
Like much of Tennessee Williams's public image, the tradition that he was sympathetic to women began with Williams himself. In his essays, memoirs, and letters, throughout his compulsive project of self-exploration, he took pains to delineate how his experience of women surfaced in his drama. Mothers and sons war continually; brothers and sisters suffer adoration. Nancy M. Tischler has written well about the succession of predatory mother figures in Williams, ranging from Flora Goforth of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Alexandra of Sweet Bird of Youth to Amanda of The Glass Menagerie, Violet Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, and Maxine of Night of the Iguana. Further, in one of the most public of his many public games, Williams toyed with the name Rose and the image of roses in play after play. Williams even suggested that his early adoration of his mother and sister had contributed to the development of his homosexuality. In a letter to Kenneth Tynan, he wrote, "I used to have a terrific crush on the female members of my family, mother, sister, grandmother, and hated my father, a typical pattern for homosexuals." That last phrase strikes a familiar Williams tone. Aspiring to the detachment of scientific observation, it amounts to a claim that the writer is knowledgeable and candid enough to be at once analyst and analysand.
Yet when we reread a number of Williams's plays, we might well question the nature of his "identification" with women. It will not be enough to say that Williams's women are like Williams himself--American, Southern, liminal, "mutilated," sexually compulsive, given to drugs and alcohol, mendacious, and so forth. Nor will it be enough to let pity speak for itself, to repeat with many critics that the typical Williams plot involves "the defeat or destruction of a highly pitiable protagonist." The call on the audience to pity the female protagonist is very strong. But the quality of this pity is strained; it is not pity because of what we know but pity in spite of what we know. Nor is it enough to say simply that Williams's characters simultaneously excite both sympathy and antipathy. They do, but they excite a range of other feelings as well. Those characters, especially his women, call on the viewer to regard a true pluralism of possibilities--which almost always includes ambivalence and repulsion. Female characters in Williams's drama are deliberately constructed to arouse these two feelings in the audience. This remarkably consistent technique suggests a great deal about the construction of a female character, as well as about "feminist" approaches to both drama and criticism.
Here I must pause to define what constitutes a worthy characterization of a woman. First, it does not seem necessary that she be written to a program--that...