The Search for Hope in the Plays of Tennessee Williams

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Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,233 words

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[(essay date 1971) In the following essay, Presley identifies three philosophical dilemmas confronted by Williams's central characters--"isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death." Presley contends that Williams's most successful plays portray realistic psychological or social tensions rather than theological themes as found in his less effective later plays.]

Tennessee Williams' entrance into the Roman Catholic Church in January, 1969 should be regarded not necessarily as an eccentric action, but as a logical if not decisive step in the playwright's progression toward religion. Throughout his career as a dramatist, Williams has exhibited in his plays an awareness of religious questions. However, his theological dimension has gone unnoticed by most critics who, for reasons mysterious, concentrate upon appearances of sexuality and violence to the exclusion of authentic theological and philosophical concerns. Beginning with The Glass Menagerie (1945) and ending with The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1964), Williams' hero travels the difficult road from despair to hope--from the shadows of tragedy to the light of the comic vision. This journey becomes a kind of pilgrimage, especially in plays after Camino Real (1953), characterized by the hero's repetition of familiar affirmations. This aspect of the later works of Williams has great significance in view of the obvious decline in his reputation among critics of theatre. It may very well be that the quality of his later works suffers from debilitating effects of his emerging hope. The great and unfortunate irony of the hero's ultimate redemption is that his religious-sounding ideology reduces his stature.

As early as The Glass Menagerie and as late as The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Williams' hero encounters three problems of a philosophical or theological nature--isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death. Tom Wingfield and Blanche Du Bois, central characters in the early plays, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are caught in situations which prevent any semblance of community. There may be the potential of community in the Wingfield home, but it is never realized. Tom understands but refuses to heed the advice of Amanda, his mother: "In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is each other" (scene iv) [The Glass Menagerie]. His escape from responsibility is but another in a long series which began, of course, with the father's desertion. Blanche Du Bois of Streetcar knows what she needs when she arrives at her sister's apartment in New Orleans. She tells Stella: "I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can't be alone!" (scene i) [A Streetcar Named Desire]. Blanche is doomed from the start not simply because she will be overwhelmed by the bestial Stanley. Blanche, let us remember, is pathetically torn from within by conflicting emotions: her compassion is defeated by her selfishness; her need for understanding is undermined by her debauchery. Human community is not possible in Streetcar precisely because the people who ought to participate in that community are either unwilling or incapable....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100004101