From 1945, with his first success, The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams has had a deep impact on the American theatre, bringing to it an original lyric voice and a new level of sexual frankness. The pleasure and the pain of sex constituted the great, inescapable subject of both his work and his life. In different moods and styles and with varying effectiveness, Williams returned repeatedly to the same neurotic conflicts embedded within the same character types: the spirits of Blanche Du Bois and Stanley Kowalski, the fierce antagonists of his masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), haunt practically all of his fables. Blanche is the lady of illusion and artifice, the fluttering Southern belle whose veneer of refinement masks emotional starvation and sexual rapacity. Desired and feared by Blanche as well as by Williams, Stanley is the muscled male whose potency contains the promise of both salvation and destruction.
As in Streetcar, the battle between repression and release, between the Puritan and the cavalier, is at the heart of Williams's most vibrant work: Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Battle of Angels (1940, rewritten as Orpheus Descending, 1957). In some plays (Battle of Angels, You Touched Me (1945), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959)) lusty men reanimate languishing women; in others (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963)) the refusal of desirable males to satisfy deprived women provides the central conflict. Sometimes, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer (1958), men withhold sex from women because they are homosexual; other times, as in Milk Train, because they want to transcend sexual desire. The source of Williams's profound sexual conflicts was the war between his fatally mismatched parents: his mother a rector's prudish daughter, his father a blustery womanizer who called his sensitive son ‘Miss Nancy’. Unable in the American theatre of the 1950s and 60s to write openly about his own homosexual passion, Williams created nominally heterosexual dramas, transmuting tormented autobiography into artistic metaphor.
After The Night of the Iguana (1961), an uncharacteristic play of resolution and completion, Williams descended into a critical and commercial decline for the remaining 22 years of his life. Some of his later work, notably The Gnädiges Fräulein (1966), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) and Outcry (1973), chronicles the despair of creators who have lost control of their art. Other plays, such as Small Craft Warnings (1972) and especially Vieux Carré (1978), are attempts at self-restoration in which Williams returns to the delicacy of The Glass Menagerie. His Rabelaisian middle period is framed, as it were, by the directly autobiographical Glass Menagerie and Vieux Carré, in both of which he displays a healing compassion not only for others but also for himself as a young man. But neither the plays about disintegration nor the ones of partial affirmation have had the impact of his earlier work: audiences and critics have generally found the dramas too private.
In his later years Williams's personal life seriously deteriorated: he became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol and required periods of institutional confinement. Yet he continued to write daily, rigorously devoting himself to his craft. Despite the blurred focus, the occasional self-parody, the lack of control, there remains much of value in these later offerings, passages that testify to Williams's powerful sense of theatre and to his melodic gifts. Even the least of his plays is a vehicle for bravura acting, for in good plays and bad he created wonderfully actable neurotics. Twisted by desire, plagued by anxiety, his victims and outsiders speak a poetry of the dispossessed flavoured with wit, irony and gallantry.
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