Tennessee Williams: Overview

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Author: Jim Kepner
Date: 1994
From: Gay & Lesbian Literature(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,204 words

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Dubbed "Tennessee" by his University of Iowa fraternity brothers because of his drawl, Thomas Lanier Williams is considered a genius of the American theatre, changing its style and content and becoming its psychological and poetic master for 40 years. During the 1940s, his award-winning The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Summer and Smoke, which have since become universal classics, earned him critical acclaim as the nation's greatest new playwright. Although Williams is generally considered a major innovator in the theatre, he was faulted by some critics for his oblique, albeit sensitive, treatment of homosexuality. Whereas many gays complained that he touched on gay themes too indirectly, Williams' dramatic treatment of homosexuality was actually bold for the time; and most critics believe that the tension Williams created made for better theatre. Williams, many critics believe, reached his creative peak in the 1940s. Thereafter, critics began to attack Williams for traversing familiar ground in his later plays, which Williams constantly reworked. Gore Vidal, a friend of Williams from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, noted that it was not at all unusual for Williams to frequently revise his own work. "I once found him revising a short story that had just been published. 'Why,' I asked, 'rewrite what's already in print?' He looked at me, vaguely; then he said, 'Well, obviously it's not finished.' And went back to his typing." However, by the late 1970s, this joyously poetic, master psychologist of the American stage had come to seem almost pathetic and sadly dated. "As Tennessee Williams's powers failed (drink/drugs/age), he turned himself into a circus," commented Vidal. "If people would not go to his new plays, he would see to it that they would be able to look at him on television and read about him in the press." But according to Andrea Dworkin in a Ms. commentary on Williams' literary legacy, "No great artist, which he was, writes without an almost merciless objectivity. Williams' own romanticism and others' trivializing perceptions of his homosexuality obscure the tremendous objectivity of his work: his insides are there (not in any simple way) and so are our own. He was destroyed mostly by his own lucidity, not the drugs or drink that made that lucidity endurable. He thought of writing as an escape from reality, but in an artist of his magnitude it never is. Writing distills reality, so the burden of it is heavier and on the artist alone. 'Sometimes,' he wrote, still about writing, 'the heart dies deliberately, to avoid further pain'."

In 1975, he published his Memoirs, which detailed the homosexual side of his life (though several friends complained that he had left them out). Some critics suggested that by condensing Williams' manuscript, editors had unduly emphasized his sex life; others found the Memoirs a pathetic self-portrait (Williams considered doing another autobiographical work that would include more of his experiences in the theatre). In 1976, partly in response to Williams having slighted their 25-year relationship in the Memoirs, Donald...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420008688