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Tennessee Williams. Life in art Dr. Lisa Wilde. Masterpiece of American theater.

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tennessee williams

Tennessee Williams

Life in art

Dr. Lisa Wilde

masterpiece of american theater
Masterpiece of American theater

Tennessee Williams, whose innovative drama and sense of lyricism were a major force in the post-war American theater, was the author of more than 24 full-length plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He had a profound effect on the American theater and on American playwrights and actors. He wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humor about outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.

His basic premise, he said, was “the need for understanding and tenderness and fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance.'' The most successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as one friend said, as a “biological necessity.''

Mel Gussow

the glass menagerie
The Glass Menagerie

four versions:

“Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (1943) in Collected Stories

“The Gentleman Caller” an unproduced screenplay written while Williams was under contract at MGM to write for Lana Turner

The published/literary version (1944)

The acting/produced version (1945 on Broadway)

semi autobiographical

Bildungsroman: “A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character”

Kunstlerroman: chronicling the artist’s growth to maturity; central character is an artist

American family drama


Recognizable family dynamic

Fourth wall set of a St. Louis tenement apartment

Time setting in the recent past

non realism

Narrator providing perspective: “I am the narrator of the play and also a character in it”

Memory: “Memory takes a lot of license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.

In literary version, titles and images projected on a screen; most famously images of the jolly roger pirate ship and blue roses

Heavy use of symbolism


“a new plastic theater which must take the place of the exhausted theater of realistic conventions if theater is to resume vitality as a part of our culture”

Consummate playwright: set, costumes, lighting, music


The need for beauty and illusion in the industrial post-Depression world

the characters
The characters

Amanda Wingfield

Laura Wingfield

Tom Wingfield

Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller

the family
The family

Cornelius Williams (1879-1957)

Edwina Dakin Williams (1884-1980)

Rose Williams (1909-1996)

Thomas (Tennessee) Lanier Williams (1911-1983)

Walter Dakin Williams (1919-)



“based on the conditions of my life in St. Louis. The apartment where we lived wasn’t as dingy and poverty-stricken as that in the play, but I can’t say much more for it, even so. It was a rented, furnished apartment, all overstuffed furniture, and the only nice room in it was my sister’s room. “

i have a poet s weakness for symbols
“I have a poet’s weakness for symbols”

“That room was painted white and she had put up a lot of shelves and filled them with little glass animals. When I’d come home from the shoe place where I worked, I would go in and sit in her room. She was the member of the family with whom I was most in sympathy and, looking back, her glass menagerie had a meaning for me. Nostalgia helped– it makes the little flat in the play more attractive really than our apartment was – and as I thought about it the glass animals came to represent the fragile, delicate ties that must be broken, that you inevitably break, when you try to fulfill yourself.”

my father was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance
“My father was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance”

Travelling salesman during children’s early childhood when they and their mother lived with the grandparents in Mississippi

Moved the family to St. Louis where he ran the shoe company where Tom worked

Violent alcoholic

Disgraced during a bar brawl that left him disfigured

one sunday afternoon in blue mountain your mother received seventeen gentleman callers
“One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain , your mother received seventeen gentleman callers”

Daughter of a Southern Episcopalian minister

Many gentleman callers but still unmarried at 21 because perhaps, of the nervous even hysterical nature of her speech

“That underlying hysteria gave her great eloquence. I still find her totally mystifying– and frightening. It’s best if we stay away from our mothers.”

Extreme and puritanical outlooks on clothing, sex and alcohol; Rose was trying to experience the Jazz Age

Both families had histories of mental illness and institutionalization which they kept from each other

the gentleman caller
The gentleman caller

“A tragic love affair”

A young executive from an Ivy League school who was ambitious and courting Rose because her father had an executive position with a shoe company during the Depression

Young man stopped calling on Rose after the scandal and humiliation with the father’s bar brawl

Tom then brought home his friend Jim O’Connor

Contributed to her decline?

inspiration for plays
Inspiration for plays

“ A play just seems to materialize, like an apparition, it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. It’s very vague, at first, as in the case of Streetcar, which came after Menagerie. I simply had the vision of a woman in her late youth. She was sitting in a chair, all alone by a window, with the moonlight streaming in on her desolate face, and she’d been stood up by the man she planned to marry. I believe I was thinking of my sister because she was madly in love with some young man at the International Shoe Company who paid her court. He was extremely handsome, and she was profoundly in love with him. Whenever the phone would ring, she’d nearly faint. She’d think it was he, calling for a date, you know? They saw each other every other night, and then one time he just didn’t call any more. That was when Rose started to go into a mental decline. From that vision, Streetcar evolved. I called it at the time, Blanche’s Chair in the Moon, which is a very bad title, but it was from that image, of a woman sitting by a window, that Streetcar came to me.”

just say he had an operation to remove his horn to make him less freakish
“just say he had an operation to remove his horn to make him less freakish”

“I had a very special feeling for my sister Rose, but she had been a total schizophrenic since she was 27 years old. She was a beautiful, warm person but eventually she became convinced that everyone was trying to poison her.”

Several members of the family thought her speech was obscene

Treated with one of the first prefrontal lobotomies: “Of course that destroyed any possibility of recovery, but she’s peaceful now.”

the year was 1937 in spain there was guernica
“The year was 1937. In Spain, there was Guernica”

The same year as Rose’s lobotomy according to Williams; in fact, did not occur until 1943

Lobotomy (from the Greek lobos, meaning lobes of the brain, and tomos, meaning cut) is a psychosurgical procedure in which the connections the prefrontal cortex and underlying structures are severed, or the frontal cortical tissue is destroyed, the theory being that this leads to the uncoupling of the brain's emotional centres and the seat of intellect (in the subcortical structures and the frontal cortex, respectively). (Neurophilosophy)

In the 1940s and 50s, performed on 10,000 patients in the U.S.

“I feel I must provide for Laura, and so I do”

Lyle Leverich, the playwright's authorized biographer, wrote, ''Throughout his life, Tennessee Williams had two overriding devotions: his career as a writer and his sister, Rose.”

Picture from the early 1930s in front of St. Louis tenement

“Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!'' blow out your candles , Laura, and so goodbye”


''You couldn't ask for a sweeter or more benign monarch than Rose, or, in my opinion, one that's more of a lady. After all, high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.'‘

Williams left her the bulk of his estate in trust; she outlived him by 13 years

more information
More information


Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich. 1995.

Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. 1986.