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Tennessee Williams and a Streetcar Named Desire

by kim hajeong, photo credits.

Tennessee Williams once said about his Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire, that “Streetcar is an extremely and peculiarly moral play, in the deepest and truest sense of the term. […] A pivotal, integral truth in the play… is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal” (Phillips, 230). Peculiar morality and the defilement of the tender by the savage and brutal—these are two of the most pertinent values that surround Streetcar, and are significant themes not only in the play itself, but also in the impact these values had in the social climate that surrounded the play’s release and their significance as stemming from the author’s own tortured history. Of course, it is a foregone conclusion that any writer’s work will be reflective of his own experience and circumstance — however, Williams stands out even in a sea of harrowed autobiographical writers, being dubbed by John Lahr as “the most autobiographical of American playwrights”. To engage in a complete discussion about A Streetcar Named Desire and about Tennessee Williams, about “peculiar morality” and “the ravishment of the tender by the savage and brutal” we must draw upon Williams own tortured youth, his dreams and compulsions and the unique ways in which he related to the masses—to the delicate and defiled women of 20th century America — in ways that irrevocably changed American theatre.

Tennessee Williams was born on March 26th, 1911 as Thomas Lanier Williams III, the son of father Cornelius Coffin Williams and mother Edwina Williams (nee Dakin). As an alcoholic prone to frequent and unprovoked violence and a neurotic Southern Belle respectively, Williams’s parents would provide archetypes for him to draw on in the plays that would define his adult life.

A sickly child, Williams was a frequent target of disdain by his robust, abusive father, and was instead smothered with affection by his mother. A fading Southern Belle with ambitious social aspirations who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, Edwina Dakin Williams used her frail, effeminate young son as a vessel through which to expend her nervous energies and rebel against the domineering influence of the husband with whom she was always at odds. She proved a particularly a special subject in Williams literature, and especially in A Streetcar Named Desire – Williams once described her almost affectionately as “a little Prussian officer in drag”, mentioning contemplatively how, in spite of her compulsive doting, his siblings and him were never allowed access behind her “masquerade… We never had it and didn’t expect it.” Williams speaks bluntly of Edwina as a “frigid [hysteric]… given to manipulative bouts of fainting, and a non-stop talker, her barrage of chatter oppressed her [children]”, who “allowed the State hospital to perform one of the earliest lobotomies on Rose [her daughter]” (a loss Williams would never stop mourning) while, he postulates wryly, “unconsciously managing to turn both her sons gay.” (The New Yorker, 2010) In spite of her frigidity and toxic affections, however, Williams always credited his mother with his literary ambitions — she was the one who bought him his first typewriter, encouraging his artistic pursuits.

His childhood punctuated with his father’s beatings and his mother’s relentless pursuits for the “perfect address” as she forced the family to move compulsively around the city — a reflection of her social aspirations — Williams constantly sought escape, and found it in the form of journalism class at the University of Missouri when he was eighteen. He never was able to fully shake off his parents’ influence, however, and was described in his time at University as “shy and socially backward, a loner who spent most of his time at the typewriter” who was tinged with “pretentious gentility… [his mother’s] snobbery and detachment from reality.” (Hale et. al, 1997) It was this “snobbery” that kept Williams writing feverishly as a young man, in a desperate bid to avoid the demands of the working class—he overworked himself to the point of nervous breakdown until, on a swelteringly hot summer’s day in 1939, he stumbled across the theatre “for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that saved my life”. It was then that he decided to change his name to Tennessee, precipitating his move into the next prodigiously successful stage of his career.

 

In 1947, Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, a play that would act as the focal point of his career (and also of our discussion in this article). Streetcar tells the story of a fragile, neurotic, delusional Southern Belle named Blanche Dubois. Delicately raised, “pretentiously genteel” but fading and broke, she joins her married sister Stella in New Orleans after losing her ancestral home in Mississippi, Belle Reve, to creditors. It is here that she meets her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski for the first time — a brutish, animalistic man, he and Stella share an intensely physical bond that Blanche tries in vain to dissuade. Streetcar is, in essence, a narration of the clashes between Stanley and Blanche, their irreconcilable differences in class, values, and Blanche’s objections to Stanley’s brutish male sexuality and violence resulting, inevitably in the “defilement” of the sensitive, crushed under the heel of the brutish.

The astute reader, by now, will probably have drawn enough parallels between Stanley and Williams’s father, Blanche and Williams’s mother, to guess at how Williams chooses to convey his own “peculiar morality” in the play. Williams deliberately leaves Streetcar morally ambiguous, choosing neither to condemn Blanche for her delusion nor allow her any liberation from the trapped, desperate situation. As Susannah Clap says in her review for The Observer, “There is no mistaking Williams’s identification with his heroine. Yet there is no totally liking her either… It is not easy to take sides.” (Clapp, 2014) Bosley Crowther, for The New York Times, comments in a similar vein: “It is impossible to disregard [Blanche’s] mental confusions, her self-deceptions, the agonies of her lacerated nerves… and yet her final, unbearable madness, brought on by a brutal act of rape, is beautifully and poignantly done”. (Crowther, 1951) In spite of Williams’s frequent condemnations of his mother, Streetcar conveys his sympathy for the decaying woman, for the brutal and tail-biting struggle that comes with the conflicting concepts of womanhood and escape — thereby relaying a morality that is unquantifiable, ambiguous, perhaps backward in its rewards and its condemnation. Peculiar but gently so, Streetcar therefore provides a sympathetic and tender retelling of the story of the woman oft shunned in twentieth century American theatre and literature — and, on a more personal level, manages to resonate so deeply as a contemplative picture of Williams’s own conflicting identifications with his mother and her circumstance.

Williams vowed to write plays that were “a picture of my own heart” (Churchwell, 2014), and we have seen how Streetcar manages to be that play, in relaying Williams’s quiet sympathy and his complex empathy for a woman he hated so bitterly, tried so hard to escape. On an even more intimate level, however, Streetcar was also a symbol of Williams’s struggles with sexuality, and his unique take on sexuality as presented in the text was something that would go on to revolutionize American theatre — and the portrayal of the woman.

Governed for years by the Puritanical notions of his mother and father and tortured by his own homosexuality, Williams spent years oscillating between masquerading privately as a woman and feeling raging guilt over his burgeoning sexuality, whilst feeling an obsessive compulsion to nurse this self-torment as a creative engine. Williams finally embraced his sexuality and adopted the new moniker Tennessee in a representation of this new stage of acceptance would be hugely significant in influencing the tone of his writing. Williams would thereafter forever associate sexuality with liberation — a radical view in 1940s American theatre.

Lois Weaver, in a segment for The Independent, spoke about this effect in his plays, mentioning how “Williams understood women. He empathised. He understood loss and longing and displacement in a society that had no regard for women” (Benedict, 1994) and Williams himself mused on how “My heroines often speak for me… [My life] could have been either [sex]. Truly, I have two sides to my nature.” (Gussow, 1975) He once described Blanche as “[himself] in drag”, which gives further dimension to Blanche as the harrowed heroine — not just a mute recreation of the mother he never understood, Blanche represented to Williams an empathy of the neurotic woman so deep-rooted as to be an identification, a relation, to the things that had extended into himself. Perhaps this is why the morality surrounding Blanche’s story is so peculiar; perhaps this is why Williams so frequently voiced his disdain for his mother as an adult; perhaps this is why Edwina was so frequently referenced as a motif in his play. The speculations are endless — we know definitively, however, that Williams’s identification with women was a singular device that made Streetcar an endlessly resonant play.

Williams was the first playwright to challenge stereotypes surrounding women and sexuality, to give nuance to sex as a means for escape, liberation, freedom, but also subjugation. However, Williams was never one to advocate romanticism: he ends his plays with prosaic realism with the terrible, dominating influence of the man through pregnancy and rape — the ultimate defeat of the sensitive and tender at the hands of the brutish and savage.

It is perhaps apt to end this discussion on the ways Williams’s art reflected his life with a narration of how it would wind down to a close. Williams, tortured by the task of recreating his earlier successes, would write furiously to be met only by dwindling public attentions — he commented, a few years before his death, how he was “fading like a photograph… I’ve gone from good reviews, to bad reviews, to no reviews”. He eventually ended his life in a hotel room at the age of 71, filled with despair at the loss of his art. Williams requested specifically that he be buried at sea, but was instead returned by his estranged brother to the childhood home he’d had hated so passionately, to be buried next to the parents he’d fought so doggedly to escape — a unspeakably tragic ending to a peculiarly moral life, as fitting and reflective as if Williams had dreamed it up himself.

Churchwell, S. (Oct 2014). Tennessee Williams review – John Lahr’s ‘compulsively readable’ biography. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/29/tennessee-williams-mad-pilgrimage-of-the- flesh-john-lahr-review

Clapp, S. (Aug 2014). A Streetcar Named Desire review – Gillian Anderson is utterly compelling. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/aug/03/gillian-anderson-compelling-streetcar-named-desire- observer-review

Crowther, B. (Sep 1951). Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Dseire. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF1730EF70BC4851DFBF66838A649EDE

The New Yorker. (Apr 2010). Telling It Like It Isn’t – “The Glass Menagerie” re-staged. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/04/05/telling-it-like-it-isnt-2

Gussow, M. (Nov 1975). Tennessee William on Art and Sex. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-art.html

Benedict, D. (Jun 1994). Tennessee Williams and his women. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre–tennessee-williams-and-his-women-1422772.html

Hale, Allean; Roudané, Matthew Charles (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, Cambridge Univ. Press (1997)

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